WALKING ALONG CHARING CROSS ROAD in central London recently, a memory of my childhood sprung into mind. When I was about eight years old, I was told off by my art teacher at school because the horizon on my painting was not straight enough for her. She told me that I should have used a ruler. When I related this incident to my mother, she was quite annoyed because, in her opinion, it did not matter whether a horizon was drawn ruler straight or not. I hoped that she would not complain to the school about her feelings about the ineptitude of the art teacher. I do not recall that she bothered to do so.
My mother was an artist, whose works became increasingly abstract as she grew older. Before WW2, she trained to become a commercial artist at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town (South Africa). Her earliest works, which I have never seen, were hand-painted posters, advertisements for the latest films (movies). In 1948, she followed my father from Cape Town to London, where he had taken up an academic post at the London School of Economics. They married in 1948 and, according to my father, Mom took painting classes with the now famous Stanley Spencer (1891-1959). Interestingly, I never heard my mother mentioning these classes.
I was born in 1952, and it was around then that my mother began creating sculpture. One of her earliest sculptures was in terracotta and its subject matter was a mother, seated, holding a child, maybe me. During the late 1950s and early part of the 1960s, my mother worked in the sculpture workshops at St Martin’s School of Art, which was then located on Charing Cross Road. The Sculpture Department was then under the directorship of Frank Martin (1914-2004), whom my mother referred to as ‘Mr Martin’ when talking to us at home. It was there that she worked alongside sculptors, who have since become quite famous. These included Menashe Kadishman (1932-2015), Buky Schwarz (1932-2009), Philip King (1934-2021), and Antony Caro (1924-2013). The latter two helped her learn how to weld and create sculptures in metal, a medium she preferred. It was probably at St Martins that my mother met the sculptor Elizabeth Frink (1930-1993), who also taught in the Sculpture Department. She and Mom became close friends. ‘Liz Frink’, as she was known in our family, was a regular visitor to our home in northwest London.
My mother used to work at St Martins several days a week. She used to do a lot of the family’s food shopping nearby in Soho’s Old Compton Street. Vegetables were bought from a French greengrocer, and meat from a Belgian butcher called Benoit Bulcke. This butcher, according to Mom, knew how to cut meat correctly, unlike most English butchers. As a young child, I accepted that this was the case if Mom said so. The butcher and the greengrocer no longer exist. However, three other stores she frequented are still in business: The Algerian Coffee Store; Camisa; and Lina Stores. My mother was an early disciple of the cookery writer, Elizabeth David (1913-1922), and her encouragement of the preparation of French and Mediterranean dishes. The proximity of St Martins to Old Compton Street was convenient for my mother, as the shops along it provided many ingredients, which were hard to find elsewhere in London in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Yesterday, Sunday the 15th of August 2021, we noticed an attractive wall painting not far from the large Liberty shop on Great Marlborough Street. It is the Soho Mural in Noel Street, the eastern continuation of Great Marlborough Street. With the title “Ode to the West Wind”, it was created in 1989 by Louise Vines and The London wall Mural Group, whose telephone number (on the circular blue patch) was then 01 737 4948 (now, the number would begin with 0207 instead of 01).
IN SEPTEMBER 1940, a 17th century church in London’s Soho was destroyed by fire because of aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe. All that remained intact was the tower at the west end of the church, St Anne’s Soho. Today, the tower still stands and overlooks a small but interesting churchyard.
St Anne’s was completed in 1686 during the period when Soho was becoming urbanised as London grew in a westerly direction. It had been designed either by (more likely) Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) or by William Talman (1650-1719), or maybe they collaborated (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols33-4/pp256-277). According to John Timbs, writing in “Curiosities of London”, published in 1867, when the church was standing:
“The interior is very handsome and has a finely painted window at its east end.”
Sadly, this no longer exists. The tower, which we see today, was built in about 1806 to the design of Samuel Pepys Cockerell (1753-1827), great-great nephew of the diarist Samuel Pepys, to replace an earlier one that had become unstable.
