The Pastry Chef
As England slipped from the Georgian era into the Victorian and the sun no longer set on the British Empire, the country produced a bumper crop of interesting people: rogues, villains, explorers, heroes, geniuses, entrepreneurs, and colorful eccentrics, genuine characters every one. Some of them were ready made for fiction; many of them actually influenced literature. From time to time I plan to highlight some of amusing, obscure, or just fascinating people. The first genuine character is a failed pastry chef turned innkeeper, Samuel Shepheard.
Readers of historical fiction set in Egypt, or non-fiction for that matter, will have heard of Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo. Established in 1841 as Hotel des Anglais and later renamed, Shepheard’s rode the crest of Victorian adventure, exploration, and travel into the twentieth century. Called “A Little Piece of England,” its name evokes glamour, adventure, and no small amount of colonialism. Visitors varied from the explorer Richard Burton to the Aga Khan, from Winston Churchill to Mark Twain, from Lawrence of Arabia to Theodore Roosevelt.
It was grand, it was large, and, in the early days, it was the only choice for European travel. Not all visitors were impressed. Mark Twain wrote, “We are stopping at Shepherd’s Hotel, which is the worst on earth except the one I stopped at once in a small town in the United States.”
The hotel features in fiction ranging from Agatha Christie’s Crooked House to Anthony Trollope’s An Unprotected Female at the Pyramids. It (or recreated versions of it) appears in movies as diverse as The English Patient, Bring in the Camels, and the 1933 Myrna Loy potboiler A Night in Cairo. Almost every installment in Elizabeth Peters Amelia Peabody series features at least one scene at Shepheard’s.
There is an abundance of information, real and fictionalized, about the hotel on the Web, but Mr. Shepheard was a bit harder to track down. He was born in Preston Capes in the Northamptonshire in 1816, and orphaned at an early age. He was sent to live with and aunt and uncle. The uncle was the landlord (though whether owner or manager is unclear) of an inn called The Crown Inn. His uncle apprenticed him to a pastry chef in Leamington, most likely expecting him to go into the family business. It didn’t work out.
Shepheard also worked on a farm for some time and eventually went to sea. It is easy to imagine he hired on as ship’s cook. That didn’t last either; he was put ashore in Egypt in the early 1840s after an episode of insubordination. He found work at a Greek restaurant and began to make friends in the expatriate community, including a Mr. Hill who was Ali Pasha’s head coachman.
Stories, real and imagined, often hinge on a confluence of time, place, and man. So it is in this case. Britain’s colonial interests in the Far East, complex as they were, impacted Egypt by the end of the 18th century as various powers sought routes to the east. The East India Company’s enterprises in Bombay, Madras, Bengal, Singapore, and Canton lay six or more months by sail around the tip of Africa from London. With the advent of steamships, travel up the Gulf of Suez and overland to Cairo and Alexandria began to look attractive. In 1835, just before Shepheard reached Cairo, the East India Mail initiated regular steamer service from Bombay to Suez. To be profitable it not only carried mail and government shipments, but paying passengers as well. The passengers would disembark at Suez and travel 2-3 days overland, risking bandits and the elements, to Cairo. From there, they could travel up the Nile to Alexandria and embark by steam packet to England. A trickle of travelers began to flow into Cairo. It soon became a flood. Mail service from Calcutta followed in 1841.
The Hotel des Anglais (or the British Hotel) opened in 1841, founded by a Shepheard’s friend Hill. Shepheard went to work for him as an assistant and very quickly became part owner in the enterprise. In 1844 he married Mary Rangecroft, whose family was traveling through Cairo on their way to India. (There has to be a novel in that!) They had eight children, four of whom died in Cairo.
By 1845, when he was not yet thirty, he had sole ownership of the hotel. Demand quickly outpaced the original building. In 1848 Shepheard moved the enterprise to a nearby palace on Ezbekia Square that once belonged to Alfi Bey, ruler of Egypt and which served as Napoleon’s headquarters at one time. The name officially remained the British Hotel for several years, possibly as late as 1860, but by 1846 it was already being referred to as “Shepheard’s.”
Samuel Shepheard managed the hotel for sixteen more years after he took full ownership. Some gentlemen once dismissed him as a “an undistinguished, apprentice pastry chef.” He may have been undistinguished from a class point of view, but he was a highly successful entrepreneur, and was known as a canny businessman. He extensively renovated and enlarged his facility. Once when some soldier’s left for another country without paying, he pursued them. The BBC article on the hotel noted that, “By 1857, the Illustrated London News observed, ‘Perhaps in no hotel in the world do you find such an assembly of people of the rank and fashion from all countries as are found daily sitting down to the table d’hôte in the grand salon.'”
In 1861 Shepheard sold the hotel that by that time officially bore his name and returned to England wealthy enough to purchase a country manor, Eathorpe Hall, near Leamington where he once failed to make it as a pastry chef. He did not live to enjoy it long; he died in1866.He was a true character. Edwin de Leon, the American consul in Cairo is reputed to have described him as, “a character and an original. He was a short, sturdy, strongly-built John Bull of the old type, both in looks and manner, independent and brusque to the very verge of rudeness and often beyond, no respecter of position or of person, yet full of geniality and generous impulses, concealing a heart of gold under a round husk.”
The hero and heroine of my soon to be released novel, The Reluctant Wife, travel through Cairo in 1835, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to move the founding of the hotel back a few years to coincide with the Bombay to Suez mail service. The correct information is duly noted in an author’s note.
Bird, Michael, Samuel Shepheard of Cairo: A Portrait, https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?tn=Samuel+Shepheard+Cairo Accessed via Google books January 25, 2017
(This is the primary biographcial source, but it appears to be out of print)
Fletcher, Joanne, “Shepheard’s Hotel and the Winter Palace,” February 17, 2011, BBC History, http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/death_sakkara_gallery_03.shtml Accessed January 25, 2017
“Looking for the heirs of Samuel Shepheard,” on Egypt in the Golden Age of Travel,” August 17, 2014, http://grandhotelsegypt.com/?p=1479 Accessed January 25, 2017
“Shepheard’s Hotel,” Mark Twain’s Georgraphy, http://twainsgeography.com/content/shepheards-hotel Accessed January 25, 2017
Shepheard, Wayne. “Another Man With The Name Shepheard,” on Discover Genealogy, February 2016, http://discovergenealogy.blogspot.com/2016/02/another-man-with-name-shepheard.html Accessed January 25, 2017
Caroline Warfield writes historical romance. Her newest series feature’s heroes raised with the privilege of the British aristocracy and forged on the edges of the empire. The Renegade Wife, first in that series can be read for free through Kindle Unlimited or bought at https://www.amazon.com/Renegade-Wife-Children-Empire-Book-ebook/dp/B01LY7IRT6/