|Soho Top from left: Greek Street, Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club. Middle from left: Comptons, Kingly Court. Bottom from left: View of Soho, Gardener's hut, Soho Square.|
Soho is an area of the City of Westminster and is part of London's West End. Long established as an entertainment district, for much of the 20th century Soho had a reputation as a base for the sex industry in addition to its night life and its location for the headquarters of leading film companies. Since the 1980s, the area has undergone considerable gentrification. It is now predominantly a fashionable district of upmarket restaurants and media offices, with only a small remnant of sex industry venues.
Soho is a small, multicultural area of central London; a home to industry, commerce, culture and entertainment, as well as a residential area for both rich and poor. It has clubs, including the former Chinawhite nightclub; public houses; bars; restaurants; a few sex shops scattered amongst them; and late-night coffee shops that give the streets an "open-all-night" feel at the weekends. Record shops cluster in the area around Berwick Street, with shops such as Blackmarket Records and Vinyl Junkies.
On many weekends, Soho is busy enough to warrant closing off some of the streets to vehicles. Westminster City Council pedestrianised parts of Soho in the mid-1990s, but later removed much of the pedestrianisation, apparently after complaints of loss of trade from local businesses.
The name "Soho" first appears in the 17th century. Most authorities believe that the name derives from a former hunting cry. James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, used "soho" as a rallying call for his men at the Battle of Sedgemoor on 6 July 1685, half a century after the name was first used for this area of London. The Soho name has been imitated by other entertainment and restaurant districts such as Soho, Hong Kong; SoHo, Manhattan; Soho, Málaga; SOHO, Beijing and Palermo Soho, Buenos Aires.
Soho has an area of about one square mile (2.5 km2), and is now usually considered to be the area bounded by Oxford Street to the north, Regent Street to the west, Leicester Square to the south and Charing Cross Road to the east. However apart from Oxford Street, all of these roads are 19th-century metropolitan improvements, so they are not Soho's original boundaries. It has never been an administrative unit, with formally defined boundaries. The area to the west is known as Mayfair, to the north Fitzrovia, to the east St Giles and Covent Garden, and to the south St James's. According to the Soho Society, Chinatown, the area between Leicester Square to the south and Shaftesbury Avenue to the north, is part of Soho, although some consider it a separate area. Soho is part of the West End electoral ward which elects three councillors to Westminster City Council.
In the Middle Ages, what is now Soho was known as St Giles Field, a farmland belonging to the Convent of Abingdon and the master of Burton St Lazar Hospital in Leicestershire, who owned a leper hospital in St Giles in the Fields. In 1536, the land was taken by Henry VIII as a royal park for the Palace of Whitehall.
In the 1660s the Crown granted Soho Fields to Henry Jermyn, 1st Earl of St Albans. He leased 19 of its 22 acres (89,000 m2) to Joseph Girle, who gained permission to build and promptly passed his lease and licence to bricklayer Richard Frith in 1677. Frith began the development. In 1698 William III granted the Crown freehold of most of this area to William Bentinck, 1st Earl of Portland. Meanwhile, the southern part of Soho was sold by the Crown in parcels in the 16th and 17th centuries, with part going to Robert Sidney, Earl of Leicester.
Despite the best intentions of landowners such as the Earls of Leicester and Portland to develop the land on the grand scale of neighbouring Bloomsbury, Marylebone and Mayfair, Soho never became a fashionable area for the rich. Immigrants settled in the area, especially French Huguenots who poured in from 1688, after which the area became known as London's French quarter. The French church in Soho Square was founded by Huguenots in the 17th century. By the mid-18th century, the aristocrats who had been living in Soho Square or Gerrard Street had moved away. Soho's character stems partly from the ensuing neglect by rich and fashionable London, and the lack of redevelopment that characterised the neighbouring areas.
By the mid-19th century, all respectable families had moved away, and prostitutes, music halls and small theatres had moved in. Soho's population increased rapidly during this time, reaching 327 inhabitants per acre by 1851; then one the most densely populated areas of London. Houses became divided into tenements with chronic overcrowding and disease. A serious outbreak of cholera in 1854 around Soho caused the remaining upper-class families to leave the area. A considerable amount of hospitals were built to cope with the health problem, with six being constructed between 1851 and 1874.
