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Soho revisited

Ten years after my first arrival in Soho, which was immediately after the War, the place had fully recovered from its wartime condition.  During the war, many of the restaurants remained open and traded under difficult conditions.  Some could not open twice a day due to lack of foodstuffs.

I have always been interested in the history of where I am working or living.   Several times a week, I would go wandering through Soho.  Sometimes I would play games, like walking down one street and then turning into whatever sidestreet comes next.  Sometimes this can result in finding yourself where you started.  I would walk the streets of Soho without stepping outside in order to get from one side to the other.  I have walked every street and alley at some time or another.

The French Protestant Church in the north-west corner of Soho Square is where I used to stand to see the brilliant sculpture at work on the stone placed above the entrance door.  The wording he carved read:  “To the Glory of God and in grateful memory of His Majesty King Edward VI who by his Charter of 1550 granted asylum to the Huguenots of France”.

The penny chute at The House of St Barnabas.

The penny chute at The House of St Barnabas.

In the south-east corner stands an eighteenth century building which was called The House of Charity.  It is on the corner of Greek Street and Soho Square.   There, in the Íaure,, there is a railing behind which is a well allowing a row of windows in the basement.   From the railing to the basement ran a pipe.  The pipe was sealed with a disc with a slot in it.  It was intended that the passer-by would donate a coin or to the needy which they would put into the slot so that it went down the pipe into the basement. In 1961 The House of Charity became The House of St. Barnabas.

I wonder if it is still there?

Also on the south side on the corner of Frith Street we still had The Soho Hospital for Women.  It had been on that site for over a hundred years.

I wanted to learn about what made Soho what it was.

Soho Square started to take shape in the reign of King Charles II.  It means that by 1953, they could celebrate their 300th anniversary.

Four circuses mark the boundaries – Piccadilly, Oxford, St. Giles and Cambridge.

The name Soho comes from the days when the area was open country and hunters were seeking hares and ducks.  Soho was the shout to draw off the harriers.  Most nationalities are represented there.   Most of the world’s food delicacies are available there, as well as a wide variety of alcoholic beverages.   There are hundreds of establishments offering these delights.

In 1953, what would have been difficult to find would be the traditional English meat and two veg.

How did this all come about that Soho should be a “foreign” quarter ?

A French edict of 1598 allowed the French Huguenots freedom of worship and legal status.  This edict was rescinded by Louis XIV in 1685.  As a result, thousands of French families left France to live elsewhere.  A large number if them arrived in England; the majority settling in Soho.

Just over a century later another group of French people left their country because of the Revolution.   In 1871, the insurrection, the Commune of Paris, caused another group to depart, some of whom settled in Soho.

While all this was going on, others were coming from all across the European Continent making the predominantly French quarter of London considerably less so.

Portrait of William Blake by Thomas Phillips, 1807

Portrait of William Blake by Thomas Phillips, 1807 (Photo credit: Books18)

Soho can excel at name-dropping of its former inhabitants.  Poet and artist William Blake was born in Broadwick Street.  The Tate Gallery displayed some of his work.

Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859), the brilliant English essayist, author of “Confessions of an English Opium Eater“, lived in Greek Street.

Another essayist and critic, William Hazlett (1778 – 1830) lived for several months in Frith Street before he died.  He is buried in St. Anne’s Churchyard.

Sir Joseph Banks, (1743 – 1820) President of the Royal Society for forty-one years lived in Soho Square.   He was extremely rich and sailed with Captain Cook on his voyage around the world.  It was Banks who named Botany Bay in Australia.

Wolfgang Mozart, at the age of eight, lodged in Frith Street where he wrote part of his London Symphony.

John Dryden, (1631 – 1700) the poet, died in his house in Gerrard Street.  He was buried in Westminster Abbey.  He became Poet Laureate.

There are, of course many more, but the above group will suffice to show that Soho was a popular place for the famous.

Much later, John Logie Baird gave the first demonstration of television in his house at 22 Frith Street.

