St Anne, Soho

Above: View looking east across the churchyard at the remaining 19th century spire and the 20th-century redevelopment.

Until 1678, the land that we know as Soho today was part of the large parish of St Martin in the Fields. A new parish was created from the old one, called St Anne. The church was built 1680-86, designed by William Talman, executive architect to Sir Christopher Wren. The church has a tall tower which has no connection with Wren’s original church because it was added 1801-03, designed by SP Cockerell. The four small clocks mounted it what appears to be a separate unit give the tower a rather strange appearance.

Reasons for the naming of some of London’s churches are sometimes related to the fact that some of the monarchs have, by chance, had names that are the same as a famous saint. This church is a good example. It is dedicated to St Anne because the Bishop of London, Henry Compton – who raised funds for a local parish church and consecrated it on 21 March 1686 – had been tutor to Princess Anne before she became Queen. The nearby Old Compton Street is also named after Bishop Compton.

During the Second World War the church received a direct hit during the blitz on the night of 24 September 1940 and the building, apart from the tower, was destroyed. For many years after the destruction, the site remained derelict and was used as a car park. It was not until 1990 that a new foundation stone was laid by Princess Anne, Princess Royal, for a new development made up of a new church and community hall, meeting rooms and social housing. The project was completed in 1991.

In spite of much of the land being occupied by small businesses, offices and shops, Soho is home to about 3,000 residents. The church of St Anne has a Rector who is responsible for the spiritual side of the work as well as taking the Sunday services.

To the west of the church is the original churchyard. At one time the remains of tree trunks, hollowed out for water conduits were on show in the old churchyard. These had been discovered under the ground and had probably been in use in the 18th century as an early form of water supply to the area.

Beside the entrance to the present church in Dean Street is a stone plaque, mounted on the wall, inscribed with information about St Anne’s Watch-house. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it was common to have a watchman on duty each night at a churchyard to prevent body-snatching.

The modern entrance to the church is from the east end of the site – beside Dean Street. The tower stands at the western end, beside the large churchyard which has its main entrance from Wardour Street. The churchyard is now used as a public park – known as St Anne’s Gardens. The church premises are open on most weekdays when the public can visit the building and see various photographs of the church in earlier times. The churchyard being a public park is open every day.


Posted in /Wes-Piccadilly, 0-Soho | Leave a comment

Soho – A Quick Look Around

Above: View looking west in Old Compton Street in the late afternoon.

Defining the Area’s Boundary

The area known as Soho has no defined boundaries because, unlike the City of London or the Parish of Fulham, it has no official status. The name dates from the 17th century and probably derives from the fox-hunting cry of ‘So-Ho’ to call the hounds off the scent in the days when the area surrounding what is now Soho Square was open country. There is a ‘hard-boundary’ to the north. It is Oxford Street, which was part of the original boundary of the Manor of Westminster. The ‘hard-boundary’ on the western side is Regent Street which, although the street was laid out after Soho came into being, it is regarded a boundary – with Soho to the east and Mayfair to the West. Soho’s eastern boundary is Charing Cross Road, which was also laid out long after Soho had an identity. For a southern boundary, we use Shaftesbury Avenue.

It should also be mentioned that China Town – which lies to the south of Shaftesbury Avenue – is often regarded as being part of Soho. Finally, Denmark Street, which is situated on the east side of Charing Cross Road, was developed in the late 17th century and named after Prince George of Denmark. Since the 1950s it has been associated with British popular music, first via publishers and later by recording studios and music shops – particularly those selling guitars. It has been called Britain’s ’Tin Pan Alley’ (after the original street in New York) because of its associations with music and musical instruments. It is not part of Soho but very close to it.

For anyone mentioning they had visited Soho, it was always assumed that it was gone there in search of striptease bars and other pleasures. While some of the ‘ladies of the night’ still operate in Soho, its bad reputation today is probably far worse than the reality. It was a much more seedy area in the 1960s after which Westminster City Council set about tackling the worst aspects of the sex trade. Every famous city in Europe has a ‘red light’ district and Soho certainly fills that reputation in London but if you think that is all there is to Soho you would be completely wrong. It was in the Soho that the Windmill Theatre and Raymond’s Revue Bar were established but there are many more aspects to Soho than just dubious entertainment.

