Tucked away behind streets full of wandering tourist’s, armed with the latest of camera equipment and shoppers on the hunt, eager to grab the next bargain at one of the many fashion chains, lies perhaps one of the most distinct neighbourhoods of London; Soho. Although London is always considered to be a metropolis that celebrates its diversity, I find that this diversity is somewhat intensified when I walk the streets of Soho; it is after all a melting pot for subculture. Soho has always been a village and historically it’s been a village full of low-lifers and high-lifers, romantics and realists, drunks and dreamers, sex workers and bar workers – every walk of life is represented.
But perhaps the best way to describe it is as Arthur Ransome quite rightly puts it in his book An Arrival in Bohemia (New York, Dodd, Meade and Company, 1907, p. 133) ‘It was a foggy night and we crossed Cambridge Circus with difficulty, and then almost groping our way along the pavement, found the door and stepped into the glamour and noise… the Painter nodded to men in both rooms and then turned to me, “this is Bohemia”’
I too have walked along these streets many times without taking too much notice of what may have been here before or who may have walked in the same footsteps, from the likes of Thomas De Quincy and Marx. It is with this in mind that I plan to visit Soho again but with my history hat on.
As I got off the bus I noticed just how bitterly cold it was and braced myself for the long walk ahead. It was Monday lunchtime, and perhaps one of the busiest times of the day. From Oxford Circus I battled my way down Oxford Street manoeuvring my way through the swarms of people. Carefully fitting through any gap that I could find on the pavement, it’s a busy day today, many signs and posters on shop windows indicating that today was Cyber Monday, and inviting me to buy something very expensive that I didn’t require. I turn right onto Argyll Street. It always surprises me, no matter how many times I see it, an imposing department store in its Mock-Tudor style Architecture; Liberty of London. Argyll Street is nice to wander around in because it is all pedestrianised, a rarity in London. At the very top of the building I noticed there was a golden coloured. It is named The Weathervane, after the ship that sailed into the new world. When the department store opened, it was known as a luxury trader of goods from the orient. Imported silks from India an example of the kind of things one could be purchased here. I would like to take a moment to discuss the interior of the building itself, shopping was an activity which would have been largely aimed at women, and I find myself finding links with the appearance of Liberty and the room style layout of in from the inside. The layout was supposed to replicate a house, this is interesting because not only would women feel more at ease leisurely shopping but because it would be deemed as a safe socially acceptable space too.
I turned left on to Great Marlborough Street crossed the road and immediately turned right on to Carnaby Street. I notice the Christmas lights instantly. Again swarms of people stood taking pictures. Carnaby Street has always been known as a famous market street. It is mentioned also is the work of Benjamin Disraeli in Sibyl or the Two Nations. ‘He was a carcase-butcher, famous in Carnaby-market, and the prime councillor of a distinguished nobleman for whom privately he betted on commission.’ As I walk through Carnaby Street today, I instantly notice the vast concentration of swanky Restaurants, Bars, the next great ‘hip’ coffee shop and quirky fashion boutiques.
I turn left onto Broadwick Street and continue to walk along the cobbled streets. I notice a pub, The John Snow. It stood proudly on the corner of Broadwick and Lexington Street. John Snow’s significant works on public health were hugely influential. Some of the more significant ones to the area of Soho is his study of Cholera. While many attributed the outbreak of Cholera to the then very popular idea of miasma (a theory that all disease was contracted through air) Snow proposes that Cholera was linked it to a self-replicating agent which was excreted in the cholera evacuations and inadvertently ingested, often, but not necessarily, through the medium of water. He found that deaths related to Cholera therefore were water related.
I continue down Broadwick Street. And arrive at St Anne’s Court. As I am walking through Berwick Street and Wardour Street, I notice many bars and clubs. Soho has always attracted a big Gay community. The so-called Dirty Square Mile has had gay connections since about the 1890s. Wilde bought gay porn here, and Jack Saul lived in Old Compton Street. During the Bohemian 1920s and 30s, there were several gay-friendly cafés in Soho. However during the post war years it seems that Soho became synonymous with older men seeking to meet young girls. It was therefore regarded as a no go zone for homosexuals perhaps the later AIDS epidemic too transformed the area of Soho.
I turn Right onto Dean Street, greeted with all the different smells of food from around the world. As I walk along, looking into all the food being cooked before me. I notice a blue plaque commemorating Dr Joseph Rogers, a Physician who lived here from 1821 – 1889. Now I don’t want to get too ahead of myself but I can certainly see a theme developing here, and that is one of health. Rogers had his own surgery, which was established in 1853, however do to the Cholera epidemic it was destroyed in 1854-1855. He was later offered a job as an officer to the Strand Union Workhouse, Fitzrovia and having been so appalled by the conditions there for the poor, he dedicated his life campaigning for better medical care provisions for them.
I continue walking up along Dean Street noticing all the different theatres. The Soho Theatre, an independent theatre. Suggesting once again the bohemian fell of Soho. I turn right onto Carlisle Street. And see Soho Square, in the distance. By this point, I have been walking for almost an hour, the streets seem a lot calmer, and the office lunch break seems to have come to an end, still there were on or two people on benches eating out of boxes.
But I was more interested in were the surrounding buildings, there was a French protestant church which I always walked passed. I wonder why it a French protestant church and how it came to be. The church, can trace its descent from the earliest congregation of Protestant refugees to settle in London, a tradition commemorated in the carved tympanum over the entrance door of the present building. This begs me to ask whether Soho has always been a location where minorities have always flocked to and found home here?
Arthur Ransom, Bohemia in London (New York, Dodd, Meade and Company, 1907)