Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

Richard D’Oyly Carte

The first island after Shepperton is known as D’Oyly Carte Island, named after the famous impresario and hotelier of the Victorian era. Its former name was Folly Eyot until Richard D’Oyly Carte purchased the island and built a large house upon it. The house came about a little by accident for his original intention was to use it as an annex for his very successful Savoy Hotel, but the local magistrates refused to grant a drinks licence and so he used the building as his home instead. The island is now accessed by a bridge, but before 1964 visitors to the island had to ring a bell and be transported by boat.

Carte (May 3rd 1844 to April 3rd 1901) was brought up in the midst of culture. His father was a flautist, music publisher and instrument maker and as a consequence young Richard was an accomplished violinist and flautist from an early age.

During his twenties he wrote and published music for his own songs and instrumentals and four comic operas. While he was having success with his own works he was also building up a successful concert management agency.

In 1875 he became manager of the Royalty Theatre in Soho and this was the start of his great success. The first show he put on was Offenbach’s “La Perichole” which was a rather short work. To fill out the programme he asked William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan to write a comic opera to pad things out a bit. They obliged and wrote “Trial by Jury” which was an instant hit with the theatre-going public.

Carte could see the future, and the future he saw was a roaring success for the comic opera. He found some financial backers and formed the Comic Opera Company to produce the further works of Gilbert and Sullivan. The first opera the company produced was “The Sorcerer” first staged in 1877, followed a year later by “HMS Pinafore”.

There was a deepening disagreement between the owners, which at one point descended into an attempt by his former partners to disrupt a performance, and eventually Carte formed the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company to become the sole producer of Gilbert and Sullivan Operas.

With the money coming in from the success of the operas, coupled with the profits from the concert agency, there was a healthy surplus for investment in other ventures. Carte chose to invest in real estate and purchased property along the Strand. He built the Savoy Theatre in 1881, and in 1889 opened the Savoy Hotel. He chose the name from history, for the Savoy Palace once stood on the same ground until it was burned down during the Peasants Revolt of 1381.

The elegant Savoy Hotel rapidly became famous for its luxury and the upper-classes flocked through its doors. The money generated by the hotel was greater than the rest of the D’Oyly Carte enterprises put together. Carte was like a Monopoly player in full flow. Buy a hotel, get more money, and buy another hotel. He bought and developed Claridges in 1894, Simpsons-in-the-Strand in 1898 and The Berkeley in 1901.

Carte was a tremendous innovator, and would embrace anything that attracted people to his productions and hotels. His Savoy Theatre was the first public building to be illuminated entirely by electric light. (Another piece of trivia for the quiz buffs).

When the licence was refused for his hotel on Folly Eyot Carte chose to live there himself. What gatherings there must have been on this island towards the end of the 19th century. Richard Carte was the Simon Cowell of late Victorian England; he had all the contacts and ran all of the top shows. The great entrepreneur then doubled up again because where else would the cream of Society go after his shows but to stay in one of his luxury hotels. He certainly had a system.

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