The Savoy Hotel and Kaspar the Cat

Opened in 1889 by Richard D’Oyly Carte, the Savoy is one of London’s finest hotels and is known for its Art Deco interior and the famous faces that have passed through its doors. It closed in December 2007 to undergo complete restoration and reopened in October 2010.

In 1898 Woolf Joel, a South African guest at the Hotel, gave a dinner party which, due to a last-minute cancellation, was attended by only thirteen guests. He laughed off the old superstition that tragedy would fall upon the first guest to rise from such a gathering, and so the dinner continued. There was consternation when Woolf was fatally shot following his return to Johannesburg.

When the Hotel received news of the tragedy, steps were taken to prevent any chance of a repetition. It was decided that a member of staff would accompany all groups of 13 but this led to awkwardness, especially when confidential matters were under discussion. So, sometime around 1925, the architect Basil Ionides (who later directed the Savoy rebuilding in 1929) was commissioned to fashion a three-foot high figure of a cat (black cats have been associated throughout history with good fortune). He sculpted it from a single piece of wood from a London plane tree and the finished product was lacquered in black and named Kaspar. His home was a shelf with a mirror behind, high up on the wall of the Pinafore Room. Any dinner party of thirteen then found itself joined by Kaspar. He would occupy the thirteenth chair, have a napkin tied around his neck and be served each course along with the same complement of cutlery, china and glass issued to the other guests.
The Savoy was also the home of the ‘Other Club’, founded by Winston Churchill and FE Smith (later Lord Birkenhead) in 1911 for the purposes of meeting political friends and foes away from the restrictions and prying eyes of Parliament. Even as Prime Minister in 1940 Churchill was reluctant to miss a club meeting and often used them to carry on discussions with cabinet colleagues, military men, visiting statesmen and many others. Where the assembly numbered 13 Kaspar was brought down from his shelf to take his place amongst them.

However at some point Kaspar disappeared and his absence was noted by Churchill. What happened to Kaspar was documented by the Savoy’s historian, Stanley Jackson, but he does not record the dates, it may have been 1940 but if not is probably no later than 1941. Air Commodore Harald Peake, by then Director of Public Relations at the Air Ministry, had arranged a dinner for officers of 609 (West Riding) Squadron. He had been the squadron’s CO on its formation in 1936. He took no part in what followed. On leaving the hotel one of the officers placed some empty wine bottles under his tunic, making no attempt to disguise them. Another guest carried a bag in such a way as to make it appear stuffed with heavy items. Both were challenged by the head waiter and in the confusion Kaspar was easily spirited away under another guest’s raincoat.

According to Jackson Kaspar was taken to 609’s base ‘in Lincolnshire’ (during the Battle 609 were based at Middle Wallop in Hampshire) where he sustained damage to his face and one ear. Air Commodore Peake continued to dine at the Savoy and when suspicion fell on his former guests he sent a message suggesting that Kaspar, should he be in their possession, ought to be returned. He was, after 609’s station workshop had repaired the damage. Meetings of the ‘Other Club’ were secret but word got out that Churchill was pleased to see Kaspar back in his usual place.