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.

Friedrich Engels and his unfortunate neighbours

FRIEDRICH ENGELS LIVED almost opposite London’s Primrose Hill at number 122 Regents Park Road. A colleague and friend of Karl Marx, he lived between 1870 and just before his death in 1895 in this large house located 360 yards west of the railway lines that run from Euston to places outside London.  His residence had been chosen for him by Jenny (1814-1881), wife of Karl Marx. Every Sunday, Engels used to hold an ‘open house’; all visitors were welcome. Liberal amounts of food and drink would be available and there was music and singing. According to Tristram Hunt, a biographer of Engels, the visitors included, for example, leaders of European socialism such as Karl Kautsky, William Morris, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Keir Hardie, Eduard Bernstein, and Henry Hindman. Hindman, who was a mentor and supporter of the Indian freedom fighter Shyamji Krishnavarma, who was active in Highgate between 1905 and 1910, nicknamed Engels ‘The Grand Lama of Regents Park Road’. Amongst visitors from Russia:

“The founders of Russian Marxism, George Plekhanov and Paul Axelrod, considered the visit to his house in Regents Park Road a necessary pilgrimage whenever they were in London. Vera Zasulitch, who lived in London was another regular visitor as indeed was Stepniak, the terrorist author of “Underground Russia”” (note 1)

The congregation of so many socialists at his home attracted the attention of the police, who frequently kept number 122 under surveillance. Lenin, who first visited London in 1902, clearly would have not been able to visit Engels at Primrose Hill.

We visit Regents Park Road on some Saturdays and Sundays when parking is easy and free of charge, but, alas, we were born far too late to have been able to enjoy the stimulating atmosphere that must have reigned in the home of Engels on Sundays. Despite the absence of the great Engels, there is much to enjoy along the road where he lived, even during these restricting times of the covid19 ‘lockdown’. Apart from fresh air in plenty on Primrose Hill, there are interesting food shops and a few places that serve hot drinks to passers-by. One of these, which we favour, is Greenberry Café, which is located near to the railway lines. Almost next to this establishment, there is a building set back from the road. Its red brick façade is topped with a green tiled pediment with white lettering that reads:


Chalk Farm Garage

Proprietors

The Flight Petroleum Co Ltd

The ground floor of this building, which might once have included the workshops of the garage are closed in with modern glazing. Now used as the art gallery of the Freelands Foundation (https://freelandsfoundation.co.uk/about), this used to be a regular local petrol filling station. Flight Petroleum is a company that still exists. It is based in Mississippi (USA).  Before becoming a gallery, the former filling station was a branch of the Bibendum company that supplied alcohol not as motor fuel but in the form of wines and spirits.

Almost next to the former garage, a few feet left (i.e, west) of it, there is a curious looking white building, that was not built as a dwelling or a shop. On 19th and early 20th century maps, this is marked as being a ‘chapel’. An extremely detailed (5 feet to the mile) map of 1895 reveals that this chapel was in the grounds of the ‘Boys’ Home Industrial School’. The school’s grounds occupied much of the corner of Regents Park Road and King Henrys Road that meets the former at an acute angle. Where the former garage stands now used to be the entrance to the courtyard around which the school’s buildings were arranged.

I looked at two useful websites, www.childrenshomes.org.uk/EustonBoysIS/ and http://whispersandvoices.blogspot.com/2009/07/boys-home-regents-park-road-london.html, to learn about the school and its history. The school was originally founded by the physician and social reformer George William Bell (1813-1889) as the ‘Home for Unconvicted Destitute Boys’ in 1858 in some houses on Euston Road, where the British library stands currently. Later that year it became a certified ‘Industrial School’, which admitted boys sent by the courts for their protection as well as those who came voluntarily. In 1865, the school had to move because its premises were to be demolished in order to build a railway goods shed.

The school moved to new premises on Regents Park Road, initially a row of three houses. The chapel, one of whose pediments bears the letter ‘T’, was added after the school received a donation from a generous donor and was later superseded by the establishment of the St Marys Church on the northeast corner of Primrose Hill.  In 1868, a new school room was built on the northern side of the school’s yard. This was raised on arches, the spaces beneath them being used to store materials such as wood that was used in some of the practical classes taught in the establishment. By the 1890s, the school occupied the buildings that now form the corner of Regents Park and King Henrys Roads.

