Soho from the 1940s
I had never seen any place like Soho. This was the scene in 1946. The district consisted mainly of very old buildings. There were some newish buildings here and there, mainly to do with the film industry. 20th Century Fox had their main British offices in the south-west corner at 31/32 Soho Square.
Also in Soho Square was Crosse and Blackwell‘s head office on the east side, north of Sutton Row, next to it was Burroughes and Watts Hall which, in those days, was the centre of all billiard and snooker tournaments, The Crucible of the day. Just round the corner on the north side, and to the east of Soho Street, was the original London office of George Eastman of Kodak fame.
In the north-west corner is the French Church which served the French community since the days of the Huguenots.
Later in 1953, I used to stand before the church for a few minutes every lunch time watching the stone mason carve the decorative notice over the main door. I did not realise that this work was done in situ on a semi-circular slab of stone.
I assumed that they would have carved it in a studio and delivered it to the site when finished. It is most ornate with detailed design and words.
Soho Square claims to be the only square in London. That is to say it is a geometric square, all the others are either oblong or even oval shaped. When we looked out of the window across the square, from British Movietone News at Number 22, the gardens still had air-raid shelters in two corners. The lawns in between had been laid during the reign of Elizabeth the First. Soho used to be the start of the countryside to the north of London; “Soho” being a variant of “Tally-ho” from where the hunt would venture forth into the wild country to the north. In the middle of the square is a small Tudor-style building which houses the gardeners’ tools, but it is mainly the air-inlet for the Central Line. It only dates from the construction of the Central Line.
In Wardour Street, there was Associated British Pathe, which also housed Pathe News; Gaumont British and Universal Newsreels were a few doors up the street. Film House, which I think was owned by Gaumont, housed a large variety of production offices and cutting rooms. In the streets around Soho, like Broadwick Street, Berwick Street, Greek Street and Frith Street were homes to companies providing re-recording facilities.
At the bottom of Greek Street was the Casino which, at one time, demonstrated Cinerama.
Then, as now, Soho had a whole range of pubs, restaurants and coffee shops as well as the dives and the occasional brothel. Then, the strip clubs had not arrived. There were numerous prostitutes walking the streets. As a lad straight from school, I did not notice them. The revelation would come later when members of the Movietone staff were only too eager to tell me all about it.
Depending on status, the Movietone management would patronise one of the clubs or restaurants. Sir Gordon Craig was a member of the Gargoyle Club which was on the north corner of Meard Street and Dean Street. Here he would meet with people of his own class and standing while sipping a pink Gin. Sir Gordon Craig was somewhat aloof from the rest of the Movietone people.
Gerald Sanger, the Editor of Movietonews, used Kettner’s Restaurant. This restaurant at 29 Romilly Street had been founded in 1897 by August Kettner, a former Chef to Napoleon III. It was one of the haunts of Oscar Wilde and Lily Langtry (but, probably, not at the same time). It offered a total French cuisine which became neglected after a while, but I am told that, once again, the menu is all French.
In 1952, the Gaggia coffee making machine made its first appearance in London. This machine with it hissing and steaming and giving off a powerful odour of coffee was strange to us in the beginning. By 1960, there were 2,000 coffee shops in the U.K.
Middle Management, as I have said, used Long’s bar in Soho Street where they partook of William and Humbert’s Dry Sack, while the majority of the male staff frequented the Pillars of Hercules in Greek Street or The Highlander (now The Nellie Dean) in Wardour Street. I was the Office Boy, I never went near any of the above mentioned establishments, that would come later, much later.
On the other side of Shaftesbury Avenue is Gerrard Street which, at that time, probably only had one Chinese restaurant in it. From the end of the street lies Newport Court and Newport Mews which runs down to Charing Cross Road. In this walk-way was a shop which sold second hand gramophone records. Here, for a few pence, I could buy classical and operatic music. I purchased a set of 12-inch discs which was the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto played by Yehudi Menhuin. It had been recorded around 1935. I still have that set and to this day, there is a shop selling records on the same site.
Berwick Street was the scene of a thriving market. Although there had been a market there since the late eighteenth century, it only became recognised in 1892. In the late 40s/early 50s, there were stalls on both sides of the road almost touching, they sold everything. The stalls overflowed into some of the nearby streets. It took a long time to walk from one end to the other because there were so many people. It opened all day from Monday to Saturday.
One of the most famous of all the stalls was that of “Tosher the Tie King”. Tosher was a showman with the gift of the gab, with a line in cockney humour that would shame most of today’s “stand-up” comedians. He always had a crowd around his stall.
