This hostelry tucked down a smart quiet street in Belgravia has, over time, lost more of its punters to Her Majesty’s pleasure than your average boozer. Any criminal now sampling the pub’s delights have in all probability committed a white colour crime, Belgravia is, after all, home to bankers and hedge fund managers. Built in the early 19th century Belgravia Mews West was once home to the horses and servants of the wealthy.
[P]robably converted in Victoria’s reign the tiny Star Tavern might have gone unnoticed had its previous landlord stuck to the straight and narrow. Its notoriety stems from the 1950s and 1960s when a hard-bitten gambler named Paddy Kennedy took over the establishment and was determined to put his own grubby stamp on the place. Known for indiscriminately swearing at customers, Kennedy sometimes singled one out for an entire evening of nonstop insults he called the “special treatment”, he became adept at quite physical ejections should he deem it necessary.
Unremarkably this uncharacteristic landlord’s behaviour attracted a wide clientele wishing to experience his inhospitality: Bing Crosby; Princess Margaret; gambler John Aspinall; Peter O’Toole; artist Lucian Freud; and Diana Dors among others. As was common at that time stardom attracted villains (or was it the other way round?), the Star Tavern was no exception, and unlikely liaisons took place for instance safe-blower and double agent Eddie Chapman would rub shoulders with Scotland Yard commander Wally Virgo.
Some remarkable events took place here at that time. Celebrated cat burglar Peter Scott was at the peak of his chosen profession. Known as the ‘Human Fly’, Belfast-born Scott arrived in London aged 22 and was tutored by master-thief George ‘Taters’ Chatham. He was soon applying his craft on a range of celluloid stars: Lauren Bacall, Shirley MacLaine, Vivian Leigh and Zsa Zsa Gabor, and would regularly frequented the Star Tavern arriving in his Bentley. When Sophia Loren had her uninsured jewellery worth £200,000 stolen Scott arrived and took out a wad of cash while leaning at the bar remarking “I hear poor Sophia has been robbed”.
Later having renounced a life of crime, admittedly after spending much time at Her Majesty’s pleasure, he was arrested leaving the Sherlock Holmes Hotel the venue was apposite in the circumstances, he had just delivered a stolen Picasso – Tête de femme – and had a plastic bag full of cash.
“London lotharios pulled their sports cars up to the door to display their latest girls”, was how one contemporary commentator described the scene as among others John Profumo would arrive with 19-year-old aspiring model Christine Keeler. The pub would be a magnet for such liaisons.
The Star’s main claim to crime in the 1960s was the upstairs room which today displays a fake suitcase of cash and model trains on the shelves. A notable regular was Terry ‘Lucky Tel’ Hogan who had been one of a nine-man strong gang who went on to become one of Britain’s most successful robbers. The gang’s first job was after observing a cash-heavy mail van for months and discovering it never changed its route, the gang forced it to stop in Eastcastle Street and transferred 18 of the 31 mail bags to a fruit lorry, netting the gang £287,000 (around £6.5 million today) it was to become the first of many robberies.
Introduced by Terry Hogan to the Star Tavern’s charms, and no doubt, its private upstairs room was a famous criminal who was once a passenger of mine – Bruce Reynolds. It was he who co-ordinated the Great Train Robbery and at that time would regularly drive his Aston Martin from his Streatham home to meet other members of the gang. Ensuing that never more than four met in pubic at a time they would go on to successfully rob the mail train and escape with £2.6 million (about £40 million today).
Reynolds fled to Mexico where he blew his £150,000 share, before returning to Britain and serving 10 years of a 25-year sentence for the robbery. After his release, he retired from crime and wrote his autobiography; dying in 2013 he didn’t drink at the Star Tavern again.