Marx and Mozart … in Soho

‘SEEDY’ IS A WORD that often springs to mind when the London district of Soho is mentioned. Yet, I was unaware of this when I used to visit the area with my mother during the early 1960s. In those days, she was working in the sculpture studios of the St Martins School of Art, which were then located in nearby Charing Cross Road. My mother, a disciple of the cookery writer Elizabeth David, who helped introduce the Mediterranean cuisine into British kitchens, did much of her food shopping in Soho’s Old Compton Street and Brewer Street. It was with these shops, rather than with ‘adult entertainment’, that I associated the district called ‘Soho’.

Soho Square, which contains a statue of King Charles II (reigned 1660-1685) that stands in front of a half-timbered structure, was laid out in 1681 during the King’s reign. The area around it had acquired the name ‘Soho’ by 1632. Until the streets in Soho began being developed in the late 17th century, Soho was mostly open fields. Both the gentry and working people began living in the houses built in the area. From the very start of its development, the area attracted refugees from continental Europe:

“The first were Greeks escaping the Ottoman invasion of their homeland in the 1670s. Led by their priest Joseph Georgirenes, they began building a chapel from 1677 in Hog Lane. … It continues to be remembered in the name of Greek Street which ran behind the chapel.

The next group of refugees were Huguenots from France who arrived in the district … By 1711 the population of the parish of St.Anne’s, covering the Soho area, was slightly over eight thousand, of which between a quarter and a half were French. The strong cosmopolitan nature of the area continued well into the 19th century.” (https://www.thehistoryoflondon.co.uk/the-development-of-soho/2/.)

The area continues to be cosmopolitan, as has much of the rest of London now become.

From about 1780 until the 1980s, Soho was the heart of London’s ‘sex industry’. The district’s first brothel opened in 1778 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soho_walk-up). From then onwards, the profession of prostitution flourished in Soho. In recent years, the police have been closing some of the places that offered the services of prostitutes. Despite this decrease in the ‘industry’, there is still no shortage of shops selling ‘ adult goods’ related to sexual pursuits in Soho.

Frith Street and Dean Street, two roads that connect Soho Square with Old Compton Street, one of Soho’s main thoroughfares, have had several famous residents. Before you ask, I have no idea whether any of them ever visited any of their neighbours who offered sexual services professionally.

The health care reformer Dr Joseph Rogers (1821-1889) lived and worked at 33 Dean Street from 1851 to 1885. He was living in Soho during the outbreak of cholera in 1854, which led to the ground-breaking epidemiological discoveries of Dr John Snow, who established that cholera was spread through infected water. Rogers helped with the local parish’s response to the disease. When Dr Rogers moved into Dean Street, so also did the better-known, indeed world famous, father of Communism as we know it, Karl Marx (1818-1883), who resided in the street until 1856.

Karl Marx lived above what is now the Quo Vadis restaurant (founded in 1926 by the Italian Peppino Leoni). I am certain that my parents must have eaten there at least once because every year they received a Christmas card from the restaurant. Marx, who arrived in London in 1849, worked on the first volume of his “Das Kapital” whilst living in Soho. His accommodation there was far from comfortable. At first, he:

“… had only two rooms on the second floor of the house – a bedroom at the back used by the whole family and a front room which served as a kitchen and living room – but he later rented a third room for use as a study. The whole ensemble was described by Jenny Marx as ‘the evil frightful rooms which encompassed all our joy and all our pain’.” (www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/karl-marx/)

I wonder if members of the Marx family crossed the road to buy goods at the shop with a rococo shopfront (constructed 1791: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols33-4/pp128-141#h3-0025). Currently, it bears the name ‘Rippon’, and is now a stationer and newsagent.

Carlile Street links Dean Street to Soho Square. The Toucan is a bar that celebrates the association of the drink known as ‘Guinness’ with the toucan. It was the writer Dorothy L Sayers (1893-1957), who when working with SH Benson, an advertising agency, dreamt up the use of the toucan to promote the drink. She composed the following lines in 1946:

“If he can say as you can

‘Guinness is good for you’

How grand to be a Toucan

Just think what Toucan do.” (https://historyhouse.co.uk/articles/guinness_toucan.html)

The half-timbered octagonal hut in the middle of Soho Square looks as if it has been there since the late 17th century. At least, that is what I believed until I began writing this today. Described by the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as “… a silly half-timbered summer house …”, it dates from 1875-76 and was probably built by SJ Thacker.

