Large crowds gathered outside Vine House in Park Road, Surbiton in May, 1898. They had come to pay their last respects to George Pigache, a flamboyant Frenchman who had died unexpectedly at 47.

He was a gifted musician who played several instruments and had accompanied many famous opera stars at private recitals.

He was also one of the finest wine connoisseurs and gourmets of his day - a fact which increased his weight to a prodigious 36 stone, making him so fat he found it impossible to get into into the family coach for his morning drive to Surbiton station.

Instead he had to travel in a large hired waggon from the local livery stables.

Once at the station, he couldn't manoevre his vast bulk into the railway carriage unaided. So the station master selected three especially hefty porters to heave him into his carriage every morning, and painfully extract him from it at night.

He made his last journey to the station in a handsome casket of Spanish mahogany mounted with silver. Then he was put aboard a special train en route to Brookwood Cemetery.

"Great care had to be taken in the transportation of the coffin due to the unusual size and weight; but everything was done quietly and decorously," reported the Kingston and Surbiton News.

Monsieur Pigache came to live in Surbiton after marrying the only daughter of Daniel and Celestine de Nicols, founders of London's famous Cafe Royal in Regent Street. Their rise from rags to riches had been remarkable.

Daniel, a native of Burgundy, married his cousin Celestine in Paris in 1854. He was a coachmaker, she a shop assistant, and both were poor.

Soon after the wedding they took joint management of a wine and spirit business, which they later bought for £240 saved from their joint earnings.

The business was not a success, and in 1863 they came to England - allegedly fleeing from numerous creditors and the French authorities.

Celestine kept them going by taking in sewing while they became naturalised and changed their surname from Thevenon to de Nicols.

Their penury did not last long. Both had enormous energy and vision, and within two years they had opened a small cafe in Glasshouse Street.

They called it the Cafe Restaurant Daniel Nicols. But soon it was attracting the best-known names in intellectual and political society, and they re-named it the Cafe Royal.

As business increased, they expanded sideways into Regent Street to create the premises that are still one of London's major restaurant landmarks.

The Cafe Royal made its name by serving the best food and wine ever seen in London. This was largely due to the de Nicols' future son-in-law, George Pigache, who chose the wines and supervised the kitchens.

"In 1884 the Cafe Royal had the best cellar in the world," wrote a noted connoisseur. "Fifteen years later it was the best ever seen on earth."

The de Nicols decided they needed a country estate in keeping with their new-found wealth.

They chose Surbiton because it had fine country scenery within easy reach of Regent Street.

Early in the 1870s they bought centuries-old Berrylands Farm. They demolished the farmhouse, and replaced it with Regent House, a sumptuous mansion boasting the rich, gaudy, almost decadent opulence that was the hallmark of the Cafe Royal.

The Nicols engaged an Italian artist to create their outrageous - and shrewdly calculated - extravaganzas at Surbiton and Regent Street.

During the week, when the Cafe Royal was crowded with customers, the artist worked at covering the walls and ceilings at Surbiton with heavy-bosomed naked nymphs and masses of gilding.

At weekends, when the Nicols were holding unparalleled parties at Regent House, he would move up to the Cafe Royal and work on the same sort of decor there.

Surbiton then consisted mainly of middle and upper-class families whose lives were patterns of Victorian gentility.

They had never seen the Nicols' like before, and in the years the French pair lived there, it seems their neighbours made no contact with them whatsoever. Not that Daniel and Celestine would have missed them.

Surrounded by their private deer park, which stretched from what are now the Berrylands and Park roads right down to the railway line, they entertained international personalities on a tide of Cliquot pink champagne.

The ballroom at Regent House was huge - quite big enough to accommodate the full-size orchestra, conducted by the world-famous Leopold Wenzel, the entire corps de ballet of the Empire Theatre, and the scores of music hall stars who came to entertain the weekend house parties.

It was easy for the Nicols to arrange such entertainments; for in 1884 they had taken over a derelict, half-completed building in Leicester Square, and transformed it into the Empire Theatre (known initially as The Pandora.)

They intended it to be a sideline, but it had as big an impact as the Cafe Royal. Right from the start, the great crimson and gilt theatre, with its golden foyer, was the most luxurious ever built in London.

And from 1887 onwards, after three disastrous years of comic opera, it became noted as the finest variety theatre in the world.

The residents of Surbiton may have given Regent House a wide berth, but the most famous personalities of the day loved its larger-than-life atmosphere.

The great diva, Adelina Patti, was a frequent guest, as were Sir Blundell Maple, founder of the furniture store, George Edwardes, head of the Gaiety Theatre, and many more.

The working people of Surbiton mourned most when Daniel died from diabetes at the age of 64.

Memory of his own early money troubles made him generous to those in need, and in the words of the Kingston and Surbiton News: "He was a good friend to the poor of the locality, and no appeal was ever made to him in vain."

Daniel died at Regent House in 1897, and the ballroom in which he had entertained so lavishly was converted into a temporary chapel of rest for him to lie in.

When he left Surbiton for the last time in his splendid silver and mahogany coffin, it was borne by a coach drawn ty two black-plumed horses, and flanked by six outriders.

Behind came an open carriage piled high with wreaths. Behind again came a long procession of mourners who accompanied the body to the Church of Notre Dame in Leicester Square before it was taken by train for interment at Brookwood.

It was an appropriately stylish exit for the man who had revolutionised cafe society and theatrical life in Victorian London.

The Cafe Royal still flourishes, and Daniel's memory is commemorated in its Daniel's Cafe and Nicols Suite (but no mention of Celestine, who did as much as her husband to build the business).

George Pigache's memorial is, in a sense, the house logo used on napkins, stationery and many other Cafe Royal items.

This originated when George suggested that the letter N for Nicols, surrounded by laurel, and surmounted by a crown, should be used on all the Cafe Royal's cutlery, china, napkins etc.

Only later did Daniel realise that "his" new logo was a copy of Napoleon's crest.

"Daniel was a red-hot royalist, and he was furious with George for deceiving him," said a current Cafe Royal executive.

"It was too late to change things, and the logo is still in use to this day. People assume it stands for Napoleon, but really it's for Nicols."

Presumably Daniel's temper cooled. For when George died, only a year after his father-in-law, he was buried alongside him in the family vault at Brookwood.

Celestine continued to live in Regent House until her death in 1916. Then the estate was sold off for housing.

Today the mansion where famous names cavorted beneath canopies of naked nymphs has been replaced by Regent Road, while the deer park is covered by rows of sedate 1920s housing.

There is still one reminder of the pink champagne era: Regent Cottage, the pretty little building at 19 Berrylands, was once a Nicols' estate lodge.

The Nichols' Empire Theatre has been converted into three cinemas, and all its original interiors have been destroyed.

Converted for the new archive on 30 June 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.