Soho is an area of the City of Westminster and part of the West End of London. Long established as an entertainment district, for much of the 20th century Soho had a reputation as a base for the sex industry in addition to its night life and as a location for the headquarters of leading film companies. Since the 1980s, the area has undergone considerable transformation. It now is predominantly a fashionable district of upmarket restaurants and media offices, with only a small remnant of sex industry venues. Soho is a small, multicultural area of central London; a home to industry, commerce, culture and entertainment, as well as a residential area for both rich and poor. It has clubs, including the former Chinawhite nightclub; public houses; bars; restaurants; a few sex shops scattered amongst them; and late-night coffee shops that give the streets an "open-all-night" feel at the weekends. Many Soho weekends are busy enough to warrant closing off some of the streets to vehicles; Westminster Council pedestrianised parts of Soho in the mid-1990s, but later removed much of it, apparently after complaints of loss of trade from local businesses. Record shops cluster in the area around Berwick Street, with shops such as Blackmarket Records and Vinyl Junkies.
The name "Soho" first appears in the 17th century. Most authorities believe that the name derives from a former hunting cry. James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, used "soho" as a rallying call for his men at the Battle of Sedgemoor on 6 July 1685, half a century after the name was first used for this area of London. The Soho name has been imitated by other entertainment and restaurant districts such as Soho, Hong Kong; SoHo, New York; Soho, Málaga; and Palermo Soho, Buenos Aires.
The area of Soho was grazing farmland until 1536, when it was taken by Henry VIII as a royal park for the Palace of Whitehall. In the 1660s the Crown granted Soho Fields to Henry Jermyn, 1st Earl of St Albans. He leased 19 of its to Joseph Girle, who gained permission to build and promptly passed his lease and licence to bricklayer Richard Frith in 1677. Frith began the development. In 1698 William III granted the Crown freehold of most of this area to William Bentinck, 1st Earl of Portland. Meanwhile the southern part of Soho was sold by the Crown in parcels in the 16th and 17th centuries, with part going to Robert Sidney, Earl of Leicester.
Despite the best intentions of landowners such as the Earls of Leicester and Portland to develop the land on the grand scale of neighbouring Bloomsbury, Marylebone and Mayfair, Soho never became a fashionable area for the rich. Immigrants settled in the area, especially French Huguenots who poured in from 1688, after which the area became known as London's French quarter. The French church in Soho Square was founded by Huguenots in the 17th century. By the mid-18th century, the aristocrats who had been living in Soho Square or Gerrard Street had moved away. Soho's character stems partly from the ensuing neglect by rich and fashionable London, and the lack of redevelopment that characterised the neighbouring areas.
By the mid-19th century, all respectable families had moved away, and prostitutes, music halls and small theatres had moved in. In the early 20th century, foreign nationals opened cheap eating-houses, and the neighbourhood became a fashionable place to eat for intellectuals, writers and artists. From the 1930s to the early 1960s, Soho folklore states that the pubs of Soho were packed every night with drunken writers, poets and artists, many of whom never stayed sober long enough to become successful; and it was also during this period that the Soho pub landlords established themselves.
A detailed mural depicting Soho characters, including writer Dylan Thomas and jazz musician George Melly, is in Broadwick Street, at the junction with Carnaby Street. In fiction, Robert Louis Stevenson had Dr. Henry Jekyll set up a home for Edward Hyde in Soho in his novel, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Joseph Conrad used Soho as the home for The Secret Agent, a French immigrant who ran a pornography shop.
Soho was part of the ancient parish of St Martin in the Fields, forming part of the Liberty of Westminster. As the population started to grow a new church was provided and in 1687 a new parish of St Anne was established for it. The parish stretched from Oxford Street in the north, to Leicester Square in the south and from what is now Charing Cross Road in the east to Wardour Street in the west. It therefore included all of contemporary eastern Soho, including the Chinatown area. The western portion of modern Soho, around Carnaby Street was part of the parish of St James, that was split off from St Martin in 1685.
