"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
"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