Legend has it that 3 Cromwell Road’s early days were spent as an illegal casino, run by the London underground. It is said to be one of the many sites used by John Aspinall, the infamous British zoo owner and gambler. The Aspinall gambling inner-sanctum was forced to move address constantly to stay one step ahead of the police and taxman.
In 1960 John Aspinall won a court case that legalised gambling in private members clubs. Two years later he left 3 Cromwell Road to open London’s first legitimate gambling club in Mayfair, The Clermont, favourite haunt of the aristocracy. James Goldsmith and Lord Lucan were part of what became known as the ‘Clermont Set’.
In 1964 the business at 3 Cromwell Road was bought by Tony Mitchell and christened The Cromwellian. Tony was an accomplished entrepreneur, who already owned the famous Le Macabre Coffee Bar and The New Yorker restaurant, both in Soho.
(some fantastic footage featuring Le Macabre Coffee Bar and 21’s Coffee Bar)
Tony wanted The Cromwellian to be a society club that would attract the likes of Princess Margaret and co. He considered opening with performances by Hutch and Yana, variety-show favourites of the smart set. And his design ideas for the club included giant murals featuring the legends of the Roundheads and Cavaliers. But it didn’t go according to plan and, instead of high society darlings, The Crom inherited a more dubious clientele…
That all changed when four well-known wrestlers bought into the club with Tony; Paul Lincoln aka ‘Doctor Death’, Judo Al Hayes ‘The White Angel’, Bob (Anthony) Archer nicknamed the ‘Wrestling Beatle’ and ‘Rebel’ Ray Hunter.
Paul, Ray and Al were very successful wrestlers and promotors (after setting up Paul Lincoln Management). Furthermore Paul and Ray owned the renowned 21’s Coffee Bar where much of the late 50’s Rock ‘n’ Roll stars, including Tommy Steele, Cliff Richard and ‘The Shadows’, were discovered.
Whilst wrestling as Bob Anthony, Bob Archer had also been running rock promotions, so he was put in charge of running the disco and booking the bands at The Cromwellian.
A cultural revolution was underway – the baby-boomers were young adults, fashion and music was changing and evolving at a rapid pace, and ‘Swinging London’ was where it was ‘at’. Bob was keen, much to Tony’s initial displeasure, to get The Crom recognised as an ‘in’ club.
A strong door policy was established as this was the era of the London Protection Gangs, The Krays and The Richardsons amongst them. Gradually the reputation of The Cromwellian was established and the 3-story club became a casino, bar and discotheque. It was soon the ‘in’ club Bob had dreamt of where pop stars, record producers, managers, agents and models would while away the small hours.
On the first floor was the casino. Two dice-tables were originally located on the ground floor until a Molotov Cocktail was thrown through the window and scorched the surface of one of them. Dice tables were in short supply and gambling was evermore popular, so a more dedicated casino was established upstairs, and the vulnerable front windows of the building were protected with wrought iron security grills.
The Cromwellian only had five tables, but according to former croupier Randy Steed:
‘It possessed a faded, hip elegance which attracted the show business and rock star elite of those times; on any given night you’d be dealing across the tables to the likes of Brian Epstein; the Beatles first manager’.
On the ground floor was The Armoury Bar or Harry’s Bar, run by legendary, flamboyant bartender Harry Heart. In an interview with Felix Atagong, Bob Archer said of Harry:
‘He knew what everyone drank, and asked “your usual Heart?” They would say: “Yes Harry and will you have one?” Harry then replied: “Just one for the pot Heart”… thrown another gin into the cut glass vase that he had on the bar, with bits of lemon and cucumber floating about in it’.
But it was down in the cellars that waves were made in the sixties music scene. Bob adopted a policy of booking bands of respected musical ability, which attracted visiting stars to ‘sit in’. Bands like Reg Dwight’s ‘Bluesology’ aka Elton John, ‘The Nightimers’ and Brian Auger’s ‘Steampacket’.
Frequent jammers were Eric Burden of ‘The Animals’, Chris Farlowe, Georgie Fame, the jazz star Chris Barber, guitar heroes Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. One night Sonny Boy Williamson appeared and sat in mesmerising the crowd with his harmonica.
There were also some special bookings in that small cellar including ‘The Drifters’, Patti LaBelle & The Blue Bells’, Wilson Picket and Stevie Wonder and his band.
Most notably, The Cromwellian was the first place Jimi Hendrix played in London at a sit in with Brian Auger. The rumour that Blaises or The Scotch of St. James was the first place Hendrix played was cleared up in an interview that Brian gave the Jimi Hendrix Record Guide:
Jim: Are you sure the first jam was at The Cromwellian?
Brian: It was The Cromwellian, yes.
Jim: Some say it was Blaises, and I think Vic Briggs said he was convinced that it was The Scotch of St. James!
Brian: Yeah, but it wasn’t. I’m afraid Vic kind of rewrites history a bit, (chuckles) but it wasn’t The Scotch Of St. James, it was The Cromwellian. I have a mental picture of Jimi being introduced to me and looking out across the stage at the staircase that goes up from upstairs to the first level of The Cromwellian.
Anyway, he came down to The Cromwellian and Chas [Chandler]introduced him to me in the break and he seemed like a very nice guy. He asked me if he could sit in and I said absolutely, yeah, what would you like to play? Jimi showed me a chord sequence and said, can you play this? And I said yeah, it’s pretty straight forward, and it turned out to be the chord sequence for “Hey Joe”!
It wasn’t just musicians and managers that made their way to The Crom, but Margot Fonteyn and the Royal Ballet, and film stars such as Clint Walker (Cheyenne), Lee Marvin (Cat Ballou), Ryan O’Neal (Love Story), blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield and James Bond himself Sean Connery.
(Footage of The Cromwellian at 1min30 in this ‘Swinging London’ documentary)
But by the late sixties trends were starting to change, The Scotch of St James and The Speakeasy were the ‘in’ clubs, and the owners of The Cromwellian were looking to new projects. Bob Archer remained part-owner and manager of The Crom until 1967 when he gave up management to create Pantiles club and restaurant in Bagshot, Surrey. He sold his share in 1968.
Tony Mitchell had passed away. Both Paul Lincoln and Ray Hunter concentrated on their wrestling promotions and then moved back to Australia. But both returned to England for the latter stages of their lives. Al Hayes moved to the States where he became known as Lord Alfred Hayes, a major wrestling star with the World Wrestling Federation, later becoming a presenter on U.S. television wrestling. Sadly Ray, Al and Paul are no longer with us but are always remembered at the Annual Wrestlers Reunion.
The Cromwellian has had many changeovers and facelifts since. It was Bratts and The Hudson Club, before it became Firehouse from 2002-2010. The owner Alexander Baillieu enjoyed hearing the stories about the treasured building and in an interview with The Telegraph in 2002 he said:
‘I have never believed in ghosts but, since I’ve been here, I am not so sure’.
3 Cromwell Road is about to unveil itself as The Dorsia London, an exclusive members club. It’s named after the elite restaurant in the film/novel American Psycho in which the main character Patrick Bateman can never get a reservation.