Broad Street pump
A significant event in the history of epidemiology and public health was Dr. John Snow's study of an 1854 outbreak of cholera in Soho. He identified the cause of the outbreak as water from the public water pump located at the junction of Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) and Cambridge Street (now Lexington Street), close to the rear wall of what is today the John Snow public house.
John Snow mapped the addresses of the sick, and noted that they were mostly people whose nearest access to water was the Broad Street pump. He persuaded the authorities to remove the handle of the pump, thus preventing any more of the infected water from being collected. The spring below the pump was later found to have been contaminated with sewage. This is an early example of epidemiology, public health medicine and the application of science—the germ theory of disease—in a real-life crisis.
Science writer Steven Johnson describes the 2006 appearance of places related to the Broad Street Pump cholera outbreak:
A replica of the pump, with a memorial plaque and without a handle (to signify John Snow's action to halt the outbreak) was erected near the location of the original pump.
The music scene in Soho can be traced back to 1948 and Club Eleven, generally revered as the first venue where modern jazz, or bebop, was performed in the UK. The Harmony Inn was an unsavoury cafe and hang-out for musicians on Archer Street operating during the 1940s and 1950s. It stayed open very late and attracted jazz fans from the nearby Cy Laurie Jazz Club.
The Ken Colyer Band's 51 Club (Great Newport Street), a venue for traditional jazz, opened in the early fifties. Blues guitarist and harmonica player Cyril Davies and guitarist Bob Watson launched the London Skiffle Centre, London's first skiffle club, on the first floor of the Roundhouse pub on Wardour Street in 1952.
In the early 1950s, Soho became the centre of the beatnik culture in London. Coffee bars such as Le Macabre (Wardour Street), which had coffin-shaped tables, fostered beat poetry, jive dance and political debate. The Goings On, located in Archer Street, was a Sunday afternoon club, organised by beat poets Pete Brown, Johnny Byrne and Spike Hawkins, that opened in January 1966. For the rest of the week, it operated as an illegal gambling den. Other "beat" coffee bars in Soho included the French, Le Grande, Stockpot, Melbray, Universal, La Roca, Freight Train (Skiffle star Chas McDevitt's place), El Toro, Picasso, Las Vegas, and the Moka Bar.
The 2i's Coffee Bar was probably the first rock club in Europe, opened in 1956 (59 Old Compton Street), and soon Soho was the centre of the fledgling rock scene in London. Clubs included the Flamingo Club ("which started in 1952 as Jazz at the Mapleton"), La Discothèque, Whisky a Go Go, Ronan O'Rahilly's ("of pirate radio station, Radio Caroline fame") The Scene in 1963 (near the Windmill Theatre in Ham Yard – formally The Piccadilly Club) and jazz clubs like Ronnie Scott's (opened in 1959 at 39 Gerrard Street and moved to 47 Frith Street in 1965).
Soho's Wardour Street was the home of the legendary Marquee Club (90 Wardour Street) which opened in 1958 and where the Rolling Stones first performed in July 1962. Eric Clapton and Brian Jones both lived for a time in Soho, sharing a flat with future rock publicist, Tony Brainsby.
Soho was also home to Trident Studios at 17 St Anne's Court between 1968 and 1981 where some of the worlds most famous recording artists of all time recorded music including The Beatles, Elton John, Queen and David Bowie.
Denmark Street is known for its connections with British popular music, and is nicknamed the British Tin Pan Alley due to its large concentration of shops selling musical instruments. The Sex Pistols lived beneath number 6 Denmark Street, and recorded their first demos there. Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and Donovan have all recorded there and Elton John wrote his hit "Your Song" in the street.
The Soho area has been at the heart of London's sex industry for over 200 years; between 1778 and 1801 21 Soho Square was location of The White House, a brothel described by Henry Mayhew as "a notorious place of ill-fame".
Before the Street Offences Act 1959 became law, prostitutes packed the streets and alleys of Soho. By the early 1960s the area was home to nearly a hundred strip clubs and almost every doorway in Soho had little postcards advertising "Large Chest for Sale" or "French Lessons Given." These were known as "walk ups." With prostitution driven off the streets, many clubs such as The Blue Lagoon became fronts for prostitution. The Metropolitan Police Vice squad at that time suffered from corrupt police officers involved with enforcing organised crime control of the area, but simultaneously accepting "back-handers" or bribes.