Tosher looked like a well-dressed spiv, he had a thin moustache and wore loud ties to go with his loud suit, all topped out with a pork-pie hat decorated with a loud hat-band. From time to time, Tosher was known to have such an objection to a tie worn by a member of his audience that he would grab hold of it and cut it off with a huge pair of scissors. He would then donate a brand new tie to the unfortunate victim. (in some cases, the fortunate victim, depending on how atrocious the original tie was).
I used to be able to buy ties from him for a shilling and sixpence (seven and a half pence) and I still have some of them as mementoes. Click here to see Tosher in action.
The Hanshaws, of Movietonews, had a mortgage on a house in Enfield. Each month, I would go off to Martin’s Bank, which was on the eastern corner of Rathbone Place and Oxford Street. Here, I would get in the queue to pay the mortgage of £5. The house is a large 1930s semi detached and probably cost them close to £1,000.
I did not have to run many errands for people in Movietonews. It wasn’t that sort of firm. However, from time to time, I was happy to oblige. In early 1946, we still had rationing and, although cigarettes were never rationed, they had been, and still were, difficult to get. If a West-end tobacconist got a consignment of popular brands, they would be sold out in minutes.
I would walk along Charlotte Street and Rathbone Place to get to and from the Trolleybus which terminated at Howland Street. One morning, as I entered Rathbone Street going towards Soho, I passed the baker’s window. This shop was situated between Percy Street and Grasse Street. The fragrance of fresh bread greeted my sense of smell, and then I looked in the window and saw these funny loaves. They were what we used to call Cottage loaves which were in two parts. The bottom was like a squashed football and on top there was a smaller squashed football. The crust was almost black and the bread was white.
For six years, we had eaten the “National Loaf” which did not contain refined white flour. The National Loaf had an off-white appearance and had some of the grain left in. It was quite tasty and it was supposed to be good for us, but it was a reminder of wartime restrictions.
I bought a Cottage loaf and took it into the office guessing that if I left it until I went home to buy one, there would be no more left. In the office, the word went round that Gallacher had a white loaf. A dozen or so came to the office to inspect it. Then I had the orders. “If you go past the shop again, could you get me one ?” For a week or so, I would spend half an hour or so ferrying Cottage Loaves from the baker’s back to the office.
The interesting thing about this bread was that it was totally illegal to bake white bread. The funny thing is that a few years later, Cottage loaves disappeared from the scene and are now only seen on rare occasions.
Several times a week, I would run out of Movietonews at midday up Oxford Street to Studios One and Two. Two cinemas in the same building which was situated opposite Great Portland Street. Downstairs in Studio Two, they ran a continuous performance of Newsreels and cartoons. They would show reels from several newsreel companies, including Movietone. I used to sit in there for the hour eating sandwiches.
Without realising it, I was learning my trade.
The shops were quite different, many still had the appearance of their Victorian origins and quite unlike some of the monstrosities that replaced them. One of my favourites was the barber’s which was in the block between Soho Street and Tottenham Court Road underground station. The interior was all black and white tiles. The wood fittings and furniture were dark oak and mahogany with lots of brass. Inside the door was the cash desk which also sold hair treatments and shaving accessories. The barber shop had a row of about eight chairs, each with its own sink and mirror. The barbers were all dressed in white aprons and wore stiff collars with a bow tie. Their hair was slicked down with some pomade or another. The place was always buzzing with conversation.
When I was older (and understood what he was talking about), I heard Sid Wiggins, the Chief Film Editor of Movietonews, tell the story of the gentleman who whispered to his barber, in that same barbers’ shop, that he needed a pack of contraceptives. He insisted that they should be of good quality. The barber returned with the packet, opened it, pulled out one contraceptive and stretched it his full arms length, then let it go at one end with a snap and said “How about that one !”. Even then, I thought it was one of Sid’s apocryphal yarns.
In several of the streets around Brewer Street and Old Compton Street there were delicatessens . One of the delicatessens was Lina Stores who are still there today. With my face pressed against the windows, I could see all sorts of cold meats and salamis, mortadella, garlic sausage, parma ham and various types of cold beef. Behind in the shop would be hundreds of bottles of wine. French wines in the French shops and Italian wines in the Italian shops. Each week, something new would appear and I would make a mental note of those items that appeared attractive.
Later, I would sample them all. Today, I could believe that there are fewer delicatessens in Soho than there were in 1946.
You could never be bored in Soho.
© Terence Gallacher and terencegallacher.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and terencegallacher.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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