In the early 20th century, foreign nationals opened cheap eating-houses, and the neighbourhood became a fashionable place to eat for intellectuals, writers and artists. Arthur Ransome has two chapters of Bohemia in London (1907) about Old and New Soho, and about Soho coffee-houses like the Orange, The Moorish Café and The Algerian.
From the 1930s to the early 1960s, Soho folklore states that the pubs of Soho were packed every night with drunken writers, poets and artists, many of whom never stayed sober long enough to become successful; and it was also during this period that the Soho pub landlords established themselves.
A detailed mural depicting Soho characters, including writer Dylan Thomas and jazz musician George Melly, is in Broadwick Street, at the junction with Carnaby Street. In fiction, Robert Louis Stevenson had Dr. Henry Jekyll set up a home for Edward Hyde in Soho in his novel, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Joseph Conrad used Soho as the home for The Secret Agent, a French immigrant who ran a pornography shop.
Soho was part of the ancient parish of St Martin in the Fields, forming part of the Liberty of Westminster. As the population started to grow a new church was provided and in 1687 a new parish of St Anne was established for it. The parish stretched from Oxford Street in the north, to Leicester Square in the south and from what is now Charing Cross Road in the east to Wardour Street in the west. It therefore included all of contemporary eastern Soho, including the Chinatown area. The western portion of modern Soho, around Carnaby Street was part of the parish of St James, that was split off from St Martin in 1685.
Broad Street pump
A significant event in the history of epidemiology and public health was Dr. John Snow's study of an 1854 outbreak of cholera in Soho. He identified the cause of the outbreak as water from the public water pump located at the junction of Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) and Cambridge Street (now Lexington Street), close to the rear wall of what is today the John Snow public house.
John Snow mapped the addresses of the sick, and noted that they were mostly people whose nearest access to water was the Broad Street pump. He persuaded the authorities to remove the handle of the pump, thus preventing any more of the infected water from being collected. The spring below the pump was later found to have been contaminated with sewage. This is an early example of epidemiology, public health medicine and the application of science—the germ theory of disease—in a real-life crisis. Science writer Steven Johnson describes the 2006 appearance of places related to the Broad Street Pump cholera outbreak:
Almost every structure that stood on Broad Street in the late summer of 1854 has been replaced by something new – thanks in part to the Luftwaffe, and in part to the creative destruction of booming urban real estate markets. (Even the streets' names have been altered. Broad Street was renamed Broadwick in 1936). The pump, of course, is long gone, though a replica with a small plaque stands several blocks from the original site on Broad Street. A block east of where the pump once stood is a sleek glass office building designed by Richard Rogers with exposed piping painted a bold orange; its glassed-in lobby hosts a sleek, perennially crowded sushi restaurant. St. Luke's Church, demolished in 1936, has been replaced by the sixties development Kemp House, whose fourteen stories house a mixed-use blend of offices, flats, and shops. The entrance to the workhouse on Poland Street is now a quotidian urban parking garage, though the workhouse structure is still intact, and visible from Dufours Place, lingering behind the postwar blandness of Broadwick Street like some grand Victorian fossil. (…) On Broad Street itself, only one business has remained constant over the century and half that separates us from those terrible days in September 1854. You can still buy a pint of beer at the pub on the corner of Cambridge Street, not fifteen steps from the site of the pump that once nearly destroyed the neighbourhood. Only the name of the pub is changed. It is now called The John Snow.
A replica of the pump, with a memorial plaque and without a handle (to signify John Snow's action to halt the outbreak) was erected near the location of the original pump.
Many small and easily affordable restaurants and cafes were established in Soho during the 19th century, particularly as a result of Greek and Italian immigration. The restaurants were not looked upon favourably at first, but their reputation changed at the start of the 20th century. In 1924, a guide reported "of late years, the inexpensive restaurants of Soho have enjoyed an extraordinary vogue."
