A Brief History of Soho

Music, sex toursits, Media Thursdays and more... see how Soho has evolved over the years.

What is Soho best known for? Is it the indie music venues, and being squashed up against others at a sweaty gig? Thesps and the literati getting drunk at The Coach & Horses? Sex tourists and shops displaying questionable PVC underwear? Media Thursdays? The gay bars? Here’s how this fascinating area evolved.

1600s: Soohoo!

It’s hardly surprising to learn that Soho was once farmland. Neon-infested Leicester Square didn’t get its first building until after the Great Fire of London, in 1666, when the Earl of Leicester constructed a mansion here. This would become one of the most fashionable addresses in London, with frequent parties seeing dignitaries mingle with playwrights and royals alike. The surrounding acres were used as hunting ground by the rich, and the name ‘Soho’ derives from the hunting cry ‘Soohoo’. Towards the latter part of the 1600s the City was starting to become overcrowded, and councillors set upon building residences in Soho to ease the problem. One of the main developers was Richard Frith, after whom Frith Street is named. A patch called Soho Fields, today Soho Square, was created in the 1670s for King Charles II (if you’ve ever wondered what the timbered house is in the middle, it’s nothing more exciting than a tool shed).
1700s: Expansion

Despite the efforts of developers, London’s richest inhabitants preferred Mayfair. Instead artists, writers, bohemians and immigrants moved in, among them Greeks (hence Greek Street) and Italians, but most of all Huguenots fleeing France. Soho became known as the French Quarter, as over 40% of the population at the time were French-speaking. They brought with them trades like silversmithing and tailoring, and theatres, music halls and pubs opened to amuse the new locals; in 1717, the area we now know as the West End was created. Soho thus became London’s new entertainment centre, taking over this role from Bankside, a role that encompassed brothels and street walkers.

The surge in populace meant that crime around the West End became rife, with opportunists preying on drunken pleasure-seekers. In certain places the squalor was worse than it would ever be during the Victorian era – St. Giles, to the north east of the West End, was where some of the poorest slums in the capital were located. After all, this was the time when poor quality gin was cheaper than beer, making London’s mortality far exceed the birth rate. But it wasn’t all seedy; Venetian painter Canaletto resided in Soho at the time, and produced remarkable paintings depicting a city full of light.

1800s: In the Time of Cholera

During the hot summer of 1854, Broadwick Street became the centre of a cholera epidemic. Almost a hundred people died, and many others fled for their lives; later it was revealed that those who survived had been drinking beer rather than tap water. Dr. John Snow proved that cholera was not airborne, and in this case was the consequence of drinking water that had been contaminated by a sewer. As a result London’s antiquated pump system was vastly improved. The Samuel Smith’s pub The John Snow is named after the doctor - the same pub that made headlines in early 2011 for ejecting a gay couple kissing.

Notable residents in the 19th century included British painter John Constable on Frith Street, writer Percey Shelley on Poland Street and composer Franz Liszt on Great Marlborough Street, where a Le Pain Quotidiens is today.
1900s to the present day

Soho’s fascinating 20th century history is impossible to condense into one paragraph, but there are several things that deserve attention. Music has always been integral to Soho; the Café de Paris and the Hippodrome regularly featured American jazz artists in the 30s, and 20 years later Ronnie Scott’s, now one of the world’s most famous jazz venues, opened to great acclaim. It was in Soho that the British skiffle scene first emerged, at the second Soho Fair in 1956 (in the years that followed a skiffle group called The Quarrymen would rename themselves and change the course of musical history). The Marquee Club on Wardour Street witnessed early performances from David Bowie, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and countless others, earning itself the reputation of being the most important venue of its kind in Europe – it was here where execs and artists would meet and forge deals. Numerous bars and cafes accommodated rock stars on a break from recording at one of the studios on Denmark Street, which became known as Tin Pan Alley, named after New York’s famous music street. Café La Giaconda and The Ship pub were two of these places, still in the same spots today.

The sex industry is also intrinsically linked to Soho. In 1959 prostitution was made illegal, leading to “walk-ups”, and ironically the trade boomed in the decades that followed. The area’s bohemian character (in the truest sense of the word, and not in the Sienna-Miller-in-a-floaty-skirt kind of way) made it one of the most liberal parts of London, despite the city becoming fractured elsewhere (notably the racially tense neighbourhood of Notting Hill). Artists Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud would spend many nights propping up the bar at The Colony, a member’s club. 40 years later Damien Hirst, Alex James and Keith Allen would follow in their footsteps at the Groucho Club.

In the 80s the first gay bars started appearing, and Old Compton Street today is still the city’s main gay district, despite Vauxhall coming up a close second with its many late opening nightclubs. One of Soho’s saddest moments came in 1999 when neo-Nazi David Copeland nail bombed the Admiral Duncan, killing three people, one of whom was pregnant, and injuring around 80.

What other images spring to mind? Well luckily Soho hasn’t yet been hit by the anonymous skyscrapers and indoor shopping meccas that are spreading throughout other parts of the capital. Resolutely less touristy than some of its neighbours, in fact more and more independent eateries are opening, and the market stalls are still in full swing on Berwick Street. Perhaps even quainter than that is the fact that crowds still pile into Soho Square at the slightest hint of sunshine.


Author: Leila Hawkins