the people skills of Basil Fawlty

John Fothergill was an eccentric restaurateur with the people skills of Basil Fawlty.

image found here

He turned the sleepy Spread Eagle Inn into one of the most famous hotels in England, if not the world. Some came for the food and the ambiance, others to marvel at John Fothergill’s eccentric personality. 

image found here

A curmudgeon and an obsessed puritan, Fothergill was not just any old snob. Sporting knee breeches, a dark green “over-garment that has been described as a cross between a page boy’s and a parson’s,” a flamboyant foulard, an Eton collar, buckled shoes, and a lorgnette that dangled on a black cord down to his navel, he inevitably cut a curious, if romantic figure. In summer, he favored a suit of white duck.

lorgnette for a fish goddess found here

He attended public school at Bath College in Cumbria, then studied at St. John’s College, Oxford, before dropping out after one term, having flunked his exams. Fothergill quickly fell in with Robbie Ross, a close friend of Oscar Wilde’s. At that early age, Fothergill was strikingly handsome, with a notable élan. Wilde, who cherished being in his company, called him the “architect of the moon”

Moon House by architect Antonino Cardillo found here

He seemed destined for a life as an aesthete, or at least a dilettante, surrounded by his gay artist friends. But he turned his back on the world of art and archaeology, and went straight, marrying Doris Elsa Henning. The marriage was a disaster from the start and ended abruptly with Fothergill suffering a nervous collapse. Finding himself, at 46, a broken man with few prospects, he was, as he says in his memoir, “counselled to take an inn.” In 1922, he and new wife, Kate Headley Kirby, heard about a place near Oxford called The Spread Eagle in Thame that was “very shabby but very possible.” Fothergill pulled together the money he needed and bought the lease.

Spread Eagle Inn found here

He channeled his enthusiasm for fine wine into creating one of the finest wine cellars in the area, and crafted a menu that focused on what he called “real food” — not the usual hotel fare of prepared meals, but an ever changing menu of tavern standards such as jugged hare or saddle of mutton, mixed with then exotic French dishes, and fanciful desserts such as “lemon flummery,” an 18th-century dish.

cribbage cards made out of flummery found here

What had been a run-down country inn soon became the country crash pad of high society. But not everyone was welcome. Fothergill had not shed his aesthetic standards. If a customer was “ill-shaped, ugly or ill-dressed,” he was known to snub them and to charge them an added fee, what he dubbed “face-money.”

refaced money found here

He also seems to have had a fetish for especially tall men, for whom he often offered a free pint. He kept a tally of them, with a measuring stick, marking their heights on a wall.  But beauty did not always guarantee special treatment. One boy who mistakenly ordered a pint of Angostura, thinking it was an aperitif, was given it and made to drink it. Another fellow who demanded steak, even though it wasn’t on the menu, had to eat a stringy tough cut of beef that Fothergill ordered directly from the butcher as punishment.

tallest man found here

He had a rabid distaste for travelers who stopped in merely to use the lavatory. Even though it was common practice among inns at the time to offer this service as part of an arrangement with the automobile touring association, Fothergill was determined to make it as unpleasant for uninvited guests as possible. If they didn’t personally approach him to thank him for his hospitality, he would follow them outside, berate them publicly and tell them never to set foot in his hotel again. Often if they slipped out before he could get to them, he would take down their license numbers and write them a scathing letter. One time he asked one of these intruders, a rather grand lady, for her home address “in case I need a pumpship when I’m passing your home.”

Magic Cone found here

This is an excerpt from an original review by Brooks Peters you can read here

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38 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. What is a lorgnette ? Is it a necklace ornament? Looks like it could be a hash pipe (?)

    • Opera glasses.

    • A pair of glasses with a handle rather than arms.

  2. Hmmm…
    I wonder what he considered ‘especially tall’?
    Would 6′-1″ qualify for a third a pint?
    (I love that house, by the way)

    • Me too. And I’ll shout you a pint if you ever visit Sydney

  3. Maybe Elaine Kauffman learned from him!

    • She sounds like quite the character

  4. Ok are only allowed to print stories with up to 2 words I don’t understand. This one went way over that mark.


    • you don’t really need to know what flummery is

      • now i am going to look it up

  5. Magic Cone! Ha ha ha!

  6. No only the tallest man…

    But the tallest Camel Toe.

    • Ha! Trust you to notice that

  7. Sounds like a charming chap to me!

  8. I’m going off to hunt for a recipe for lemon flummery.

  9. Imagine a world without eccentrics. *shudder*

  10. If he was still alive, I’m sure his inn would be just as popular. A lot of people see eccentric management as an essential restaurant frisson. The ruder and more unpredictable the service, the better. Not my cup of tea though.

    “Pumpship” floored me as well. Toilet maybe? And I was blissfully unaware of the merits of the Magic Cone. What a useful device. How splendidly educational this blog has turned out to be!

  11. If he were alive these days he would have reality shows a la Gordon Ramsay. Fothergill’s dining nightmares?

  12. He really does sound a lot like Basil Fawlty.

  13. I’d love see him in summer.

  14. just love the name “Spread Eagle Inn”. should be a BDSM cottage…

  15. I miss “Fawlty Towers.” Whenever I look at my garden and see the wonderful basil plants in it I can hear “Basil!” in those stentorian tones only Sybil was able to muster.

    I looked up Cardillo, and I feel you may have missed a beat by not posting a photo of him — what a dish! Makes the cougar in me arouse itself. . .

    • Indeed I did miss a beat there. Dishy is an understatement

  16. Repressed queer dude running the Spread Eagle Inn? It’s just plain kinky, is what it is. PS I’d like one of those green parson’s over-jackets that he wore.

    • If anyone could rock one of those jackets it would be you Mitzi

  17. The Spread Eagle Inn? That’s a name that inspires alright. I wonder if they had an Axe on the shingle too.

  18. I used to queue at a bus stop in London that our tallest man used to use as well. Many the time I turned round just to find myself staring at his crutch. I don’t suppose “with a notable élan” is a euphemism is it? – I’d prefer saying that than ‘crutch’.

    • Isn’t it crotch? Or was he on crutches?

      • (archaic) another term for crotch (of the body or a garment) [copy and paste from the Dicktionary] – I must be archaic … apparently …

      • I never knew that! I’ve seen “crutch” used for “crotch” in several places, but each time I just assumed it was a typo.

  19. It’s funny how people like abuse. There’s a very popular restaurant in Boston that serves giant prime rib cuts, and is known for its mean waitresses. They insult you, refuse to wait on you, and mock you. If a customer “fights back” all of the waitresses gang up on them and go into destroyer mode. I went there once, and my waitress was really nice to me. I was so bummed.

  20. I told a chick at a restaurant today that I was boring and she did not believe me/.

  21. I don’t know where you find this stuff, but it’s wondrous. This blog should induce nightmares. I loved the Fawlty Towers opened each of the 13 episodes with an anagrammatic rearrangement of the sign in front of the inn. Basil also muttered my favorite misogynistic insult toward Mrs. Fawlty: cloth-eared bint!

    • So many great lines from that show. Our family has had cause to use little else now for years.

  22. Flowery Twats is one of my favourite things (as I’m sure you’ve guessed). Thank you for making my day yet again, Nurse Myra.

    And the Magic Cone was just a beautiful bonus.

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