The music scene in Soho can be traced back to 1948 and Club Eleven, generally revered as the first venue where modern jazz, or bebop, was performed in the UK. The Harmony Inn was an unsavoury cafe and hang-out for musicians on Archer Street operating during the 1940s and 1950s. It stayed open very late and attracted jazz fans from the nearby Cy Laurie Jazz Club.
The Ken Colyer Band's 51 Club (Great Newport Street), a venue for traditional jazz, opened in the early fifties. Blues guitarist and harmonica player Cyril Davies and guitarist Bob Watson launched the London Skiffle Centre, London's first skiffle club, on the first floor of the Roundhouse pub on Wardour Street in 1952.
In the early 1950s, Soho became the centre of the beatnik culture in London. Coffee bars such as Le Macabre (Wardour Street), which had coffin-shaped tables, fostered beat poetry, jive dance and political debate. The Goings On, located in Archer Street, was a Sunday afternoon club, organised by beat poets Pete Brown, Johnny Byrne and Spike Hawkins, that opened in January 1966. For the rest of the week, it operated as an illegal gambling den. Other "beat" coffee bars in Soho included the French, Le Grande, Stockpot, Melbray, Universal, La Roca, Freight Train (Skiffle star Chas McDevitt's place), El Toro, Picasso, Las Vegas, and the Moka Bar.
The 2i's Coffee Bar was probably the first rock club in Europe, opened in 1956 (59 Old Compton Street), and soon Soho was the centre of the fledgling rock scene in London. Clubs included the Flamingo Club ("which started in 1952 as Jazz at the Mapleton"), La Discothèque, Whisky a Go Go, Ronan O'Rahilly's ("of pirate radio station, Radio Caroline fame") The Scene in 1963 (near the Windmill Theatre in Ham Yard – formally The Piccadilly Club) and jazz clubs like Ronnie Scott's (opened in 1959 at 39 Gerrard Street and moved to 47 Frith Street in 1965).
Soho's Wardour Street was the home of the legendary Marquee Club (90 Wardour Street) which opened in 1958 and where the Rolling Stones first performed in July 1962. Eric Clapton and Brian Jones both lived for a time in Soho, sharing a flat with future rock publicist, Tony Brainsby.
Soho was also home to Trident Studios at 17 St Anne's Court between 1968 and 1981 where some of the worlds most famous recording artists of all time recorded music including The Beatles, Elton John, Queen and David Bowie.
Although technically not part of Soho, Denmark Street is known for its connections with British popular music, and is nicknamed the British Tin Pan Alley due to its large concentration of shops selling musical instruments. The Sex Pistols lived beneath number 6 Denmark Street, and recorded their first demos there. Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and Donovan have all recorded there and Elton John wrote his hit "Your Song" in the street.
The Soho area has been at the heart of London's sex industry for over 200 years; between 1778 and 1801 21 Soho Square was location of The White House, a brothel described by the magistrate Henry Mayhew as "a notorious place of ill-fame".
Before the Street Offences Act 1959 became law, prostitutes packed Piccadilly Circus and the streets and alleys around Soho. By the early 1960s the area was home to nearly a hundred strip clubs and almost every doorway in Soho had red-lit doorbells, or open doors with little postcards just inside advertising "Large Chest for Sale" or "French Lessons Given." These are known as walk-ups. Brothels, unlike prostitution, have long been illegal under English law, and licences to supply alcoholic drinks will not be granted against police objections. Thus, other than more or less respectable hotels where independent sex trade may be discreetly conducted, lavish brothels cannot be established.
The Metropolitan Police Vice squad at that time suffered from corrupt police officers involved with enforcing organised crime control of the area, and simultaneously accepting "back-handers" or bribes. The low end of the legal sex trade generally depended upon streetwalkers picking up clients on the street and taking them back to cheap rooms. When the Act drove prostitution off the streets, many clubs such as The Blue Lagoon became fronts for prostitution.
In 1960, London's first sex cinema, the Compton Cinema Club (a members-only club to get around the law) opened at 56 Old Compton Street. It was owned by Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser who later produced two early Roman Polanski films, including Repulsion (1965). Michael Klinger also owned the Heaven and Hell hostess club (which had earlier been just a beatnik club) across the road and a few doors down from the 2I's on the corner of Old Compton Street and Dean Street.