Frith Street, parallel to Dean Street, leads south from the square to Old Compton Street. One of my favourite writers, the essayist William Hazlitt (1778-1830) died at number 6 Frith Street, now a hotel, which was built in about 1718. Hazlitt moved into two rooms on the second floor at the back of the house early in January1830 (see “The Quarrel of the Age: The Life and Times of William Hazlitt”, by AC Grayling). After a brief incarceration in connection with a debt, he returned to Frith Street, where, by now he was suffering from a stomach disorder that was progressing from bad to worse.  It was here in Soho that he wrote one of his last pieces “Emancipation of the Jews”, which argued that restrictions and civil disabilities should be lifted from the Jews. This piece was published after his death in mid-September 1830. Hazlitt was buried in the nearby churchyard of St Anne’s. In his essay, he wrote:

“The emancipation of the Jews is but a natural step in the progress of civilisation … We and modern Europe derived from them the whole germ of our civilisation, our ideas on the unity of the Deity, on marriage, on morals. . . The great founder of the Christian religion was himself born among that people, and if the Jewish Nation are still to be branded with his death, it might be asked on what principle of justice ought we to punish men for crimes committed by their co-religionist near two thousand years ago?” (www.victorianweb.org/religion/judaism/gossman10.html).

Further south along Frith Street, we reach the stage entrance of the London Casino theatre (opened in 1930, with its main entrance on Old Compton Street). There is a commemorative plaque above the stage door, which reads:

“In a house on this site, in 1764-5 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791 lived, played, and composed.”

The young Wolfgang stayed here with his father Leopold and his sister Nannerl. They were lodgers of Thomas Williamson, who made corsets. They had moved to Soho from Ebury Street near Victoria.  It is possible that the composer Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782), son of Johann Sebastian Bach, visited the Mozarts whilst they were living in Frith Street. Wolfgang composed several works in London including his First Symphony, which was premiered in London (https://blogs.bl.uk/music/2018/05/mozartinlondon.html). While this was written at bury Street, the Mozarts held concerts, for which the public were charged, at Williamson’s house in Frith Street.

They lived in a time when all entertainment was ‘live’ rather than recorded or transmitted from one location to another. I feel sure that the greatly inventive Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would have embraced the performance and publicity possibilities of television with great gusto. Back in Dean Street, a few yards from the Mozart’s Soho lodgings, we find the Bar Italia, currently closed. When it is open, it is usually full of mainly Italians watching matches between Italian football teams on a huge TV screen at the back of the café. This seems particularly apt because the Bar Italia is located on the ground floor of the building where John Logie Baird (1888-1946) gave the first public demonstration of his invention, television, in 1926.

As the Bar Italia is currently closed and you will probably be in need of a good coffee after absorbing so much history in such a small part of Soho, head into Old Compton Street and make a beeline for The Algerian Coffee Stores, where you can buy a brilliant inexpensive espresso, macchiato, cortado, cappuccino, or whatever you want.

Sir Harry loses his head

LOSING AN ELECTION is probably one of the worst things that happens to politicians today. Several centuries ago, a politician risked facing a far worse fate: decapitation. Such was the ending that was suffered by a 17th century politician who chose to live Hampstead in north London, close to Westminster yet surrounded by countryside.

Sir Henry Vane (c1612-1662) is often referred to as ‘Henry Vane, the Younger’ or ‘Harry Vane’. Born into a wealthy family, he completed his education in Geneva, where he absorbed ideas of religious tolerance and republicanism. His religious principles led him to travel to New England. Between May 1636 and May 1637, he served as the 6th Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. While in America, he raised a large amount of money to be used for the establishment of what is now Harvard University. Soon, he came into conflict with other colonists. Barratt, an historian of Hampstead, wrote:

“…he soon found that his own ideas of religious independence and those of his friends were not in harmony. Their “tolerance” was shown in a cruel and rigid intolerance of everything that did not fit in with their own narrow Calvinistic views; Harry Vane stood for a larger humanity.”