Soho had become, in the eighteenth century, a centre of social activity.  At Carlisle House, Ms. Cornelys gave her famous parties.  These were attended by, among others, David Garrick, Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Joshua Reynolds.

This was to change and the party-goers would move on to Mayfair.  Newcomers, in the form of manufacturers and artisans would come into Soho to set up their businesses.

One of the first of the manufacturers was James Newman of Artists’ Colour fame. He had premises in George Yard at the rear of Soho Square.   He had other addresses in other locations in Soho at various times.

James Newman was one of three businesses singled out in 1811 by the drawing master, flower and landscape painter, John Cart Burgess, as having brought watercolours to the greatest perfection.

Wardour Street later became the home to the furniture and cabinet makers, the water gilders and the painters of glass windows.

Saddle maker C.B. Leatherby set up business at 7 Lisle Street.  Another of the saddle makers was John Almgill who made saddles for The Prince of Wales.   He was at 43, Gerrard Street where Dryden once lived.

In Manette Street a company called Bevington specialised in making small organs that would fit into difficult places.  Their ambition was to replace all the barrel organs being used in churches.  Apparently churches were using barrel organs because of the poor standard of organist.

In 1822, Henry Heath set up a firm making silk hats in Allen’s Court (later demolished), before moving into Oxford Street.

In 1836, Messrs Burroughes and Watts set up business on the north side of Soho Square making billiard tables.  The finest in the world.   They needed the tusks of almost 1,200 elephants to make their billiard balls each year.  Their baize billiard cloth was woven from the wool of German sheep.  Only the best would do.

Artists and artisans came into Soho and, eventually, the film industry moved in.  At this time, the main producers had their offices in and around Wardour Street.  The name of Wardour Street became synonymous with the film industry.  Surrounding these came the recording studios, the preview theatres, the cutting rooms and specialist title makers.  Everything was there to complete a film.  One-room businesses were run by freelance film editors and title artists.   All contributing to the whole film industry contained inside Soho.

The music publishers, Novello, at 160 Wardour Street had been established in Soho in 1811.  It was founded by Vincent Novello, not an ancestor of Ivor.

A nice place with good beers, but very small a...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The distance between pubs was short.  If you were thrown out of one you could stumble into the next.   The men of Movietone used two pubs, the Pillars of Hercules in Greek Street and the Nellie Dean in Dean Street (now called The Highlander).

Shopping for groceries in Soho is a magical experience.  At this time, one could buy all that was best of France, their cheeses Brie and Camembert, Roquefort and Compte.  From Bordeaux escargots and grenouilles.   Cavaillon Melons and Macau artichokes from the Gironde.  Marrons glaces, fraise de bois and Argenteuil Asparagus. A huge range of wines. Red, White and Rose.

At that time, Heart of Palm could be obtained from Florida.   Popadoms from India, pasta from Italy.  Black olives came from Greece.

Pasta of all sorts came from Italy as well as their wonderful wines like Chianti, Valpolicella and Soave which represented a tiny percentage of the Italian wines produced.  In the Italian shops one could find a infinite variety of sausage hanging in rows on a long bar.  These to be selected at the customer’s choice, after some advice from the shopkeeper.

Products from around the world found their way to Soho.

Even at that time, foreign restaurants were spread right across Soho from north to south and east to west.   In the cosmopolitan square mile, one could find restaurants with menus that were French, Italian, Greek, Turkish, Scandinavian, Spanish, Serbian, Portuguese, Jewish, Indian, German and Chinese.

Many of the restaurants one could use in the fifties had operated throughout the war when they had to endure extreme restrictions.   They had their allowance of food reduced so that some of them could only open for one meal a day.  They could choose to serve lunch or dinner, not both.  However many of them did manage to stay open for both meals each day and for the entire war.  What is incredible is that, for five years, it would have been impossible to import wine from France (or anywhere else), but the restaurants never ran out of wine.

