London’s lost Soho?

In his Tatler and Bystander column ‘Standing By’ for May 6th 1953, which we found in the Jot 101 Jot 101 Soho lost Shaftesbury avenue planarchive recently, journalist D. B. Wyndham Lewis declared:-


Soho died in 1886, somebody should whisper to a Sunday paper minx recently trying to lash herself into a colourful frenzy over “ London’s Montmartre “. Soho was killed and tossed on the refuse dumps at Barking Creek when they drove Shaftesbury Avenue bang through the heart of it, sweeping away all those shady, romantic little courts and by-ways, nooks and corners celebrated in the New Arabian Nights  and elsewhere; not to speak of the fabulous little foreign restaurants of the legendary shilling banquets, vin compris.


Out of sympathy for an American friend who came over not long especially to buy cigars in the Rupert Street shop formerly kept by Mr Godden, tobacconist, alias Prince Florizel of Bohemia, playboy (ret.) we pointed out the most likely site in the western half of this uninviting street, but without much conviction. Another historic house on our friend’s list, the one in Denmark Street where the duped and furious Casanova shook Miss Genevieve Charpillon “ like a bundle of rags”  ( see the Memoirs), was likewise drawn blank, together  with a few  ex-Embassies in Soho Square, and our friend was left marvelling at the mental processes of the L.L.C. and the capricious way it sticks up its blue memorial-plaques.

   So we took him to County Hall to see—and hear—the L.C.C.


This clipping raises several points. Are we to take seriously the assertion that the ancient bricks and mortar that comprised part of old Soho demolished around 1884 – 6 to make way for the new thoroughfares of Shaftesbury Avenue, Charing Cross Road and Piccadilly Circus, ended up as building waste at Barking Creek ? It is possible, of course, that this material was deemed unsuitable for re-use and instead carried by barges down the Thames to the Creek. But surely it is much more likely that the brick was crushed and used on-site to provide a substratum for the new roads, or used as ballast for new foundations nearby. Or failing that, transported to other sites, for instance in West Hampstead or Cricklewood, for the same purpose. There couldn’t have been a vast amount of building waste in any case. Soho is not a large district of London and only a smallish section was demolished.


And why Barking Creek ? Was this a traditional dumping place for waste building material from central London ? We know, thanks to Lost London, 1870 – 1945, that  thoroughly depressing book by Philip Davies, of the depredations wreaked on the built environment in 75 years of war and vandalism. However, it is hard to believe that contractors went to the expense of shipping out unwanted brick and stone to the mudflats of Essex.


But where were these those ‘shady, romantic little courts and by-ways, nooks and corner ‘celebrated by R. L. Stevenson in his New Arabian Nights (1882)? Not surely in the notorious slums of St Giles and Seven Dials, which Dickens ,Douglas Jerrold and Mayhew wrote about and which so horrified Gustave Dore that he included a drawing of Dudley Street in Seven Dials in his moving London: a Pilgrimage (1872). It is possible that the authorities were so troubled by this portrait of utter degradation that they earmarked Dudley Street for total demolition when plans for Shaftesbury Avenue were being drawn up.


Many of the old Soho streets so beloved by Stevenson were preserved either side of Shaftesbury Avenue, but the route of the new thoroughfare followed that of Dudley Street and hence there is no trace of Dudley Street today. Other streets partially or wholly demolished included Princes Street, Macclesfield Street, King Street, Crown Street, Tower Street West and the Newport Market, all of which contained horrible slum buildings. Some eating places were also destroyed. For instance, the Monico Restaurant, established in 1877, which advertised itself as having a ‘Grand Café Saloon, Grill Room, and the best ventilated Billiards Saloon in London ‘ was remodelled in 1888 – 9.  The present London Pavilion (1885) is on the site of Loibl and Sonnhammer’s music hall, which was also knocked down. So there were undoubtedly casualties of the two new road schemes, but to read D. B. Wyndham Lewis’s diatribe one gets the impression that the creation of Shaftesbury Avenue necessitated the wanton destruction of many of Soho’s most appealing resorts. Which is just wrong. [R Healey]  

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