Above: French House standing on the east side of Dean Street.
The Grade II listed pub was originally called the ‘York Minster’. It was opened by a German national named Christian Schmitt in 1891. Schmitt died in 1911 and his wife, Bertha Margaretha Schmitt, continued to run the pub until 1914. With the outbreak of World War I, Mrs B. M. Schmitt sold the pub to the Belgian Victor Berlemont, who had moved to London in 1900. The bill of sale is posted on a wall in the pub for all to see. Victor was succeeded by his son Gaston Berlemont. The pub legend claimed that Gaston was born in the pub but, apparently, he was actually born in the Middlesex hospital in 1914, and later worked there until his retirement in 1989. He died ten years after that and became one of the few pub landlords ever to have his obituary printed in the national broadsheet newspapers for the simple reason that many of his ‘regulars’ worked in Fleet Street.
After the fall of France during the Second World War, General Charles de Gaulle escaped to London where he formed the Free French Forces. His speech rallying the French people – ‘À tous les Français’ – is said to have been written in the pub. The Free French used it during the Second World War. Still hanging outside today are the pub sign and large French flags.
The name was changed to ‘The French House’ after the disastrous fire at York Minster in 1984. The pub is situated at 49 Dean Street, on the east side, about mid-way between the junctions with Old Compton Street and Romilly Street. To the locals, it is just ‘the French pub’ or even ‘the French’.
The busy and well-frequented pub is a place where you will find actors, writers, artists, bohemians and those in the film world. The French House has no music, no gambling machines, no television and has a ‘no mobile phones’ rule which makes it a haven for conversation. Unlike many pubs and, indeed those nearby, the literary crowd prefer to drink wine to drinking beer which is quite a rarity. If you want a beer it is apparently only sold in half-pints.