The Spirit of Soho – how it evolved, what to see and where to go

Soho is a well-known district of the City of Westminster in London.   This article describes how Soho evolved into the epicentre of London’s entertainment scene.

Soho is thought to take its name from the hunting cries used when it was a royal hunting park belonging to King Henry VIII, who hunted here with members of his court and aristocracy.    Soho is bounded by four major thoroughfares, including Oxford Street (to the north) and Regent Street (to the west).

Today, Soho is one of London’s most vibrant entertainment areas.    But this wasn’t always the case.    This article gives an overview of the history of Soho – and just a few of our favourite sights and establishments!

Records from medieval times point to Soho being church land owned by the Abbot of Abingdon and home to a leper hospital.    After its ‘acquisition’ by King Henry VIII, its proximity to Whitehall Palace made it a popular as a hunting park.

Later in the Tudor and Stuart periods, the royal land was sold or granted to aristocrats and the wealthy.    The principal resident of ‘Soho Fields’ at this time was the Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate son of King Charles II.    (The Duke came to his end on Tower Hill, for taking on his catholic Uncle King James II).    The Earl of Leicester was another key resident.

Soho Square
Soho Square (formerly Kings Square), 1681, looking south. The Statue is of King Charles II by the Danish sculptor Caius Gabriel Cibber (1630-1700). The central hut was added in Victorian times for the gardeners. Today, the square is home to the French Protestant Church, St Patrick’s Church (first dedicated to the Saint in London) and several large media organisations, including; 20th Century Fox, Dolby and The British Board of Film Classification

From around 1660, landowners and property developers such as Wardour, Frith and Jermyn developed the area – honouring themselves and the Bishop of London, Dean Henry Compton, in the street names.    The Fire of London in 1666 made their investment very timely and profitable.   The fashionable residential squares at the time were Soho Square (1680) and Golden Square (1700) – both of which still exist today, but only a few of the original homes survive, being replaced by Georgian and Victorian buildings.

Mary Seacole
14 Soho Square, one of the original buildings in the square (along with nos. 10 and 15). The building was home to Mary Seacole (1805-1881), a black Jamaican nurse and heroine of the Crimean War.
Golden Square
Golden Square, 1670. The central statue was a later addition, dedicated to King George II. Only four of the original houses remain (nos. 11, 21, 23, 24). Golden Square was home to Barbara Villiers (mistress to King Charles II and referred to as the ‘Uncrowned Queen of England’),
Golden Square was home to foreign embassies and diplomatic residences, before many moved south to Belgravia . Number 24 was the Portuguese Embassy between 1724-47.

Soho was eventually eclipsed by Mayfair (to the west) and Soho became home to many immigrants, which is the source of its cultural diversity today.    French Huguenots, Greeks and Italians all established roots – in cramped, rudimentary and over-filled homes. (The Chinese community did not arrive in Soho until after WW2.    They came from Limehouse, in east London, owing to the widespread destruction of their dwellings by enemy bombing).

An outbreak of Cholera in 1854 marked an end to wealthier families living in Soho.    They too moved west to Mayfair or south into newer areas like Belgravia.    At this point, Soho started to develop its niche as an area for entertainment.   Many theatres, music halls and drinking establishment sprang up – and along with them prostitution.    The decline of domestic service after World War 1 also gave rise to numerous restaurants.

Popular music was another key ingredient in Soho, introduced by Americans, after World War 2.   Along with music, Soho also became home to the fashion and film industries in surrounding offices, still served today by a multitude of media companies.    After some difficult times caused by organised crime in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Soho has once again established itself as one of London’s most exciting, diverse and culturally integrated areas.

Carnaby Street

Carnaby Street, Soho
Carnaby Street was the world’s epicentre of youth fashion in the 1960’s. The vanguard of this was John Stephen, who opened the first fashion shop on the corner of Carnaby Street and Beak Street. The shop on the right displays a green plaque marking the location of John Stephen’s shop.