As postwar austerity relaxed into the swinging 60s, Clip joints also surfaced; these unlicenced establishments sold coloured water as champagne with the promise of sex to follow, thus fleecing tourists looking for a "good time."
Harrison Marks, a "glamour photographer" and girlie magazine publisher, had a photographic gallery located at No. 4 Gerrard Street and published several salacious magazines such as Kamera, which were published from the late fifties until 1968. The model Pamela Green prompted him to take up nude photography, and she remained the creative force in their business until their professional relationship ended in 1967. The content, however, by today's standard is tame.
By the mid-seventies, the sex shops had grown from the handful opened by Carl Slack in the early 1960s to a total of 59 sex shops which then dominated the square mile. Some had nominally "secret" backrooms selling hardcore photographs and novels, including Olympia Press editions.
By the 1980s, purges of the police force along with new and tighter licensing controls by the City of Westminster led to a crackdown on illegal premises. By 2000, a substantial relaxation of general censorship, the ready availability of non-commercial sex, and the licensing or closing of unlicensed sex shops had reduced the red-light area to just a small area around Brewer Street and Berwick Street, in property largely owned or controlled by the holdings of Paul Raymond, whose legitimate business Raymond's Revuebar had increasingly and conspicuously dominated the red-light area and its trade for decades. Soho has fifteen licensed sex shops and several remaining unlicensed ones. Several strip clubs in the area were reported in London's Evening Standard newspaper in February 2003 to be rip-offs (known as clip joints), aiming to intimidate customers into paying for absurdly over-priced drinks and very mild 'erotic entertainment'.
Although several walk-ups on streets leading off Shaftesbury Avenue were bought up and closed or renovated for other uses during the mid 2000s, prostitution is still widespread in walk-ups in parts of Soho, and there is drug dealing on some street corners. Soho continues to be a centre of the sex industry in London, and features numerous licensed sex shops. There is a clip joint on Tisbury Court and an adult cinema nearby. Prostitutes are widely available, operating in studio flats, often sign-posted by fluorescent "model" signs at street level.
On 30 April 1999, the Admiral Duncan pub on Old Compton Street, which serves the gay community, was damaged by a nail bomb that left three dead and 30 injured. The bomb was the third that had been planted by Neo-Nazi David Copeland, who was attempting to stir up ethnic and homophobic tensions by carrying out a series of bombings.
On Valentine's Day 2006, a campaign was launched to drive business back into the heart of Soho. The campaign, called I Love Soho, features a website. The campaign was launched at the former Raymond Revuebar in Walkers Court, made famous by its strip licence and neons, with such celebrities in attendance as Charlotte Church, Amy Winehouse and Paris Hilton. I Love Soho is backed by the former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, the Soho Society, Westminster Council and Visit London.
Notable streets include:
- Berwick Street has record shops, fabric shops, and a small street market open from Monday to Saturday.
- Carnaby Street was for a short time the fashion centre of 1960s "Swinging London" although it quickly became known for poor quality 'kitsch' products.
- D'Arblay Street, formerly Portland Street, has The George public house, The Breakfast Club Cafe and a Pop up shop which recently held an art exhibition for the Mourlot Studios by King and McGaw.
- Dean Street is home to the Soho Theatre, and a pub known as The French House which during World War II was popular with the French Government-in-exile. Karl Marx lived at numbers 54 and 28 Dean Street between 1851 and 1856. From 1948 to 2008 it was also the location of The Colony Club hosted by Muriel Belcher and frequented by Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, George Melly and later Damien Hirst.
- Denmark Street was a music publishing centre and houses numerous musical instrument stores
- Frith Street where John Logie Baird first demonstrated television in his laboratory, now the location of Bar Italia. A plaque above the stage door of the Prince Edward Theatre identifies the site where Mozart lived for a few years as a child.
- Gerrard Street was home to Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club, the 43 Club and the Dive Bar, under the Kings Head. It is at the centre of London's Chinatown.