Evidence of a Residential Quarter

If you start by walking up and down the local streets in parts of Soho the first thing you will notice is a large number of elegant 18th-century houses that still line the pavements. The area was once a fashionable district for the aristocracy. For example, start with Soho Square, Greek Street, Frith Street and Dean Street. If you move any further west, you will find that Wardour Street, Berwick Street and Poland Street tend to have large offices standing beside them rather than domestic houses.

It should be remembered that the northern part of Soho was the last to be developed and there was a time when relative land prices were less than in other parts of Westminster. A large French community moved into Soho – the French Church in Soho Square still remains in use to this day. In addition, there were once many German and Polish residents. Along with them was a large Jewish community. A few aged Jewish descendants still meet in rooms in Soho to this day on a monthly basis to remember old times.

The Working Side of Soho

In the 19th century, many factories were built in Soho. Crosse and Blackwell, famous for food products, had a factory standing near today’s Tottenham Court Road Underground Station. If you walk around the area, you will notice many large restaurants are housed in what were once warehouses or old factory premises. Wardour Street, in the 20th century, became the centre of the British film industry, with the big production and distribution companies having their offices and some production studios in the street. By the 1980s most of the large film companies had moved elsewhere. Some smaller independent production houses and post-production companies remain as well as many graphic design studios.

Across Soho, there are several theatres for which other parts of the West End are also famous. Along with the theatres are many famous restaurants. It is possible that Soho has more bars and restaurants per street than anywhere else in London. In addition, there are a total of 52 old-fashioned pubs as well as newer bars and other licensed premises. Many of the pubs are Georgian or Victorian, some are Edwardian, a few are from the 1920s or 1930s and one started in the 1990s. At a time when so many London pubs are closing due to lack of patronage, it can be reported that pubs in Soho are never short of customers and it is to be hoped that they will continue far into the future.

Is there a High Street?

Old Compton Street and Brewer Street were once the ‘local High Street’ for Soho. Until the 1960s many of the shops in both streets were run by Italian, French, German, Swiss and Polish shop-keepers. Sadly they all closed down one by one but there is an Italian delicatessen in Old Compton Street. Another ‘colourful slice’ of Soho has almost vanished forever. Berwick Street had a typical fruit and vegetable street market right up to the turn of the Millennium. That has mainly been replaced by street-food stalls and has lost much of its original character. The northern end of Rupert Street was another street full of fruit and vegetable stalls which have also been turned into street-food stalls – completely changing its feel.

In spite of the dubious reputation of Soho, many wealthy residents have lived in the area and there are many who still choose to live there today. It comes as a surprise to many that there is a thriving primary school on a cramped space – called the Soho Parish Primary School. The streets of the 1960s and 1970s contained many interesting ‘one-off’ shops – some selling food and others selling hardware, stationery, electrical goods and, inevitably, clothes. Two unrelated forces have been responsible for the decline of small shops selling unusual items – firstly the general decline of small shops, due to many factors (including Internet shopping) and secondly the arrival of the newer and larger Crossrail stations (like Tottenham Court Road and Bond Street). Crossrail (which, when it opens, will be called the Elizabeth Line) will bring millions of shoppers within an easy travelling time of Oxford Street from locations well outside London. This will encourage larger stores, paying even higher rents, which will make it tough for smaller shops to continue trading. We are in danger of the whole of Soho acquiring a corporate image as all the little shops go out of business due to high rents.

The future for Soho is assured but it will never be the place that many of us can still remember in the 1960s and 1970s. Its individuality is slowly being eroded as rents for shops increase to unrealistic levels due to the promise of increased footfall in Oxford Street. As that street boosts its ego, the side streets of Oxford Street on the south side (which is where Soho is situated) will become part of the general tourist overflow and individual small shops will be supplanted by the international chains – of which there are too many already.