The Editor of Movietone at that time was Gerald Sanger.  He used a whole variety of restaurants during the war both in and around Soho.  He mainly used French restaurants like Au Jardin des Gourmets and L’Escargot, both in Greek Street.   He also visited a restaurant which , I believe, is no longer there.  His parents came to visit from up north.  It was 23rd March, 1940. He wrote in his diary:

“Will you come out to lunch with us Ged ?” asked the Old Man beaming, “We must go to some place good.  You say where”.  Knowing the parental standards of old, I judged that this splendid invitation had to be discounted a bit; we accordingly walked down to the Bequinot Restaurant in Old Compton Street, where you can obtain a five course meal for 2/- (10p) and my father was so delighted that he ordered a bottle of Pommard for 7/- (35p) to accompany the repast.  I’m bound to say the Burgundy was pretty good.

It is amazing how many of the restaurants survived the war the fifties and some of them are still there.

In the fifties, a prominent food critic of the day tried an experiment.  He consumed six courses, taken in different restaurants.  It went like this:

Tolaini’s in Wardour Street – Canneloni.

Kettner's, Soho, W1

Kettner’s, Soho, W1 (Photo credit: Ewan-M)

Kettner’s in Romilly Street – Filet of Sole, cooked by Jean Bonvin, maitre d’hotel.

Recipe:  Shallots are finely chopped and washed  and are cooked in a little butter.  Finely chopped mushroom stalks are added with seasoning.  It is then cooked slowly until dry.  Filets of sole are place in a dish, covered with milk and cooked slowly.  A roux is mae withy a little flour, with milk added from the fish.  It is cooked for half an hour, then strained.  After this a yolk of egg is added.  It is mixed well, stirred in grated cheese and season with salt and cayenne pepper.  The mushrooms are placed on top, the sauce is poured over and then sprinkled with grated cheese.

L’Epicure in Frith Street – Beef a la Mode

The beef cooked with vegetables, herbs and spices in red wine and water for seven hours

The Gay Hussar in Greek Street – Fruit Salad (laced with Hungarian Peach Brandy)

Legrain’s in Gerrard Street – French Coffee.

Last year one of the B.B.C’s food experts stated that “Britain in the fifties and sixties was a ‘food wasteland‘”.

Some wasteland !

In the fifties, Britain was the greatest market place in the world for wines. One would have had a problem finding a good claret in Germany or a good hock in France.  You could find both in Britain.  All the world’s wines were available in Soho.

Ketner’s Retaurant had a wine shop which they opened in 1867.   It carried the most extensive list of wines claiming that if they did not have what you wanted, thy could find it quickly.

They offered a magnificent chateau-bottled claret for no more that £1 and a vin ordinaire for 5/6d (27p).  a Chateau d’Yquem 1937 for £2 and a Beaujolais 1952 at 8/6d (42p)

The held French wines from the Rhone Valley, the Loire and Alsace, wines from Chil, Austria, Australia, Algeria, Greece and Cyprus, Switzerland and Hungary, holding a large range of Tokay;  Israel, Yugoslavia, South Africa, Madeira, Portugal, Spain and Italy.

They had twenty-seven different sherries and six fine ports.

By the mid fifties, Berwick Street Market was at the height of its popularity.  It had started as a fruit and vegetable market and by the eighties, what was left of the market was predominantly still selling fruit and vegetables.

However in the fifties, there was a wide variety of items on sale.  There were butchers, fishmongers, stalls that specialised in cheeses.  Clothing stalls abounded.  You could buy a tin bath or a kettle.   Of course, there was a variety a shops in the street which opened up behind the stalls.

You could buy olive oil for cooking in the market, not easy to find elsewhere.

I have not been able to visit Soho since the late nineties and it must have changed considerably, but whatever changes there have been, I am sure it is still one of the most interesting places in the entire world.

© Terence Gallacher and, 2013.  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 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Derek Evans #

    A fascinating insight of which I can remember as I worked for Movietonews from 1949 -1967

    March 25, 2015

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