Broadwick Steeet

The Spirit of Soho
The mural on the corner of Carnaby Street and Broadwick Street is called ‘The Spirit of Soho’. Completed in 1991, it shows St. Anne (top) with a skirt made of the map of Soho. Beneath the map are many famous characters of Soho – the central four are (left to right) Mozart, Marx, Cornelys and Casanova.
John Snow pub
The John Snow pub is named after the doctor who discovered the cause of cholera. After a severe outbreak in 1854, he traced the source of cholera to a water pump outside the pub thereby proving the disease was waterborne – against the prevailing view of it being airborne. (A replica water pump remains outside the pub).

Old Compton Street

Poppies fish and chip shop
Poppies in Old Compton Street is an awarding winning fish and chips restaurant and take-away. It is also on the site of the birthplace of British ‘rock and roll’ and popular music industry. The 2i’s Coffee Bar (1956 to 1970) was a small performance venue run by brothers Freddie and Sammy Irani, featuring stars like Cliff Richard and Tommy Steele.
I Camisa & Son Italian Deli Soho
The arrival of Italians into Soho, in the late 1950’s, is evidenced by London’s original Italian Deli in Old Compton Street, opening in 1961.
The Prince Edward Theatre
The Prince Edward Theatre in Old Compton Street

Wardour Steeet

St Anne's Church, Soho
St. Anne’s Church, Soho, was consecrated in 1686 and originally built by the office of Christopher Wren. The church was rebuilt following severe bombing in World War Two, with the exception of the tower, built in 1801. In 1920, the first religious service with music was broadcast from this church.
The Marquee Club, Soho
The Marquee Club was located on this site in Wardour Street from 1964 to 1988. It was the location of the first ever live performance by The Rolling Stones in 1962. Almost every major rock band has played here – the blue plaque remembers performances by Keith Moon, drummer of The Who.
The Ship pub, Soho
Further up (north) on Wardour Street is The Ship pub. It served as the ‘bar’ for The Marquee Club, when the club first opened without an alcohol licence. It continued to serve as the ‘local’ after performances, photographs on the walls recall its 1960’s heydays.
Meard Street, Soho
Wardour Street and Dean Street are connected by Meard Street, the best preserved Georgian terrace in Soho. Built in 1732, it was restored to its original condition in the 2000’s.

Dean Street

The French House, Soho
The French House in Dean Street takes its name from being known to serve French wine, since the late 1800’s. During World War Two it was the official ‘headquarters’ of the Free French Forces, based in Carlton House Terrace and under the leadership of Charles de Gaulle.
Quo Vadis, Soho
Quo Vadis is an iconic restaurant on Dean Street, founded in 1926. Karl Marx had a flat on the second floor of the building from 1851 to 1856.

Frith Street

Ronnie Scotts' Soho
‘The’ club to fans of Modern Jazz, ‘Ronnie’s’ moved to Frith Street in 1965 (from the Gerrard Street club he established in 1959). Most of the greats have played here. Ronnie Scott was a master of the one-liner; quipping remarks like, ‘I love this place, reminds me of home, filthy and full of strangers’!
Bar Italia Soho
Famous for being open all night (except on Sunday), it was originally a social centre for the Italian community, established in 1949. In the building, John Logie Baird gave the first demonstration of television. Two plaques on the wall outside mark the event.

Greek Street

The Coach and Horses Soho
The west end’s best ‘boozer’, frequented by writers, actors and the ‘local’ of the British journalist Jeffrey Bernard, who epitomised the sacrifices made by journalists!
The main bar of The Coach and Horses, Soho
The bar of The Coach and Horses, Soho
L’Escargot is one of the best French restaurants in London. Established in Soho in 1896 and moving to Greek Street in 1926, it used to rear snails in the basement – a talking point for diners!  The building dates from 1741.
Raymond Revuebar Soho
Paul Raymond became a billionaire from his astute property investments and empire based in Soho. (Music was a key ingredient in the swinging sixties and, on a personal note, my father was Paul Raymond’s musical arranger during that period!)

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