Posted in /Wes-Piccadilly, 0-Soho | 2 Comments

Piccadilly as a Name

Above: One of the many paintings that show what a ‘piccadil’ looked like.

Piccadilly is used today for the name of a street running west from Piccadilly Circus. It was the street name that came first. Until the 16th century, the street had simply been called ‘The Way to Reading’ – meaning that the road led west out of London, towards Reading. Similarly, in those days, Oxford Street was just called ‘The Way to Uxbridge’.

The name was first used for a house that stood in the thoroughfare now called Piccadilly. It was lived in by Robert Baker, a tailor, who made a fortune selling ‘piccadils’ which were worn around the neck and can be seen in portraits of wealthy people who lived in the 16th and 17th centuries. When Baker built an outsize house – so large that it was on the scale of a nobleman’s house – it was derisively called ‘Piccadilly Hall’. Baker died in 1623. It is believed that the house stood in the vicinity of the junction with Sackville Street.

The word comes possibly from Spanish ‘picadillo’ which in turn derives from ‘picado’ meaning punctured or pierced. In 17th-century Spanish, there was the word ‘picadura’ meaning ‘a lace collar’. Thomas Blount, in his ‘Glossographia’ published in 1656, wrote that ‘a Pickadil is that rounded hem or several divisions set together, about the skirt of a garment, also a stiff collar of ruff made in the fashion of a band”.

In case you are wondering, a piccadil may have looked rather splendid but it was no fun to wear. It was stiffened by soaking it in starch so it must have been quite an unpleasant experience to have such a rigid object around your neck. Silk was worn next to the neck but, even so, it was a most impractical item of dress. It was worn by men as well as women.


Posted in /Wes-Piccadilly | Leave a comment

Growth of Westminster

Above: Map of Westminster shaded to show the approximate times at which the land was first laid out with streets and squares.

The history of many of England’s ancient cities (like Canterbury, Lincoln and also the City of London) is often very similar. Their origins lie with the Romans who established a settlement, often adding a surrounding wall. From those early times, the whole of the city area was constantly being redeveloped – first by the Saxons and then throughout the following centuries until the present day. The history of the City of Westminster does not follow that pattern. There was no Roman settlement at Westminster, apart from a few Roman roads that crossed the land. Its earliest settlement was in Saxon times and that was around the road we now called the Strand – both on the south side and to the north.

Whether the Saxon development influenced any of the buildings that appeared in Norman times is not clear. The above map is an attempt to show when the land was developed. In general terms, it should be assumed that, apart from a few exceptions, the land was just open fields before the dates stated. Putting the map into words, a few areas will be described.

Pre-1600 • The only developed land was around Westminster Abbey, along what is now a street called Whitehall and land on the south side of the Strand (between Strand and the River Thames).

1600-60 • During this time land on the north side of the Strand was laid out with large houses and streets, including Covent Garden.

1660-1710 • This was a time when the land that is now Leicester Square was developed, including parts of what is now called Soho. Further west the land in the St James’s area was being laid out with streets and St James’s Square. To the south of Westminster Abbey, land like Smith Square was also developed.

1710-50 • This was when the remaining parts of Soho were developed. All the land now known as Mayfair was laid out with streets and squares.

1750-1815 • Land north of Oxford Street was developed which extended north to what is now called Regent’s park. Further south, all the southern part of Westminster – now known as Pimlico and Belgravia – was laid out.

1815-55 • Additional parts of Belgravia were developed. North of Hyde Park most of the land now known as Paddington was developed.

1855-1900 • the NW part of Westminster was finally developed.

It will be realised this map sets the context for the laying out of Soho, Mayfair and Knightsbridge which make up this year’s area of study called ‘Piccadilly’.


Posted in /Wes-City of | Leave a comment

Piccadilly Overview

Above: The area of study called (by the author) Piccadilly. As well as two large parks, the land covered by streets is called Soho, Mayfair and Knightsbridge.

There are few people who do not know the name in London of Piccadilly. The name refers to a busy thoroughfare (which is used without the addition of ‘Street’ at the end) and also to Piccadilly Circus, with the statue of Eros in the centre. The name of the street has been used by the author for the elongated area of study shown on the map.

