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In search of Uncle Ho's London lodgings

Update: May, 16/2005 - 00:00

In search of Uncle Ho’s London lodgings

Now a pub: Children’s textbooks still recount that when working in London, Uncle Ho put a heated brick under his bed to keep warm during long winter nights at the Drayton Court Hotel. VNS Photo Lady Borton

Shophouses: A view down The Avenue in London’s West Ealing district. VNS File Photo

(15-05-2005)

In the days before World War I, the young Ho Chi Minh worked in the kitchens of a London hotel. Lady Borton retraces the steps of the young revolutionary.

"Could we go here?" Nguyen Thi Tinh, director of the Ho Chi Minh Museum, asked as she pulled a paper from her folder. We had only a few hours left during a short visit to London.

I recognised a page from the ten-volume chronology of Ho Chi Minh’s life. I could translate "West London" in the text but couldn’t figure out the "Di" in "Di Avenue" and the "Coc" in "Hotel Drayton Coc." Most important, the area of West London – "Oet Ilinh" – left me baffled.

I checked London: A-Z for "Di Avenue": All possible variations turned into dead ends. I looked up "Drayton": The list of streets was overwhelming. I contemplated "West London": Daunting. I tried once again to push the Vietnamese transliteration, "Oet Ilinh," back into its original English. "Oet" might be "West." But what was "Ilinh"?

I poured over a map of the Underground. Then I saw it: "Oet Ilinh" – West Ealing!

"Let’s go!" I said.

We rode to Ealing Broadway at the end of the Central Line and caught a cab.

"West Ealing, please," I said to the driver, adding: "Have you ever heard of a Drayton ‘Cook’ Hotel?"

"You mean the Drayton Court Hotel?" he answered

"Yes!" Dr Tinh said.

"Hasn’t been a hotel since 1962," the cabbie said. "Great pub, though. One of Fullers’ best."

By the time we arrived, the late afternoon sunlight brightened Fuller’s famous trademark, a golden griffin. We went inside. Light and airy, the pub retains much of its original 1890s decor accented by historical photographs. We chatted briefly with two customers enjoying a beer. They said local yore held that, indeed, President Ho Chi Minh had once worked at this, their favourite pub.

One of the men, an amateur historian, gave us leads for the follow-up visit I made a month later. But that afternoon, we had little time to do more than look around, admire the photographs, check out the gracious patio with wrought-iron furniture, and admire the pub’s luxuriant flower garden. Then we hailed another cab back to Ealing Broadway.

The ten-volume chronology notes only that President Ho shovelled furnace coal when he first arrived in London. After a two-week illness, he took work at the Drayton Court around February 1914.

At the time, Ho Chi Minh was in his mid-twenties and likely used the name Nguyen Tat Thanh. No company records have been found to confirm Ho Chi Minh’s employment, and no known records tell us how long he worked in West Ealing. Ho Chi Minh probably lived in the Drayton Court’s smallest room on the third floor. Now a bartender’s lodgings, the room has a blocked gas fireplace and just enough space to slip past its single bed and look out the window, which faces the luxuriant back garden.

President Ho probably worked in the kitchen or perhaps bussed tables. The Drayton Court Hotel served a "capital four-course dinner" when it opened in 1894 and was probably serving similar fare in early 1914, before the outbreak of World War I. The hotel was and still is a pub belonging to the Fuller&Co. Griffin Brewery, now formally known as Fuller, Smith&Turner or Fuller’s for short. The company has been in business for 160 years.

West Ealing, once a hamlet called Ealing Dean, grew up around the inns serving a tollgate on Uxbridge Road. After the Castle Hill Halt (now the West Ealing Station) opened in 1872, the area housed workers for the Great Western Railway and was known as Stevens Town for the local landlord. Train service soon turned West Ealing into the thriving London suburb it had become by Ho Chi Minh’s time.

In 1914, the town’s shops included a green grocer, chemist, tailor, boot maker, stationer, and West Ealing’s newest attraction, the Kinema cinema. When he was seven and eight, Charlie Chaplin had lived at the Poor Law School in Hanwell, the next train stop a mile west of West Ealing. Seventeen years later, in early 1914, Chaplin left his widely acclaimed comic roles on the New York stage and debuted as "the tramp" in his first films, which Ho Chi Minh may have seen at the Kinema.

President Ho’s tenure at the Drayton Court came during the lull before World War I. Britain’s imperial century (1815-1914) was ending. War was brewing. To counter the German Kaiser, on 17 March, the Russian Tsar expanded his active-duty military from 460,000 to 1.7 million troops, creating the world’s largest army. Britain’s military leaders fretted over the Kaiser’s push toward naval supremacy. On 17 March, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill presented the largest naval budget ever to the House of Commons. By mid-July 1914, the largest European states were still at peace - by early August, at war.

At this point, young Ho Chi Minh was probably working as a pastry chef at the imposing Carlton Hotel on the corner of Haymarket (London’s most famous street for theatres) and Pall Mall (its most famous street for exclusive men’s clubs). Although the Drayton Court is a two-minute walk from a commuter train station connecting to the Tube and central London, West Ealing itself would not have been a locale likely to hold Ho Chi Minh’s attention for long.

Still, for the rest of us, the Drayton Court Hotel on The Avenue in West Ealing remains a perfect place to enjoy fish and chips amidst ambient touches from the time of President Ho’s youth. - VNS

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