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 for sex shops as well as night life and film industry. Since the early 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.
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. 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.
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 what became the parish of St. Anne, 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 characterized 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.
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 fountainhead of modern jazz in the UK. It was located at 41 Great Windmill Street. 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.
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 Liverpool 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) and the 100 Club.
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.
Denmark Street is famous for its connections with British popular music, and is also known as the British Tin Pan Alley due to its large concentration of shops selling musical instruments. The Sex Pistols lived above 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 famous song Your Song in the street.