The area of study called ‘Piccadilly’ is the largest of the five but, having said that, it will be noticed that a large amount of the land is public parks – including the whole of Hyde Park and a large part of Kensington Gardens. It may come as a surprise that most of Kensington Gardens are in the City of Westminster and not entirely in the adjacent London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

As well as the two parks, large parts of the area of study called ‘Piccadilly’ are laid out with streets. To the south of Hyde Park is a wedge-shaped piece of land known as Knightsbridge. To the west of Hyde Park are the famous areas of Soho and Mayfair. Soho and Mayfair are divided by Regent Street (with Soho to the east and Mayfair to the west). The northern boundary of the area of study is Oxford Street (which is also the northern boundary for Soho and Mayfair). Bayswater Road runs along the north side of Hyde Park.


An area of land approximately bounded by Charing Cross Road (on the west), Shaftesbury Street (on the south), Regent Street (on the west) and Oxford Street (on the north). It was open fields until the 17th century and streets were gradually laid out from that time, including Soho Square and Golden Square. One of its most well-known streets is Carnaby Street. Soho has been home to mainly French and Jewish communities although many other nationalities have (and still do) live in the area. It has a reputation for sex-shops and the seedy side of London life although this is (surprisingly) not as prevalent as it once was.


An area with some of the highest land prices in London. Until recent times, Grosvenor Square was home to the American Embassy. Claridge’s Hotel, one of the most prestigious hotels in London, stands in Brook Street. On the west side of Hyde Park is Park Lane, home to the Dorchester Hotel. Mayfair is filled with grand streets – like New Bond Street – and expensive shops. In addition, there are many up-market office blocks and apartment blocks.


The land is characterised by expensive shops and large posh apartment blocks. Knightsbridge is the name of a street which has given the area its name. The Royal Albert Hall occupies a position overlooking Hyde Park. In addition, there are several famous museums – the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The area of Knightsbridge extends further south and includes the famous store called Harrods, which stands on the south side of Brompton Road, which is just within the boundary of the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.


Posted in /Wes-Piccadilly, 0-Mayfair, 0-Soho | Leave a comment

Westminster (Year 2)

Above: A map showing the City of Westminster (in PINK with a RED boundary). At the top of the map are the boundaries of the old Metropolitan Boroughs of Paddington and St Marylebone. Encompassed by a YELLOW line is the old Metropolitan Borough of Westminster (then called the City of Westminster). Additional YELLOW lines show the boundaries of the five areas of study used by the author to describe its history.

This year, the part of the City of Westminster that we are looking at is the area of Piccadilly. Westminster is a London Borough, along with others like Camden and Islington. In the case of Camden, it is called ‘the London Borough of Camden’ and so you could call Westminster ‘the London Borough of Westminster’. For historical reasons this particular London Borough is known as ‘the City of Westminster’.

As a short history lesson, it may be helpful to mention that what we call Westminster was part of a very large piece of land called the Manor of Westminster, administered by the monks at the building now better known as Westminster Abbey. The Abbey was closed in the 1530s – at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. That meant that any administration of the land was, at a stroke swept away. It was not until 1585 that a court of burgesses (the Westminster Court of Burgesses) was formed to govern the Westminster area – particularly around the Abbey and as far east as the Strand. An Act of Parliament declared the land to be the ‘City of Westminster’ – a title it has taken care to preserve ever since.

When studying any subject it is always easier if it is broken down into small manageable sections. The author has divided the whole of the London Borough (called the City of Westminster) into small areas of study. They are not related to any particular boundary but they have been designed to make it easy to present the history of each area. These divisions have been entirely defined by the author.

