Bertie Wooster's Mayfair

by Ian Alexander-Sinclair

We were all ready punctually, as requested, at Green Park underground station at 9.30 am, to discover the impossible had happened: Norman Murphy had lost his voice! It would be necessary to keep close together and pay attention. As an earnest of his intentions, Norman prodded one over-loquacious member in the ribs with his umbrella and we were off, across Piccadilly and down Berkeley Street.

The first stop was 15, Berkeley Street where Wodehouse occupied a flat for a short time in 1922, which appeared as Bertie Wooster's flat in ‘Sir Roderick Comes to Lunch’, 6A Crichton Mansions, Berkeley Street. Then we turned left into Charles Street, the heart of Bertie's Mayfair. Ian Hay lived at Number 47, where Wodehouse worked with him for two years on their three plays. The house appears as Aunt Dahlia's house in two novels. Hay's Mews, opposite Number 47, features as Halsey Court in the first chapter of Money in the Bank, the home of Jeff Miller and Chimp Twist, amongst others.

On the corner of Hay's Mews and Charles Street lies the I Am the Only Running Footman pub, originally built in 1749, rebuilt in 1937, and now surrounded by scaffolding and undergoing substantial refurbishment. Here the servants from the mansions of Mayfair retired into four different bars, private, snug, saloon and public, according to their rank in the hierarchy of servants. It was identified in a 1926 essay by EV Lucas, who incidentally had played cricket with Wodehouse at Lord's on 29th June 1905 when they both appeared for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's team of Authors against the Actors. Wodehouse, of course, had never been in the establishment but he made it into the Junior Ganymede, the club for "butlers and gentlemen's gentlemen" and the repository for the club book in which the members recorded their observations on their employers, containing, according to Jeeves, eleven pages on Bertie Wooster. Winston Churchill had lived at Number 48 Charles Street for his first five years.

As we headed back through Berkeley Square, we passed the site of Lansdowne House where, it is said, AJ Balfour christened the game of lawn tennis. To some competition from the noise of rubbish collection and a persistent car alarm, Norman explained that Dover Street was the street of new clubs in the 1920s and 30s. So here Wodehouse found the ideal site for the fictional Drones Club, originally based on the real Bachelors' Club, but subsequently the source of the Drones was transferred to Buck's Club, founded in 1919 by Herbert Buckmaster in nearby Clifford Street. Buck's had by then replaced the Bachelors' as the young man's club. But the Drones Club's swimming pool, complete with its notorious ropes and rings, was taken from the Bath Club, also in Dover Street, at Number 34, amongst whose founders was one of Wodehouse's many uncles. Tuppy Glossop's mean trick on Bertie of looping back the last ring "causing me to plunge into the swimming b. in the full soup and fish" (i.e., full evening dress) was based on fact – it happened all the time in the Bath Club pool. Norman had had this confirmed by an elderly judge on whom the trick had been played in 1938. The judge had told Norman that the Bath Club was "convenient" – convenient, that is, for avoiding "policemen, girls, girls' mothers – people like that" in Berkeley Street. One did this by going into the back of the club, out at the front into Dover Street, and then straight through Brown's Hotel, emerging into Albemarle Street. The original Bath Club was bombed in 1941 and eventually, after various moves, closed in 1981. The Bath Club "bum warmer" – its brass fireside fender, now sits in Buck's Club.

Passing Aspreys in Grafton Street – "Aspinalls" the jewellers, as it appears in various novels – we now stood outside Buck's Club itself, still in its original premises at 18, Clifford Street. As the summary at the beginning of Eggs, Beans and Crumpets puts it:

"In the heart of London's clubland there stands a tall and grimly forbidding edifice known to taxi-drivers and the elegant young men who frequent its precincts as the Drones Club. Yet its somewhat austere exterior belies the atmosphere of cheerful optimism and bonhomie that prevails within."

In fact, Wodehouse never became a member here but his friend Guy Bolton did and they lunched together here several times. In The Inimitable Jeeves it was here that Bertie, who had dropped in for a quick bracer to fortify himself before lunch with Aunt Agatha, was informed by Bingo Little, speaking injudiciously loudly, of his love for Honoria Glossop, in front of McGarry, "the chappie behind the bar .. listening with his ears flapping". Rarely, Wodehouse had used a real name. McGarry was the barman at Buck's from 1919 to 1941. Fred Thompson had also come in to the bar – the real Fred Thompson, a friend of Wodehouse's, was also a member of Buck's.

We now made our way through the Burlington Arcade and across Piccadilly to the top of St James's, the heart of London's clubland. Immediately on our left was White's (Brown's in Uneasy Money), founded in 1693, then Boodle's (the Buffers) with Brooks's (the Senior Buffers) opposite; these were far too staid for Bertie and Bingo Little, who preferred the kind of club where if you wanted someone's attention, "you heave a bit of bread at him". We stopped briefly outside the premises of DR Harris, the chemist whose hangover cure, like Jeeves's, made one's eyes pop out. It contained ammonia and is no longer available – a pity in the view of the writer as it was singularly effective.