Harry returned to England and became a Member of Parliament as well as a Treasurer to the Royal Navy (in 1639). He was knighted by King Charles I in 1640.

When the conflict between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians broke out in about 1642, it was hoped that Harry would stick with the Royalists, but he did not. He became a solid supporter of the Parliamentarians. During the Commonwealth that followed Cromwell’s victory in the Civil War (1642-1651), he regained his position of a treasurer to the navy. Harry’s views on various things differed from those of Oliver Cromwell. By this time, Harry had moved to a house in Hampstead, Vane House, where, it is believed, he used to meet with Cromwell, Fairfax, and other prominent Parliamentarians. The poet Milton was also a visitor at Vane House. Barratt relates that when the question of executing King Charles I was being decided:

“…Vane refused to be a party to the sentence, and retired to his Raby Castle property in Durham, one of the estates his father settled on him on his marriage in 1640.”

Vane had married Frances Wray, daughter of Sir Christopher Wray, who was a Parliamentarian.

Harry became concerned when Cromwell barred him from the dissolution of the so-called ‘Long Parliament’ in 1653. Let Barratt expand on this:

“When Cromwell violently broke up the Long Parliament, his most active opponent was Sir Harry Vane, who protested against what he called the new tyranny. It was then that Cromwell uttered the historic exclamation, “O Sir Harry Vane! Sir Harry Vane! the Lord preserve me from Sir Harry Vane!” Vane was kept out of the next Parliament, and, still remaining at Raby, made another attack on Cromwell’s Government, in a pamphlet entitled ‘The Healing Question’. This was a direct impeachment of Cromwell as a usurper of the supreme power of government, and led to Vane being summoned before the Council to answer for his words.”

Harry’s actions led him to be imprisoned on the Isle of Wight.

Following Oliver Cromwell’s death in 1658, Harry returned to public life and his home in Hampstead. He was striving for Britain to become a republic rather than a continuation of the dictatorial Protectorship established by Cromwell and continued by his son Richard.

When King Charles II was restored to the throne, ending the Protectorship, Harry, who had not been party to, or in favour of, the execution of Charles I, was granted amnesty and hoped to live in retirement, contemplating religious matters that interested him, in his Hampstead residence. But this was not to be. Although the King was happy to forgive Harry, some of his advisors were concerned that, to quote Barratt:

“Vane’s ultra -republicanism was probably more objectionable to Charles II. than it had been to the Protector, and Charles had not been established on the throne more than a few months when the arrest of Sir Harry Vane was ordered.”

Harry was taken from his garden in Hampstead by soldiers on an evening in July 1660. After a short spell in the Tower of London, Harry spent two years as a prisoner on the Isles of Scilly. In March 1662, he was brought back to the Tower and faced trial at the King’s Bench. The charge against him was:

“…compassing and imagining the death of the king, and conspiring to subvert the ancient frame of the kingly government of the realm…”

The judges in this unfair trial had no option but to find him guilty. He was executed at the Tower.

I would not have been aware of this remarkable man had I not spotted a brown and white commemorative plaque in his memory on an old brick gate post on Hampstead’s Rosslyn Hill. The gatepost and a short stretch of wall are all that remains of Harry’s Vane House, which was has been demolished. It was still standing in 1878, by which time it had been heavily modified and:

“…occupied as the Soldiers’ Daughters’ Home. Vane House was originally a large square building, standing in its own ample grounds.” (www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp483-494).

This was connected by a covered arcade to a school for soldier’s daughters. The building which housed the school still stands on Fitzjohns Avenue and has been renamed Monro House. The heavily modified Vane House, in which Sir Harry resided, was demolished in 1972. Its only remains are as already mentioned.

Once again, seeing a small thing whilst strolling around in London has opened a window that has given me a first view of an aspect of history that was almost, if not completely, unknown to me.