The pleasant rectangular churchyard that extends from the tower to Wardour Street measures approximately 150 feet by 80 feet. It contains several fascinating memorials, some of which used to be inside the church before it was bombed. Standing near the northern edge of the churchyard is the prominent gravestone for the essayist William Hazlitt (1778-1830), one of my favourite writers, who died in a house in Frith Street, not far from the church. His gravestone bears an extremely lengthy inscription, which might have been composed by a lawyer and poet called Charles Jeremiah Wells (c1800-1879; http://www.lordbyron.org/persRec.php?choose=PersRefs&selectPerson=ChWells1879), who had become a “devoted acolyte” of Hazlitt (according to his biographer AC Grayling). Amongst many other positive attributes, the inscription describes Hazlitt as:
“… The unconquered Champion of Truth, Liberty, and Humanity…”
There is a second monument to Hazlitt, which is attached to the wall of the tower. This has less of an inscription, but includes the words:
“Restored by his grandson February 1901”.
Near to this and also attached to the tower, there is a small rectangular metal plate in memory of the Welsh philosopher David Williams (1738-1816), who founded The Royal Literary Fund in 1790, lived in Gerrard Street, and is buried somewhere in the churchyard.
The most curious memorial in the churchyard is to Theodore, King of Corsica. The monument informs that Theodore died in the Parish of St Annes soon after his release from the King’s Bench Prison in 1756. This man, Theodore Anthony Neuhoff, who was born in Prussia, disembarked from an English vessel on the coast of Corsica in Spring 1836. He had with him a considerable supply of arms and money. He led the Corsicans in a successful revolt against their Genoese rulers and was crowned ‘King of Corsica’. After a short time of peace, the Genoese returned, and Theodore travelled around Europe trying to seek foreign supplies and aid. His journey took him to Livonia, France, and Holland, where he managed to obtain a frigate armed with 52 guns and an army of 150 men. Sadly, the Neapolitans arrested him and imprisoned him in the north African town of Ceuta. Unable to help his Corsican subjects, he fled to London, where problems with debt landed him in prison (for full story, see: “The Patrician, Vol. 1”, 1846, edited by Bernard and John Burke). His memorial states that after getting into debt, he “registered the Kingdom of Corsica for use of his creditors”. His memorial was financed by the writer and politician Horace Walpole (1717-1797), whose words about Theodore, who died a pauper, are inscribed on the stone:
“The grave, great teacher, to a level brings
Heroes and beggars, galley-slaves and kings;
But Theodore this moral learn’d ere dead;
Fate pour’d its lesson on his living head,
Bestow’d a kingdom, and denied him bread.”
The bodies of Hazlitt, Williams, and the King of Corsica, are amongst the 60,000 corpses buried in the graveyard, which his why the level of the ground in the churchyard is much higher than the pavement in Wardour Street that runs alongside it.
Hidden from sight because it is below the ground floor of the tower are the ashes of the author Dorothy L Sayers (1897-1957), who was a churchwarden at St Anne’s between 1952 and 1957. I have not yet discovered her connection with Soho.
More recent monuments are also of interest. There is a list of those of the parish, who died in WW1. Beneath that there is one to those who died in active service in WW2, which includes several with probably non-English surnames: Rosenfeld, Grossman, Kosky, and Masser. This monument also remembers those in the parish who died during the Blitz. A small plaque on a post in a flower bed records the names of three young people who were killed on the 30th of April 1999 when the Admiral Duncan pub in nearby Old Compton Street was bombed by a racist homophobe, David Copeland (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-47216594). A triangular wooden bench near the monument to the victims bears a plaque that reads:
“This triangular bench represents Brixton, Brick Lane, and Soho, three places brought together by acts of hate, made stronger by acts of love. 17 – 24 – 30 April 1999”.
The three places were all sites of horrific nail bombings that April.
So much for the churchyard, but what about the church? After many years of having used the site of the bombed church as a car park, which I can dimly recall, a new building that contains social housing as well as a small chapel was built in the early 1990s. The new church is entered from Dean Street. Apart from being a site of many historical associations, the churchyard is a peaceful haven in the heart of a normally busy part of central London.
SOHO SQUARE IN London’s West End contains two places for Christian worship: St Patricks Church (Roman Catholic); and The French Protestant Church. After Henry VIII came to the throne, life in Britain began to become awkward and sometimes dangerous for Roman Catholics. At around the same time, the same was the case for French Protestants (the Huguenots) across the English Channel in France. Life for the Huguenots was perilous in their native land. For example, in 1545 several hundred Waldensians, people who questioned the truth of the teachings of the Catholic Church, were massacred in Provence, and about ten years before that, more than 35 Lutherans were burnt elsewhere in France. Things got worse for the French Protestants during The Eight Wars of Religion (1562-1598; https://museeprotestant.org/en/notice/the-eight-wars-of-religion-1562-1598/). Even before the war broke out, Huguenots began fleeing to places where Protestantism was either tolerated or encouraged. England was one of these. Under the Tudors, the country became home to Huguenot refugees from France and Holland.
