The Troubadour was founded by Michael and Sheila van Bloemen in 1954 as part of the second great London coffee revolution. The first, in the late 17th and throughout the 18th century, saw the foundation of London’s first coffee houses. Thriving centres of metropolitan gossip, commerce and finance these coffee houses are perhaps best remembered for Dr. Johnson, who used to frequent them, and for Mr. Edward Lloyd, on whose premises the London insurance market was founded.
The latest revolution has seen a number of American “chains” “roll out” their “cookie cutter” operations to every London street corner. But after their 19th century decline it was the 1950’s which saw the revival of London coffee houses as centres of culture and civilization. Raffish, continental, revolutionary, these new cafés became centres of rebellion and new music for the young and the young at heart. Earl’s Court, the wild western frontier of bohemian Chelsea, saw a particular concentration of new establishments, the most famous of which was the Troubadour.
So famous, in fact, that whilst others fell by the wayside, the Troubadour settled in to become a west London institution. But if that implies stuffiness, forget it. Through the 50’s and 60’s this was one of THE centres of London intellectual and artistic life. It’s where Private Eye was first produced and distributed; where the early Ban the Bomb meetings were held (the precursor to CND); and where the Black Panthers met when they left Paris after the ’68 riots. The Troubadour was the first place where Bob Dylan performed in London. Paul Simon, Martin Carthy, Redd Sullivan, Charlie Watts, Sammy Davis Jr.and Jimi Hendrix have all played here. Richard Harris fell in love with his wife Elizabeth here (she was doing the washing up). Ken Russell recruited staff for his first shorts here, and it was here that he became friends with Oliver Reed. Led Zeppelin used to come and jam here after their Earl’s Court gigs. Tom Robinson and Elvis Costello used to play here too. All of these have been verified by people who were present at the time or by photographs and posters.
Mike and Sheila sold the Troubadour in 1970 to Bruce Rogerson, who over the next quarter of a century kept the flame burning. Bruce’s respect for what the van Bloemens had created was total. In 1990 he refurbished the basement venue, and added an extension to the rear of the Café; but he made sure that the spirit of the place remained unchanged.
Exactly the same attitude was adopted by the Troubadour’s third owners, Simon and Susie Thornhill. In 1998 Bruce decided that it was time for a quieter life, and he looked around for someone he could trust who would take the business on. Simon was just leaving the Scots Guards at the time after 20 years of service, and was cruising on his motorbike round his old schoolboy haunts in West London looking for a business he could buy. He’d known Bruce and the Troubadour for 20 years; he’d always loved the place; was mad on music and food; and Susie had worked for many years in the wine trade. It was a marriage made in heaven. So the deal was done, and the Thornhills, with their young family, moved in above the shop. What quickly became apparent to Simon and Susie was that the Troubadour was held in even more respect and affection than they realized.
Like any new young owners of a business they brought a fresh energy to the place; they changed the menu a bit and added hamburgers made to Simon’s own recipe. Before they knew it there were queues out of the door in the evening and space was becoming a problem. Fate intervened when the shops on either side of the Café became available.
In the Summer of 2002 after an extensive refurbishment, the current, larger Troubadour opened. The Club and Café continue the legacy of freedom of expression and musical and creative innovation. Books have been written in and about the Café over the past 50 years, the Club has had many now famous faces on its larger, well-lit stage including Amos Lee, Adele, Jack Peñate, Laura Marling, Ed Sheeran and more, while Coffee House Poetry continues in its 19th consecutive year. What has come to pass within these walls and on this land is extraordinary, but the Troubadour is no relic. The future looks bright as the Troubadour continues to be a furnace of creativity.