- Golden Square is a garden square which is now home to several major media companies.
- Great Marlborough Street was once the location of Philip Morris's original London factory and gave its name to the Marlboro brand of cigarettes. It is also the former home of the London College of Music and a historic central magistrates' court famous for the trials of many celebrities arrested in the West End.
- Great Windmill Street[note 1] was home to the Windmill Theatre (see below) which used to claim, slightly inaccurately, that "we never closed" during the war; it was finally sold and reconstructed as a cinema in 1964. The principles of The Communist Manifesto were laid out at a meeting in the Red Lion pub.
- Greek Street is famous for its restaurants, and formerly for its cosmopolitan residents
- Old Compton Street was the birthplace of Europe's rock club circuit (2i's club) and boasted the first adult cinema in England (The Compton Cinema Club). Dougie Millings, who was the famous tailor for The Beatles, had his first shop at 63 Old Compton Street which opened in 1962. Old Compton Street is now the core of London's main gay village where there are dozens of businesses catering for the gay community
- In Soho Square are Paul McCartney's office MPL Communications, and the former Football Association headquarters.
- Wardour Street was home of the Marquee Club. Another seventies rock hangout was The Intrepid Fox pub (at 97/99 Wardour Street), originally dedicated to Charles James Fox (whose listed memorial may still be seen in the current restaurant premises), and more recently a goth pub where customers wearing ties would be denied service, as being improperly dressed.
The Windmill Theatre which was open from June 1931 until October 1964, was famous for its nude tableaux vivants, in which the models had to remain motionless to avoid the censorship imposed by the Lord Chamberlain's Office until the Theatres Act of 1968 became law). It claimed that it was the only theatre in London which Never Closed during the War,  (conveniently fogetting the twelve compulsory days between 4 and 16 September 1939). It stood on the site of a windmill that lasted for only a hundred years from the reign of Charles II until late in the 18th century, but gave its name to the street.
The Raymond Revuebar was a small theatre specialising in striptease and nude dancing. It was owned by Paul Raymond and opened on 21 April 1958. The most striking feature of the Revuebar was the huge brightly lit sign declaring it to be the "World Centre of Erotic Entertainment."
In the early eighties, the upstairs became known as the Boulevard Theatre. It was used as a comedy club called "The Comic Strip" by a small group of alternative comedians before they found wider recognition with the series The Comic Strip Presents on Channel 4. It was also used as a "straight" theatre venue for a series of play premieres that included Diary of a Somebody (the Joe Orton diaries) by John Lahr, a rock opera version of Macbeth by Howard Goodall and The Lizard King (the Jim Morrison play) by Jay Jeff Jones, and a rare theatrical appearance by Nicole Kidman memorably reported as "pure theatrical viagra".
The name and control of the theatre (but crucially, not the property itself) were bought by Gerald Simi in 1997. Gradually the theatre's fortunes waned, with Simi citing rising rent demands from Raymond as the cause, until the Revuebar closed on 10 June 2004. It became a gay bar and cabaret venue called Too2Much, changed its name to Soho Revue Bar in 2006 with a launch party including performances by Boy George, Antony Costa and Marcella Detroit, but the Revue Bar closed in 2009.
Soho is near the heart of London's theatre area. It is home to Soho Theatre, built in 2000 to present new plays and comedy. Gerrard Street is the centre of London's Chinatown, a mix of import companies and restaurants (including Lee Ho Fook's, mentioned in Warren Zevon's song "Werewolves of London"). Street festivals are held throughout the year, most notably on the Chinese New Year.
Soho is a centre of the independent film and video industry as well as the television and film post-production industry. The British Board of Film Classification, formerly known as the British Board of Film Censors, can be found in Soho Square. Soho's key fibre communications network is managed by Sohonet, which connects the Soho media and post-production community to British film studio locations such as Pinewood Studios and Shepperton Studios and other major production centres across the globe, including London, Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Rome, New York City, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto, Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Wellington and Auckland. There are also plans by Westminster Council to deploy high-bandwidth Wi-Fi networks in Soho as part of a programme to further encourage the development of the area as a centre for media and technology industries. Recent research commissioned by Westminster City Council shows that 23% of the workforce in Soho works in the creative industries, making it one of the most creative square miles in the world.