When the Huguenots began arriving in London, that is during the 16th century, the metropolis covered mainly what is now the City of London and areas just east of it such as Spitalfields. So, it was in what is now the City and East End that the Huguenots settled and added significantly to the richness of London life. Fournier Street in Spitalfields is one of several streets where they worked and lived. As the centuries passed, London expanded westwards and what some now call the West End began to be developed. Soho Square was built in the 1670s. As increasing numbers of Protestant refugees arrived in England, some of them settled in the newly developed western parts of London. Writing in his “Huguenot Heritage” Robin D Gwynn noted:
“If Huguenot taste made an impression in the cramped quarters of Spitalfields, it was stamped more deeply on the life of the nation through the work of the refugee settlement in Westminster and Soho. Here was the centre of French fashion, cuisine and high society in England, located conveniently near Court and Parliament.”
The churches used by the Huguenots in London were mainly in Spitalfields before the West End was built. By the 18th century, there about 14 in Westminster and Soho. By the 18th century, there were 31 Huguenot churches and their number increased to such an extent that the Anglican Church began to feel that its churches were becoming outnumbered in London. A version of the Marriage Act that was in force between 1753 and 1856:
“…required marriages other than those of Jews and Quakers to take place in a Church of England church, and led to the demise of some French churches. Some Huguenots of Spitalfields chose Christ Church as their place of worship. It was also the case that Huguenots gradually assimilated and intermarried into English society during the century since their arrival, eliminating the need for separate French churches.” (www.thehistoryoflondon.co.uk/huguenots/2/)
By the latter part of the 19th century:
“Soho was London’s major French neighbourhood and was therefore the obvious setting to build a new church …” (www.egliseprotestantelondres.org.uk/en/heritage/history-2/huguenot-refuge-england/)
The church that was constructed is that which is located on the west side of the northern edge of Soho Square and was completed in 1893. It was designed by Aston Webb (1849-1930), who also designed a façade on the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington. The ornamental details on the mainly red stone façade were created by William Aumonier (1841-1914), a sculptor with some Huguenot ancestry. A bas-relief in the demi-lune above the main entrance attracted my attention. On the left, there is a depiction of a crowded sailing ship. On the right, there is a man holding a document, which is being signed by a man (a king) holding a quill pen. Both panels are surmounted by angels. The base of the sculpted demi-lune has the following inscription:
“To the glory of God & in grateful memory of HM King Edward VI who by his charter of 1550 granted asylum to the Huguenots of France.”
Edward the Sixth (lived 1537-1553) was only nine years old when he succeeded his father King Henry VIII, yet even at this tender age he was an ardent promoter of Protestantism as the state religion. Following the visits to London by Protestant leaders such as John Laski (Jan Łaski or Johannes à Lasco (1499 – 1560), King Edward VI issued Letters Patent, which permitted the establishment of the (protestant) Dutch and French churches of London. Robin Gwynn wrote that:
“The nature of the letters patent was most unusual. In an age which set great store on stringent religious conformity, they allowed foreigners in London to worship … freed even from the jurisdiction of the Bishop of London.”
A reason that Edward VI might well have sanctioned these foreign Protestant churches was because he hoped that they would be, to quote Gwynn:
“… the model, the blueprint, for a pure, reformed Church of England. The twin refugee churches [i.e. French and Dutch*] offer us a window into the future envisaged by Edward, a future in which there might be superintendents but not bishops.”
Laski had been a superintendent in Emden before he came to England. As such, he:
“… instituted the first example in England of fully-fledged reformed Protestant discipline, based on elected, ordained ‘elders’.”
At the end of Edward’s short reign and his successor Lady Jane Grey’s even shorter one, Queen Mary, a committed Catholic, temporarily put the brakes on the advancement of Protestantism in Britain, and Laski fled to the European mainland with some of his congregation.
The Roman Catholic Church of St Patricks that stands close to the French church was designed by John Kelly (1840-1904) and built between 1891 and 1893 on the site of one of the first Catholic buildings to be allowed in England after the Reformation (which countered Catholicism). It is interesting to note that many of the Catholics who came to London (from, for example Italy and Ireland) over the centuries were economic refugees rather than religious fugitives, as were the Huguenots.
