Officially the area known as Soho is contained within the boundaries of Oxford Street, Shaftesbury Avenue, Charing Cross Road and Regent Street. Chinatown, based along Gerrard Street south of Shaftesbury Avenue, is also considered by many to be part of Soho. The history of Soho goes back to the Middle Ages when the church owned the land, leasing it out as farmland. After the Dissolution the land came under the control of Henry VIII, he used the land for hunting which is where the area probably got its name, from the ancient hunting cry “so-ho!”.
Manette Street on the eastern perimeter of Soho was originally called Rose Street, it was renamed in honour of Dickens’s character Dr Manette from his novel A Tale of Two Cities. Dr Manette lived “in a quiet street corner not far from Soho Square…In a building at the back, attainable by a courtyard where a plane tree rustled its green leaves, church organs claimed to be made, and likewise gold to be beaten by some mysterious giant who had a golden arm starting out of the wall”. A modern replica of the golden arm can be seen protruding from wall.
At the end of Manette Street is the back of the Pillars of Hercules, a public house which first opened on this site in 1733. The current building dates from 1935 and in recent years became a favourite meeting place for writers such as Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes.
Through the narrow alleyway that passes under the pub lies Greek Street which together with Frith, Dean and Wardour Street form the heart of Soho.
The layout of modern day Soho has its origins in the 1670’s when the first building development began. The early squares and streets were favoured by the wealthy however over time they moved west to newer developments such as Mayfair. The rich were quickly replaced by immigrant groups such as the French Huguenots and by the early 18th century nearly half of the parish of Soho was French, giving rise to the areas nickname “Petty France”. Other immigrant groups included the Greeks, Germans, Italians and Jews from eastern Europe, the last surge came in the mid 20th century when the Chinese began to move from their traditional strongholds in the East End to create Chinatown.
On Greek Street at number 2 is the Gay Hussar. Opened in 1953, this restaurant became known as the haunt of left wing politicians such as Tony Benn, Roy Hattersley, Michael Foot and Tom Driberg, as well as Soviet agents based in London. It was also frequented by General Eisenhower and the Queen of Siam.
The House of Barnabas in Soho was built in the 1740’s and is one of the finest examples of a Georgian mansion in London. In the early 19th century the building was used as the offices for the Westminster Commissioner for Works for Sewers, and it was from here that Sir Joseph Bazalgette planned the creation of 86 miles of sewers and 120 miles of drainage that still serve London today. In 1863 the house was taken over by a charity to help homeless women, something which it still does today.
Soho Square was laid out in the 1680’s and originally named King’s Square after Charles II. There is a statue of the monarch in the middle of the square and this dates from 1681. In the 18th century the square was a highly fashionable address but today the houses have mainly been replaced by modern office blocks.
At number one is Sir Paul McCartney’s company MPL Communications Ltd where in the basement is an exact replica of EMI studio number two, the legendary venue at EMI’s Abbey Road studios where the Beatles recorded.
The north east side of Soho Square houses Soho’s last remaining Huguenot church, the French Protestant Church (or Eglise Protestante Francaise de Londres). Built in 1893 it is notable for its tiled facade, the architect was Sir Aston Webb, best known for the Victoria & Albert Museum in Kensington. Church services here are still conducted in French and the building also houses important historical archives for those seeking information on the Huguenots.
Also on the north east side is number 14. This house was where the pioneering nurse Mary Seacole (1805-1881) lived during 1857 whilst writing her autobiography Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Mary Seacole in Many Lands.
On the east side is St Patrick’s, a substantial Catholic church dating from 1891 and designed in an Italiante style by John Kelly. The church stands on the site of an 18th century Catholic church that served the Irish community then living in Soho.
Back on Greek Street number 18 once hosted The Establishment, a club at the centre of the satirical comedy movement that became influential in the early 60’s. Founded by Peter Cook it was always controversial given his desire to create somewhere “where we could be more outrageous than we could be on stage”. Famous comedians like Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna Everage) and Dudley Moore performed here. On the first floor in 1963 Lewis Morley took his iconic photograph of Christine Keeler sitting naked astride an Arne Jacobson chair.
Number 47 Greek Street is where the world famous 18th century romancer Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) lived for several months in 1764.
The Coach and Horses public house at number 29 is one of London’s most famous pubs and was founded in 1847. For several decades Norman Balon, the notoriously rude former landlord of the Coach and Horses, served hard drinks to his regular clientele of writers, journalists and actors. Tom Baker and John Hurt were two of the more famous customers. The alcoholic columnist Jeffrey Bernard was often found drinking vodka here, so much intact that his Low Life column in the Spectator magazine often had to be cancelled with the excuse that “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell”.
Beside the Coach and Horses is Maison Bertaux, London’s oldest French patisserie and cafe serving some of the best cakes and pastries in Soho since it was founded in 1871.
Kettner’s restaurant at number 29 Roomily Street was, in its heyday a favourite haunt of Oscar Wilde and his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. Other pleasure seeking customers included Edward VII and his mistress Lily Langtry.
Old Compton Street was originally built in the 1670’s and was named after the Bishop of London, Henry Compton. Today it is the heart of London’s gay scene. Numbers 19-21 was where Wheelers restaurant once had it premises, it was a favourite haunt of the artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) who regularly lunched here. It was also where, in a private room during the 1950’s, the Duke of Edinburgh hosted a regular gathering of male friends that became known as the Thursday Club. Attendees included Peter Ustinov, David Niven, James Robertson Justice, Larry Adler and the Soviet spy Kim Philby.
Frith Street is lined with some good restaurants and is also home to Ronnie Scott’s jazz club. Famous for its world class jazz performances, the club was also the venue for the first public performance of The Who’s rock opera Tommy in 1969, and for Jimi Hendrix’s final public performance in 1970.
