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.