Between Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus sits one of London’s most colourful, controversial and storied neighbourhoods WORDS: Tom Sturrock 

”When the respectable Londoner wants to feel devilish, he goes to Soho, where every street is a song,” wrote author Thomas Burke.

And in its various incarnations, Soho has kept an eclectic beat – over the years it has been many different things to an ever-changing cast of characters.

How it began

In the 1500s the Lord Mayor of London would go out to inspect the city’s water supply while hunting – soho, like tally-ho, was a hunting call, indicating the quarry had been sighted.

After the Great Fire of London in 1666 gutted the city, many of the displaced thousands moved west, and Soho was born, attracting hard-working artisans and craft trades.

“It’s not surprising the more colourful visitors such as Casanova and Mozart, took up in Soho,” London historian Richard Tames says. “That’s where they’d gravitate.”

See: The first civic buildings, Golden Square and Soho Square, on Rathbone Street.

Centre of style

In the swinging ’60s, London’s influence on fashion and popular culture was huge, and Carnaby Street  was the place to head if you wanted flared pants and floral shirts. It was a global hub of male fashion.

“A big part of it was that it got pedestrianised very early, and that really altered the nature of the shopping experience,” Tames says.

See: The grand Soho mural on the corner of Carnaby and Broadwick Streets.

Listen to the music

In the 1950s, Soho was at the heart of London’s music scene, with the first all-night jazz sessions on Meard Street.

Rock music took over Soho in the ’60s, with the Rolling Stones jamming at venues in the area and Jimi Hendrix playing his last live gig at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club.

“You had the Musicians Union headquarters on Archer Street. Session musicians would hang around all day,” Tames says.

“If anyone wanted a trombonist or a pianist at short notice, they could go down and take their pick.”

See: Ronnie Scott’s has moved from Gerrard Street to Frith Street, but is open every night.

Literary landmarks

Cafés and dining rooms in Soho were popular among writers, such as Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens and William Blake.

The area features in fiction – Sherlock Holmes is a Soho regular and Mr Hyde’s apartment is amid the maelstrom of excess and debauchery.

“Soho had the feel,” Tames says, “of an area of transformation that was also slightly forbidden.”

See: The French House pub on Dean Street, where writer Dylan Thomas got so drunk he lost the manuscript for Under Milk Wood.

Out and about

In the days when homosexuality was frowned upon, the permissive air of Soho ensured it had a reputation as the heartland of gay culture in London. It remained discreet though – so-called Molly

Houses sprang up around the area, where gay men could go and meet other men.

“The Golden Lion on Romilly Street was the place for men to go if they wanted to pick up a sailor or a guardsman,” says Tames.

See: Old Compton Street is the pink precinct.

Dens of iniquity

At one point there were about 200 sex shops and strip clubs in Soho. The sex trade in the 1960s was a licence to print money, and the vice squad often turned a blind eye.

“In Soho, the ’60s were already happening in the ’50s – that’s where artistic, bohemian and homosexual elements were drawn,” Tames says.

“If you knew the right places, you could drink 24 hours a day.”
See: Oscar Wilde took rent boys to restaurants in Rupert Sreet, while Brewer Street is now the centre of the diminished sex trade.

» Covent Garden And Soho: The Illustrated A-Z Historical Guide by Richard Tames is out now