More than a century of Portsmouth history came to an end as Savoy Court, originally called Pier Mansions, was gutted in a giant blaze on Southsea seafront earlier this month.
Built as private apartments at the start of the 20th century, Savoy Court was a magnificent relic from a previous era. Designed with an Edwardian architect’s eye for line, order and proportion, it was a beautiful structure.
Originally named after South Parade Pier which it stood opposite, Pier Mansions was constructed in 1905 beside Southsea Coastguard Station. At the time it housed retired naval officers and genteel women who enjoyed magnificent views across the Solent.
In 1929, the Savoy Cafe and Ballroom was built on the former site of the Coastguard Station next to Pier Mansions. From then on, the fates of the two buildings would be intertwined.
While Pier Mansions retained private apartments with shops below, The Savoy Cafe, with its Funlands amusement arcade was a place for people to enjoy traditional English seaside delights.
Holidaymakers revelled on the beach, by the pier, and in and around the Savoy Cafe and the other shops along the front. It wasn’t only the English summer they were enjoying, but the benign influence of well-placed, attractive and useful architecture.
In the war years, the buildings survived the bombing while the Savoy Cafe played a vital part in the war effort.
Converted to a Merchant and Royal Naval hostel by the British Sailors’ Society, 50,000 sailors used its services every month, while 17,000 a month attended the morale-boosting entertainment it provided. Then, as the tide of the war turned, the Cafe’s role changed. For six weeks after D-Day the Savoy Cafe sent out a continuous service of mobile canteens to feed the men waiting to cross the Channel and liberate Europe.
After the war, in 1946 Billy Butlin bought The Savoy Cafe and promised a new lease of life. Somewhere around 1953, Pier Mansions was added to the complex, and together the buildings became known as The Savoy Buildings.
It was run by a wily manager, George Turner, who had an unfailing nose for business.
The night the Savoy Ballroom hosted a dance for 800 Russian sailors was a great example of his entrepreneurship. The posters and tickets for the event were printed in Russian, and Turner arranged for ‘600 girl escorts’ to go along. The event was a massive success. Throughout the 1950s, the ballroom was the venue for big bands. Chris Barber, Ted Heath and numerous others played there.
By 1960 The Savoy Buildings was ready for a revamp. The Evening News reported that 13 chandeliers ‘of the highest quality’ were flown in from the continent to adorn the newly named Crystal Suite. Mirrors in the Suite appeared to produce a never-ending trail of light ‘stretching off into infinity’.
This refurbishment saw the start of a new era. As fashions changed Turner began to hire rock ‘n’ roll bands. Gene Vincent played the Savoy, supported by Sounds Incorporated. This was clearly the way to go and in 1963 Turner hired a group called The Beatles who played for £50 performing on the musicians’ dais in front of a mural of a mermaid. The Rolling Stones, Freddie and the Dreamers, The Tremeloes, The Who and other legends followed. They were never paid more than £85 a night.
In the 1970s, the Savoy Buildings took on a new role. By now essentially one complex with flats above the Savoy Court end, the night clubs below thumped long into the night. Alongside Nero’s nightclub, which opened in 1971, the old Crystal Suite was converted into Joanna’s in 1973, where many a sailor worked up a hangover into the early hours.
Nero’s was renamed twice, firstly to Fifth Avenue and then to Time and Envy. Whatever the name, it was always lively.
I remember seeing a woman built like a brick outbuilding putting on an impromptu stripshow for the boys on the dance floor, before bouncers helped her back into the tiny piece of cloth around her body that passed for a bra.
By the early 21st Century, times had changed again. After a decision by the council to move night clubs to the city centre, suddenly the Savoy Buildings were left without a purpose. By 2007, they were abandoned.