Clip joints also surfaced in the 1960s; these establishments sold coloured water as champagne with the promise of sex to follow, thus fleecing tourists looking for a "good time." Also in 1960, London's first sex cinema theatre, the Compton Cinema Club (a membership only club to get around the law) opened at 56 Old Compton Street. It was owned by Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser who later produced two early Roman Polanski films, including Repulsion (1965). Michael Klinger also owned the Heaven and Hell hostess club (which had earlier been just a beatnik club) across the road and a few doors down from the 2I's on the corner of Old Compton Street and Dean Street.
Harrison Marks, a "glamour photographer" and girlie magazine publisher, had a photographic gallery located at No. 4 Gerrard Street and published several magazines such as Kamera, which were published from the late fifties until 1968. The model Pamela Green prompted him to take up nude photography, and she remained the creative force in their business until their professional relationship ended in 1967. The content, however, by today's standard is tame.
By the mid-seventies, the sex shops had grown from the handful opened by Carl Slack in the early 1960s to a total of 59 sex shops which then dominated the square mile. Some had secret backrooms selling hardcore photographs and novels, including Olympia Press editions.
By the 1980s, purges of the police force along with a tightening of licensing controls by the City of Westminster led to a crackdown on these illegal premises. By 2000, a substantial relaxation of general censorship, and the licensing or closing of unlicensed sex shops had reduced the red-light area to just a small area around Brewer Street and Berwick Street. Several strip clubs in the area were reported in London's Evening Standard newspaper in February 2003 to still be rip-offs (known as clip joints), aiming to intimidate customers into paying for absurdly over-priced drinks and very mild 'erotic entertainment'. Prostitution is still widespread in parts of Soho, with several buildings used as brothels, and there is a persistent problem with drug dealing on some street corners.
Soho continues to be the centre of the sex industry in London, and features numerous licenced sex shops. There is a clip joint on Tisbury Court and an adult cinema nearby. Prostitutes are widely available, operating in studio flats. These are sign-posted by fluorescent "model" signs at street level, though several walk-ups on streets leading on to Shaftesbury Avenue were bought up and closed or renovated for other uses some time in the mid 2000s.
The Windmill Theatre was notorious for its risqué nude tableaux vivants, in which the models had to remain motionless to avoid the censorship imposed by the Lord Chamberlain's Office (which only ended when the Theatres Act of 1968 became law). It opened in June 1931 and was the only theatre in London which never closed, except for the twelve compulsory days between 4 and 16 September 1939. It stood on the site of a windmill that dated back to the reign of Charles II until late in the 18th century. The theatre was sold to the Compton Cinema Group. It closed on 31 October 1964 and was reconstructed as a cinema and casino.
The Raymond Revuebar was a small theatre specialising in striptease and nude dancing. It was owned by Paul Raymond and opened on 21 April 1958. The most striking feature of the Revuebar was the huge brightly lit sign declaring it to be the "World Centre of Erotic Entertainment."
In the early eighties, the upstairs became known as the Boulevard Theatre and was used by a small group of alternative comedians called "The Comic Strip" before they found wider recognition with the series The Comic Strip Presents on Channel 4. It was also used as a "straight" theatre venue for a series of play premieres that included Diary of a Somebody (the Joe Orton diaries) by John Lahr, a rock opera version of Macbeth by Howard Goodall and The Lizard King (the Jim Morrison play) by Jay Jeff Jones.
The name and control of the theatre (but crucially, not the property itself) was bought by Gerald Simi in 1997. Gradually the theatre's fortunes waned, with Simi citing rising rent demands from Raymond as the cause.
The Revuebar closed on 10 June 2004 and became a gay bar and cabaret venue called Too2Much, designed by Anarchitect. In November 2006, it changed its name to Soho Revue Bar. The launch party included performances by Boy George, Antony Costa and Marcella Detroit. On 29 January 2009, the Soho Revue Bar closed.
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