To our left, as we looked down King Street, we could just see the flat occupied by Wodehouse in 1921, now incorporated into Christie's, the auctioneers. On the other side of St James's stood the Carlton Club, where once the then Earl of Euston had thrown a waiter out of the window. Was the Duke of Dunstable, that most disagreeable of peers, modelled upon him?

Pickering Place, tucked in beside the old established wine merchants Berry, Bros and Rudd, was London's last duelling ground. A relief of the Victorian Prime Minister Palmerston, an exponent of the "send a gunboat" school of diplomacy, lay on the ground, having been removed from the wall several years ago.

Turning left at the bottom of St James's into Pall Mall, we caught a glimpse of Marlborough House, behind the Oxford and Cambridge Club, and were suitably shocked to see a French Renault in the frieze above the Royal Automobile Club. We looked up into St James's Square, where Richard Baxter, the seventeenth century Presbyterian clergyman from Bridgnorth, had once preached. Did Wodehouse take the name of Rupert Baxter, Lord Emsworth's efficient but detested secretary, from him?

Passing the Reform and the Travellers, we looked at the outside bar of the Athenaeum, which appears as the Mausoleum, Lord Uffenham's club, in Something Fishy and Money in the Bank. Unsurprisingly, Gally Threepwood did not think much of this august institution, full of bishops and senior academics, totally unsuitable to be introduced to the likes of Plug Basham and Buffy Struggles.

By way of variation, we made a brief foray into New Zealand House in the Haymarket to inspect the remarkable carved wooden Pouihi of Inia Te Wiata, the New Zealand opera singer, which is 51 feet high and on which he worked for seven years before his death in 1971.

In Trafalgar Square, we were in the very centre of London and noted the equestrian statue of Charles I, Nelson's column surrounded by the bronze lions of Sir Edwin Landseer; and the grand, ubiquitous columns and balustrades of the National Gallery, South Africa House and Canada House. There was even a modest balustrade on the famous extension to the National Gallery, added by the architect at the suggestion of Norman himself. St Martins-in-the-Fields, James Gibbs's masterpiece built in 1722, a century before the square was built, was unfortunately shrouded in plastic, undergoing similar treatment to the I Am the Only Running Footman public house.

Crossing Whitehall, we arrived in Northumberland Avenue and stopped opposite the site of Wodehouse's own favourite club, the Constitutional Club. Here he could escape from Ethel, lunch with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and take advantage of the excellent library. The club appears in a number of novels as the Senior Conservative. It was, according to Psmith in the City, celebrated for "the curiously Gorgonzolaesque marble of its main staircase". In this novel both Psmith, a junior clerk at the New Asiatic Bank, Limited and the manager, Mr John Bickersdyke, belong to the same club, the Senior Conservative, just as in reality did Wodehouse, a junior clerk in the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank and the Bank's chairman, Sir Ewan Cameron. It was in the dining room of the Senior Conservative Club that Lord Emsworth, while entertaining James Bartholomew Belford to lunch with instructions from his sister Constance to inform him that if his niece Angela insisted on marrying him, she will have no money for four years, was initiated into the mysteries of pig calling. His cries of the master-word "Pig-hoo-o-o-ey" united the other ninety-three diners in the decision to write in strong terms to the Committee, as he left to catch the two o'clock from Paddington, abandoning his mission.

Nearby was the site of the Northumberland Hotel, where two of Sir Henry Baskerville's boots mysteriously disappeared in The Hound of the Baskervilles. It is now the Sherlock Holmes pub. In the little passage beside it is a Moorish doorway, which had been the entrance to the Turkish baths "twenty yards from the club's front door", in the Hot Rooms of which Psmith had prevailed upon Mr Bickersdyke to reinstate Mike as an employee of the bank, following his abrupt dismissal due to a spot of bother over a forged cheque. Finally Norman pointed out the entrance to the National Liberal Club, in which the Savage Club now lives, the venue for that night’s meeting of the Society. He then retired for an extremely well-earned rest.

We had all thoroughly enjoyed our look around Bertie Wooster's Mayfair, including so many of the real sources of the clubs, houses and flats which appear in Wodehouse's novels, together with Norman Murphy's knowledgeable and entertaining comments and anecdotes, which brought the physical buildings to life. We were particularly lucky as, sadly, this is to be one of the last of Norman's Wodehouse walks. The writer would also like to acknowledge the use of the invaluable A Wodehouse Handbook (description and order form here) in assisting him to prepare this account.

Website editor's note: There are plans to provide an audio version of Norman Murphy's walk which should hopefully be downloadable to your MP3 player or to CD via this website in bitesize chunks. Watch this space!

Tour photographs taken by Tamaki Morimura and added to Hetty Litjens' website (click here)