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.
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.
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.