Soho’s chequered history has been at the cutting edge of film, theatre, music and other forms of entertainment including the sex industry for as long as I can remember, but gentrification in recent times has seen it become less edgy and more mainstream.
Instead of sleazy clip joints and prostitutes you’re more likely to see fashionable restaurants and blue plaques marking a place of interest, but at least visitors can now check out the area’s fascinating history without the hassle of being coerced into a strip club or worse.
Historically, Soho runs roughly from the north side of Leicester Square up to Oxford St, and from Charing Cross Rd in the east to Regent St in the west. These days though Chinatown (which is the area south of Shaftesbury Avenue), is treated as a separate locality, although it’s still an essential part of Soho.
I said that the area has been gentrified in recent times, but that doesn’t mean to say that it’s become completely sanitized. It’s still a red light district and the gay community has a strong presence around Old Compton St where the Admiral Duncan pub was the scene of a homophobic attack in 1999 which killed three and left thirty injured.
To get a sense of Soho’s historical background I think a good place to start is Soho Square which can be reached from the Tottenham Court Rd end of Oxford St.
Formed in the 1680s on what was formerly Soho Fields, the square was originally called King Square in reverence to King Charles II which is why you’ll see a statue of him in the centre of the square.
The area was intended to be an upmarket part of the city, but the area’s character changed after an influx of Huguenots arrived from France after suffering persecution there.
Soho became London’s French Quarter, and theatres, music halls, and prostitutes enticed more people to come here to live in an ever increasing number of tenements, resulting in severe overcrowding and a serious outbreak of cholera in 1854.
As conditions improved, then Soho became a popular hangout for authors, poets and artists.
Venues like the Marquee Club in Wardour St attracted names who were just starting out, like Pink Floyd, The Who, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie and countless more. Ronnie Scott’s offered a jazz alternative with more established names like Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone entertaining audiences, as did Jimi Hendrix who played his last public performance here.
London had a big influence in the music business in the 1960s with artists like Elton John, Thin Lizzy and the Rolling Stones using local recording studios. Brian Jones and Eric Clapton even set up home in Soho for a while. The list goes on and on, and I haven’t even mentioned Carnaby St and the ‘Mod’ element of the music business yet.
It wasn’t just musicians who lived here either. For instance, how many people know that John Logie Baird produced the first television pictures at Frith St or that Karl Marx spent five years of his life in Dean St?
There’s much more to Soho than just the seedy side of life, and it’s my intention to provide more detail of Soho’s streets and people in future posts, so please pop back occasionally to see what’s new.