Soho Radio commenced live broadcasting on 7 May 2014 on Great Windmill Street, next to the Windmill Club. Primarily a radio station, Soho Radio broadcasts 24 hours streaming live and pre-recorded programming from its premises, and also functions as a retail space and coffee shop. The station states on its website that it aims "to reflect the culture of Soho through our vibrant and diverse content."
Soho is home to numerous religious and spiritual groups, notably St Anne's Church on Dean Street (damaged by a V1 flying bomb during World War II, and re-opened in 1990), the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory on Warwick Street (the only remaining 18th century Roman Catholic embassy chapel in London and principal church of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham), St Patrick's Church in Soho Square (founded by Irish immigrants in the 19th century), City Gates Church with their centre in Greens Court, the Hare Krishna Temple off Soho Square and a small mosque on Berwick Street. The French Protestant Church of London, the only of its kind in the city, is found in Soho.
Westminster Council stated that the narrow footways can become very congested at night, particularly at weekends, with people drinking in the street, eating outside takeaways, queuing at entertainment venues or to use bank ATMs, and people passing through the area. There are a number of premises with tables and chairs located on restricted pavement areas and this can cause non-violent traffic/pedestrian conflict.
- 'Estate and Parish History', Survey of London: volumes 33 and 34: St Anne Soho (1966), pp. 20–6 accessed: 17 May 2007
- Room 1983, p. 113.
- Mee 2014, p. 233.
- Weinreb et al 2008, p. 845.
- Sheppard, F H W, ed. (1996). "Estate and Parish History". Survey of London (London). 33–34 : St Anne Soho: 20–26. Retrieved 3 August 2015.
- Henry Barton Baker (1899). Stories of the streets of London. Chapman and Hall Ltd. p. 229.
- Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886
- Making the Modern World — John Snow and the Broad Street pump
- Johnson 2006, p. 299.
- Johnson 2006, pp. 227–228.
- "Tony Brainsby, Obituary", The Independent March 2000.
- During 2009, pp. 110–111.
- Matthew Sweet "The lost worlds of British cinema: The horror", The Independent, 29 January 2006
- Sinful Streets of London (map and guide book), published in 1983
- "Soho drug dealers jailed". Metropolitan Police Service. 19 Aug 2013. Retrieved 6 August 2015.
- Gorman 2001, p. 37.
- "The Windmill Theatre, 17 – 19 Great Windmill Street, W.1". Arthurlloyd.co.uk. February 2003. Retrieved 5 August 2015.
- "Ian Hamilton; The Comic Strip" (3 September 1981) London Review of Books
- Soho – The World's Creative Hub – BOP Consulting 2013
- "Launching tomorrow, Soho’s new radio station gives Sullivan the wag a place in its shop window". Shapers of the 80s. Wordpress. 6 May 2014. Retrieved 6 September 2014.
- "About". Soho Radio. Flatpak Radio. 2014. Retrieved 6 September 2014.
- During, Simon (30 June 2009). Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-03439-6.
- Gorman, Paul (2001). The Look: Adventures in Pop & Rock Fashion. Sanctuary.
- Johnson, Steven (19 October 2006). The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. Penguin Publishing Group. ISBN 978-1-101-15853-1.
- Mee, Arthur (30 July 2014). King's England: London. Amberley Publishing Limited. ISBN 978-1-4456-4239-0.
- Room, Adrian (15 December 1983). A Concise Dictionary of Modern Place-names in Great Britain and Ireland. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-211590-4.
- Weinreb, Ben; Hibbert, Christopher; Keay, Julia; Keay, John (2008). The London Encyclopedia. Pan MacMillan. ISBN 978-1-4050-4924-5.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Soho.|
|Wikivoyage has a travel guide for London/Soho.|
- The museum of Soho
- Soho memories
- The Soho Society
- The Survey of London: volumes 33 and 34, St Anne Soho (1966)—full text online
- The Soho Bombing in 1999
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