The boys learnt a variety of skills including carpentry, brushmaking, tailoring, shoemaking, and so on. They were also hired out to local residents, as Edward Walford described (writing in 1882):

“A large quantity of firewood is cut on the premises, and delivered to customers, and several boys are employed by private families in the neighbourhood in cleaning knives and shoes. The amount of industrial work done in the Home is highly satisfactory. The products of the labour of the boys and their teachers —clothes, shoes and boots, brushes of every kind, carpentry and firewood—are sold, and contribute to the general funds of the institution …”

I wonder whether any of these highly productive young boys did jobs for the household of Friedrich Engels, who lived close by. At the same time as they were beavering away, so was Engels. During his residence close to the school, he:

“ … wrote many of his famous works at № 122—The Housing Question (1872), Anti-Duhring (1877-78), the revised form of three chapters of this book published as Socialism, Utopian and Scientific (1880), Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Ludwig Feuerbach (1888).” (www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/sections/britain/pamphlets/1963/london_landmarks/index.htm).

Engels died in 1895. The school closed in 1920. On a map surveyed in 1938, the school’s courtyard still existed, the garage was not yet built, and the chapel was still marked as such. Today, there is no memorial to the school where it used to stand, but Engels’ house is distinguished from its neighbours by a circular plaque. Both the school and Engels were involved in social reform and the welfare of the oppressed, but few today would associate this pleasant road near Primrose Hill with those historical activities.

Note 1:

www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/F19FEAB88CAD3C1ACBB7B917B1EC1E00/S0020859000002364a.pdf/russian_emigration_and_british_marxist_socialism.pdf

Where Engels dared to tread: Sylvia Plath, Jose Rizal, and Friedrich Engels

AT THE FOOT OF PRIMROSE Hill, there is a lovely street called Regents Park Road, which we have visited many times before, but it was only today in late January 2020 that we spotted the former residences of two famous people and one less well-known in this country, but very important in his own country.

Chalcot Crescent

The highly regarded American poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) lived briefly in picturesque Chalcot Square, which is a few yards south of Regents Park Road. There is a plaque on number three that records that the poet lived there between 1960 and 1961. Married to the poet Ted Hughes (1930-1998), the couple moved in  to the top floor flat, somewhat cramped accommodation, in January 1960. It was here that their daughter Frieda was born a few months later. Plath described the square as:

“…overlooking a little green with benches and fences for mothers and children … five minutes’ walking distance from Primrose Hill and beautiful Regent’s Park”

It is still an attractive square, made even more appealing by the variety of colours of the 19th century houses surrounding it.  The Hughes’s moved to larger accommodation in nearby Fitzroy Road where she took her own life. Although Sylvia lived longer at Fitzroy Road than in Chalcot Square, her children decided it would be best to commemorate her time in the square. When the plaque was placed on the house on Chalcot Square in 2000, her daughter Frieda was asked why it was not placed on the house in Fitzroy Road. She replied:

“My mother died there … but she had lived here.” (both quotes about Plath from: www.hamhigh.co.uk/lifestyle/heritage/poet-sylvia-plath-she-died-there-but-she-had-lived-3438440)

Plath lived for about a year in Chalcot Square, but the Filipino national hero Dr Jose Rizal (1861-1896) spent even less time in the neighbourhood in number 37 Chalcot Crescent, a sinuous thoroughfare. He stayed in London from May 1888 to March 1889. He came to the metropolis to improve his English; to study and annotate a  work by Antonia de Morga (1559-1636) about the early Spanish colonisation of the Philippines; and because London was a safe place to carry out his struggle against the Spanish, who were occupying his country (www.slideshare.net/superekaa/rizal-in-london-52133406). At Chalcott Crescent, he was a guest of the Beckett family. While lodging with the Becketts, Jose had a brief romantic affair with Gertrude, the oldest of the three Beckett daughters. When her love for him became serious, Jose left London for Paris. Before he left, he gave the Beckett girls three sculptures he had made in London.