In 1899 the ‘Metropolitan Borough of Westminster’ was formed. That should have been its name but, for the historical reasons mentioned above, it was called the ‘City of Westminster’. On the above map, its outline included all of the area shown with YELLOW boundaries. In 1965, the Metropolitan Borough of Paddington and the Metropolitan Borough of St Marylebone were added to the area in YELLOW to form what should have been called the ‘London Borough of Westminster’. Once again, for historical reasons, the larger area (shown in PINK on the Google map) is called the ‘City of Westminster’. It will be noted that, confusingly, there have been two pieces of land since 1899 that have been known as the ‘City of Westminster’.

Returning to the subject of the ‘Metropolitan Borough of Westminster’ this had 12 wards which were created around 1900 for administrative purposes. They had no historical reasons for their boundaries. Being only interested in the historical aspects of the land, the author has decided to dispense with the actual ward boundaries and to divide the land up into areas that make sense from a historical perspective. As can be seen, the YELLOW area has been divided into five parts in order to study its history. This academic year we take a look at the area of study labelled ‘Piccadilly’.

The area of study called ‘Piccadilly’ relates to the whole of Hyde Park, most of Kensington Gardens (which, in spite of its name, is within the City of Westminster). The areas covered by streets include Knightsbridge, Soho and Mayfair.


Studying a Part of Westminster

Having taken a look at part of the City of London in the autumn term (which we do every year), in the spring term we return to the study schedule of part of the City of Westminster. The next few weeks we will spend looking at the area of study (defined by the author) called Piccadilly – deriving its name from the street known as Piccadilly and from the famous Piccadilly Circus.


Posted in /Wes-City of, 4-Comment | Leave a comment

Roman Girl Buried near the Gherkin

Above: Modern stone marking the site of the reburial of the girl found near the site of the Gherkin.

Of recent years there have been three finds of Roman skeletons discovered – one within the area of Spitalfields, one in the City of London and a third in Southwark. Much to the surprise of the archaeologists, all three burials revealed that the person buried was female. Two of them had evidence that they were people of high status because they were buried in a stone sarcophagus. Before the finds were made, only two intact lead and stone coffins had ever been found in London, both in the 19th century.

The Spitalfields tomb was discovered in 1999. The stone sarcophagus was carefully removed from the ground and conveyed to the Museum of London before being opened. It is on display within the museum. After forensic research on the remains, a reconstructed head was made in clay, using the dimensions of the skull, and that is also on show. The burial site at Spitalfields was not a particular surprise because, in Roman times, burial sites were usually outside the boundary of a Roman township and this site was outside the Roman Wall as well as being to the east of the Roman road running north from Bishopsgate.

A second find of a sarcophagus was made in Southwark in 2017. The site was near Harper Road, at the junction with Swan Street. Unfortunately the grave had been robbed in earlier centuries. While the burial site in Southwark was unexpected, it was outside the known Roman settlement around what is now Borough High Street. The burial site was also some distance from the known route of the Roman road that led from Londinium to Canterbury – which later became known as the old A2.

Above: The stone marking the girl’s resting place is beside Bury Street. There is an inscription on the wall around the Gherkin simple stating ‘To the spirits of the dead the unknown young girl from Roman London lies buried here’.

The third find was that of a girl’s skeleton, discovered in 1995. The remains showed that she was lying on her back with her arms crossed across her chest. The skeleton was found when the Swiss Re building, called 30 St Mary Axe but better known as the Gherkin, was being built. The girl was believed to be aged between 13 and 17. She was buried in keeping with the Roman traditions between AD 350 and 400. For the next 12 years, the remains of her body were stored at the Museum of London, after its discovery during an excavation. When the Gherkin had been completed, the girl’s body was re-buried where it had been found – near the base of the building. Prior to burial, a service was held for the girl at the church of St Botolph, Aldgate.

In the case of the skeleton found on the Gherkin site, there were no archaeological clues as to the origins of the girl. Although buried at a time when Londinium was in existence, it was not certain whether she was a Roman citizen, a slave-girl or even a visitor from some other part of England or much further away. To find a Roman burial near the present site of the Gherkin was more unusual because the burial had been carried out within the boundary of Londinium although, by the 4th century, the Roman occupation had substantially declined from its peak in the 1st or 2nd centuries.


Posted in /City-Aldgate | Leave a comment