More or less opposite is Bar Italia, opened in 1949 by an Italian family and the place where many a Londoner stops off before heading home after a late night out in the west end. It’s a great atmospheric place and also where, in 1925, in an upstairs room, the world’s first live television broadcast took place.
At number 20 Frith Street is a blue plaque indicating the site of the house where the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) stayed in the mid 1760’s. A musical child prodigy he was already renowned throughout Europe when he came to London with his father and younger sister, entertaining visitors in return for a fee. He was presented to the Royal Society and played three times for the Court of George III during his 15 months in London.
Frith Street was also once home to the painter John Constable in 1810-11 and the diarist William Hazlitt (1778-1830). Hazlitt lived at number 6 and is widely regarded as England’s greatest literary critic after Samuel Johnson. The house is now the site of Hazlitts, one of London’s finest and most discreet hotels.
Just off Soho Square on Carlisle Street is where, at number 6, the satirical magazine Private Eye is based.
Down St Anne’s Court at number 17 is where Barry and John Sheffield opened their Trident Studios, most famously used by the Beatles to record Hey Jude on 31st July 1968.
A short walk from here is Dean Street where philosopher, political economist and revolutionary Karl Marx (1818-83) lived in poverty with his wife and children in two separate locations. He wrote many of his great works, including Das Kapital, in the former British Museum Library just a ten minute walk away.
One of the locations the Marx lived was 28 Dean Street where they stayed for six years. This building is now occupied by the well known restaurant Quo Vadis.
The French House is another famous pub situated at number 49 Dean Street. A pub has been on this site for centuries however in the 20th century under the ownership of Belgian born Victor Berlemont and from 1951 his son Gaston, the pub, then known as the York Minster, became during WWII, the unofficial headquarters of the Free French under Charles De Gaulle. The pub is particularly associated with artists and writers such as Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Brendan Behan, Dylan Thomas and even Salvador Dali when he visited London.
On Old Compton Street is the famous gay bar the Admiral Duncan. This was one of the places bombed in 1999 by the right wing extremist David Copeland, he killed three people and injured many more. The pub is named after the Scottish naval hero who won a naval victory against the Dutch in 1797.
A plaque outside of number 59 Old Compton Street commemorates the 2i’s Coffee Shop. The bar was regarded as the birth place of rock ‘n’ roll in the UK. It was here in the late 50’s where many rock stars started their careers, including Tommy Steel, Adam Faith, Marty Wilde, Hank Marvin and Cliff Richard. The 2i’s was the basis for the bar depicted in the 1959 film Expresso Bongo.
St Anne’s Church on Wardour Street is unusual by the fact that the frontage of it is all that remains. It was built between 1677 and 1686, possibly to a design by Christopher Wren. It was badly damaged during the Blitz and the tower and some parts of the exterior are all that are left. The former church yard is now a public garden.
Berwick Street was an almost entirely Jewish area in the late 19th century, these days it’s best known for its street market and record shops. It was named after the Duke of Berwick an illegitimate son of James II. A photograph of the street was used for the front cover of the 1995 Oasis album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?
The street is dominated by Kemp House, the only tower block built as part of an ambitious plan in the 1950’s to construct a number of towers and a glass ceiling over Soho. Each tower was supposed to have its own helipad, with canals dug at ground level. It was at number 45 Kemp House that Soho legend Jeffrey Bernard died of kidney failure.
The John Snow pub on Broadwick Street is named after the teetotal Dr John Snow who made medical history when he proved the connection between infected water supplies and cholera. During one outbreak in 1854 he realised the victims had one thing in common, they all used the same water pump on Broad Street (now Broadwick Street). The handle of the pump was removed and the epidemic almost immediately stopped. The site of the original pump is marked with red granite kerb stone just outside the pub.
The famous Bag O’ Nails club is situated at number 8 Kingly Street, it was here where members of the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and the like would socialise. It was also where Paul McCartney met his future wife Linda Eastman in May 1967 as they both attended a Georgie Fame concert.
Beak Street is today a prosperous place filled with expensive shops however Charles Dickens once described it as “tumbledown…with two irregular rows of tall meagre houses”. Number 41 was where Venetian artist Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768) lived between 1749 and 1751.
Golden Square just off Upper James Street is a relatively quiet place, possibly named after the castrated male horses – or geldings – that used to be kept on land here in the 1670’s. The square is mentioned in Dickens’s 1838 novel Nicholas Nickleby and is also notable for the statue of George II as he was the last British monarch to be depicted in historical costume.
On Warwick Street is Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory, the only surviving Catholic former embassy chapel in London to have been built before the Catholic Emancipation of 1829.
Great Pulteney Street was where, at number 38, John William Polidori (1795-1821) lived and served as physician to the poet Lord Byron. During his stay in Geneva in 1816, Byron came up with the idea of a ghost story writing competition amongst his house guests, the most famous result was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Polidori contributed the influential early Gothic work The Vampyre. Later an unknown person sent Polidori’s to a London magazine who published it, incorrectly attributing it to Byron. He tried to rectify the mistake but was accused of plagiarism. He became depressed and committed suicide at this address by drinking prussic acid.
Great Windmill Street is named after a windmill which once stood here, on the corner with Archer Street is a pub that used to be the Red Lion. Karl Marx used to give lectures here in an upstairs room, and the Communist League held its Second Congress here in November 1847. It was also here where Marx and Engels submitted proposals to the League to secure a commission to write what became The Communist Manifesto, described as the most influential written work in history after the Bible.
Soho is a wonderfully quirky part of London that still retains some of its past character. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it as much as I’ve enjoyed exploring it.