Rizal was a remarkable man with many skills. Born in the Philippines, he was an ophthalmologist by profession and fought vigorously for reform of Spanish rule in the Philippines. Amongst his other abilities were novel and poetry writing; philosophy; law; art including drawing, painting, and sculpting; ethnology and anthropology; architecture and cartography; history; martial arts; and magic tricks. Apart from his brief fling with Miss Beckett, he had numerous other affairs all over the world. After staying in many places in different continents, he returned to the Philippines, where his involvement in activities against the Spanish rulers caused  him to be arrested and executed by Filippino soldiers in the Spanish army on the 30th of December 1896.

Well, if you, like me, have never heard of the remarkable Jose Rizal, it is likely that the German born Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) is familiar. This father of Marxism and socialism came to Britain in 1842 to work in his father’s textile business in Salford. Friedrich’s father had hoped that by sending him to England, his son might abandon some of his radical political views. The opposite happened. With his partner, Mary Burns (1821-1863), with whom he lived until she died, he completed his research for his work “The Condition of the Working Class in England.”

After spells in Prussia, Paris, and Brussels, Engels arrived in London in November 1849. He re-joined his father’s company near Manchester in order to make money to help finance Karl Marx whilst he laboured in London on his important work “Das Kapital”. Engels in Manchester corresponded daily with Marx in London. By early 1853, Engels was already predicting that there would be revolution and civil war in Russia. He did not live long enough to see his predictions fulfilled.  In 1869, Engels retired from his father’s firm and moved to London in the following year.

Unlike his friend and colleague Marx, who lived in modest accommodation in London, Engels, who was well able to afford it, lived in a lovely house facing Primrose Hill. He moved into 122 Regents Park Road in 1870 with Mary Burn’s sister Lizzie, with whom he lived until she died in 1878. Marx lived not far away, in Kentish Town (at Grafton Terrace) until 1875, then even closer in Belsize Park (at Maitland Road) until his death in 1883. With the Marx family living close by:

“… Marx now living in Kentish Town and Engels based in Primrose Hill, the two concentrated their efforts on various groundbreaking works such as German Ideology (1846) and Capital (three volumes: 1867, 1884, 1893 – the latter two were edited and published by Engels after Marx’s death).” (www.hamhigh.co.uk/news/the-history-of-karl-marx-and-friedrich-engels-in-primrose-3435968).

I find it ironic that two men, Marx and Engels, whose ideas were to bring about the downfall of the bourgeoisie and plutocracy in many countries of the world, lived in an area that was and is, even more now than before, prized by members of those classes, who seem to ignore the examples of history by continuing to espouse these ideas whilst simultaneously enjoying the rewards that money and privilege bring. I wonder what Engels would be thinking if he were to tread the pavements of Regents Park Road today.

Politics aside, there is no escaping the fact that Primrose Hill and its surroundings are fine examples of what makes London such a wonderful place to live and enjoy.

A myth

 

Recently, I renewed my Reader’s Card at the British Library, currently housed in superb premises on Euston Road, next door to the Victorian Gothic St Pancras railway station. This building was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in about 1998. Prior to this, the library’s Reading Room was a huge circular structure in the heart of the British Museum.

When our daughter was at primary school, she was taught about the Ancient Egyptians  including a female Pharaoh called Hatshepsut. One Saturday, I took our daughter to the British Museum in the hope of finding an image of the pharaoh in the Egyptian Galleries. After a desultory search, we gave up and walked acoss the the lovely covered Great Court, created relatively recently. The central circular structure within it contains the unused but well-preserved round Reading Room, which was designed by Sidney Smirke and opened in 1857, the year of the First Indian War of Independence. 

We entered the old Reading Room and I asked the attendant sitting there:

“Where exactly did Karl Marx used to sit when he used the library?”

“It’s a myth, sir,” replied the attendant, “He did not have a particular place because it has always been the library’s policy that places can not be reserved from day to day.”

I was a bit disappointed with his reply, but had to accept it.

When we got home, my wife asked our child how we had got on. She replied:

“You know Mummy. Daddy asked about his friend at the big old library?”

My wife asked which friend. Our daughter replied:

“I don’t know, but the man said he was a myth really.”

 

 

Picture shows foyer of current British Library in Euston Road