One of my favorite ways to unwind after a hectic day is to watch British period dramas. As I was skimming my choices one day I ran across a series called The Duchess of Duke Street. Each episode follows Louisa Layton’s life as she struggles to escape her underprivileged background. She was taken out of school and forced to work as a servant to earn income for her family. In the process, Louisa discovers that if she becomes an excellent cook, she will have more control over her destiny. She is hired by a great house to become an apprentice cook for a superb French chef. She learns quickly and is allowed to cook for the servants when the master of the house leaves for the hunting season. When the master returns early and the French chef is still abroad visiting family, Louisa is forced to prepare a meal for the master and his guests. Unbeknownst to Louisa the Prince of Wales is in attendance and loves her cooking. He gives her an audience after the meal and gives her a gold sovereign.
Everything seems to be looking up for Louisa as requests for her cooking services pour in. She is asked to cook again for the Prince of Wales and after the meal he sends his servant to inquire whether she is married. The Prince of Wales is known for having many affairs, but only with married women. The prince’s servant urges the master of the house to get Louisa married so the prince can have his way with her. Louisa wants nothing to do with marriage and only
Louisa’s new husband enjoys the luxury of not working, but grates under the burden of sharing the attentions of his wife. When the interlude with the prince ends, Louisa is content to continue working as a cook, but her husband does not trust that his wife will be faithful. Never one to allow anyone to lord over her, Louisa looked for a way to keep her cooking business and to give her husband a way to feel useful. Searching through the want ads of the local paper, she discovered the Bentinck Hotel was for rent. It had a large kitchen which would allow her to keep cooking for aristocrats, and her husband could maintain the rest of the hotel.
This arrangement appeared to be working for Louisa, and her husband until the gaffers refused to send groceries due to unpaid bills. Louisa had left all accounts up to her husband and his sister and focused solely on her cooking business. In a cold fury, she went to her husband’s office and reviewed the account balances only to discover that the hotel was in thousands of pounds of debt. She threw out her husband and his sister and committed to getting the hotel back on track.
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I could not tear my attention away from this series until I finished last episode, which ended with Louisa standing in a circle of adoring friends with glass raised in gratitude to the wonder of life. I immediately searched for clues to who the real woman was that this series was based on. My query led me to an article from The Cavendish. I was there introduced to the history of a woman named Rosa Lewis.
Rosa Lewis was as fiery and determined as the Louisa Trotter character portrays. She was the fifth of nine children and pulled from school to be a servant. She worked her way through the servant ranks to become an excellent cook. It became stylish to have Rosa come and cook for you, and so her fame stared to spread. It is only hearsay that she and the Prince of Wales were an item, but she was called upon to cook at any home to which he was a guest.
In 1893, Rosa did marry a butler, and then she bought The Cavendish Hotel. According to The
Rosa had a soft spot for unique aristocrats, American millionaires, and military officers from world war one. She rolled out the welcome mat to officers and added charges to her richer guests. When the King, former Prince of Wales, died Rosa’s flair for life diminished. Bills went unpaid and business faltered. Desperate to revive her business Rosa advertised for a seamstress to help her renovate the hotel. Edith Jeffery answered, and she became Rosa Lewis’s right hand woman and true friend. In the series, The Duchess of Duke Street, the character Mary is an echo of Edith Jeffery. The relationship between Louisa and Mary is slightly different from the real story. Mary is a servant in the same home where Louisa finds success as a cook. They work well together, and Louisa hires her to work at the Bentinck. As an inseparable pair, they keep the Bentinck profitable just like Edith and Rosa grew The Cavendish.
In the height of her success, Rosa Lewis was dubbed The Duchess of Jermyn Street. She rode on the ship of success all the way to America where she toured the finest hotels and graced them with her cooking skills. When she was asked about the men in her life, Rosa admitted to having had three men in her life, but she never explained who they were.
Rosa never changed her style of dress to accommodate the latest fashion. She also neglected to alter her outrageous personality. When her hotel was hit by an enemy bomb she told Richard Hillary, “Don’t ever die. I’ve been right up to the gates of heaven and hell, and they’re both bloody.”
Rosa Lewis died at the age of eighty-five, and her hotel was demolished and rebuilt under the same name. After the success of the series, The Duchess of Duke Street, a plaque was affixed to the hotel to remind guests of the wonderful woman who rose in society against all odds.