Despite the passage of time, Soho remains a richly cosmopolitan district of London. Although there are fewer than in than in the past, the area is still home to some fine purveyors of imported foods, notably delicious ingredients from Italy. Back in the 1960s, when I was a child, my mother used to do much our food shopping in these stores as well as in French and Belgian shops, which have long since closed. The disappearance of shops such as these is probably partly a reflection of the migration of members of communities such as the Huguenots out from the centre of town to the suburbs.
*Note: the Dutch Church is currently in Austin Friars in the City. It was first established in 1550.
‘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/)
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:
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.
OUR FAVOURITE CHINESE restaurant is Golden Dragon in Gerrard Street, which is the heart of London’s Chinatown. It is particularly enjoyable to order dim sum dishes there at lunchtime or in the mid-afternoon. Amongst these delicious small plates, allow me to recommend steamed tripe with ginger and chilli, which contains tripe cooked to perfection. The other larger dishes, available during the place’s opening hours are excellent. Chinatown is rich in eateries serving Chinese food. Although we have tried several of them, we keep on returning to Golden Dragon. A visit to Gerrard Street is never complete without entering the excellently stocked Loon Fung supermarket. Between the Golden Dragon and the supermarket, there is often a street stall where followers of the Falun Gong movement, which is frowned upon by the government in China (PRC), issue propaganda material. For anyone wishing to experience a Chinatown district, Gerrard Street and its environs will not disappoint. Recently, when walking along Gerrard Street during the Chinese New Year, I wondered about the street before it became a vibrant centre of London’s Chinese community.
Gerrard Street, which was named after the soldier and courtier Charles Gerrard First Earl of Macclesfield (c1618-1694) who provided a bodyguard for William of Orange during his journey from Torbay to London in 1688, was built in about 1681 (Chinese Year of the Rooster from 18th February 1681). Gerrard built a house, which according to a map drawn in 1870 stood on the south side of Gerrard Street opposite the southern end of the present Macclesfield Street. The north side of Gerrard street, according to the map, used to be a ‘Military Garden’. This was a walled in area for military exercises using arms. This was covered with buildings by 1746, when John Rocque drew his detailed map of London.
Gerrard House occupied the site of numbers 34 and 35 Gerrard Street and was built between 1677 and 1682 (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols33-4/pp384-411). In 1708, it was owned by the well-known rake, duellist, and politician Charles Mohun, 4th Baron Mohun of Okehampton (c1675-1712), who was killed whilst fighting a duel (probably about matters both political and financial) with James Douglas, 4th Duke of Hamilton (1658-1712) in Hyde Park. Both participants of the duel were mortally wounded and each of them died soon after the fight. In the 1760s, the house was divided into two dwellings by its then owner, Commodore Sir William James (c1721-1783), who had served with the East India Company. He had been commodore of the Bombay marine and retired to England in 1759 with a huge fortune. James had been involved in various major naval fights against Indian forces along the Konkan coast of Western India. The house was destroyed by fire in 1887.
Apart from Lord Mohun and William James, many other well-known people lived along Gerrard Street. These include, to mention but a few: the poet John Dryden (1631-1700); the philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797); the antiquary Peter Le Neve (1661-1729); the Dutch painter William Sonmans (died 1708); the biographer and diarist James Boswell (1740-1795); one of the first British balloonists, John Money (1752-1817); and the theatre-manager Charles Killigrew (1655-1725). The street was also home to the ‘Literary Club’ that was founded in 1764 by Dr Samuel Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds. Meetings were held in the Turks Head Tavern, which might have been located roughly where Loon Fung stands today. It was one of at least three pubs that used to exist in Gerrard Street. Between 1794 and 1801, number 39 housed first the ‘Westminster One-Penny Post Office’, which became the ‘Two-penny Post Office’, when postal charges were increased.
In the early twentieth century, Gerrard Street was home to various restaurants serving European food and some clubs of historical importance:
“Irish proprietor Kate Meyrick ran the notorious roaring twenties 43 Club at 43 Gerrard Street and legendary jazz maverick Ronnie Scott set up his first jazz club in the basement of number 39.” (https://chinatown.co.uk/en/about-us/).
However, the area was rather run-down. In addition to restaurants and other businesses, there were also some brothels.
All of this is interesting enough, but I was curious to know about Gerrard Street’s evolution into a Chinese area. According to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinatown,_London), London’s first Chinatown was in the Limehouse district of the East End close to the London Docks. After the Blitz and WW2, the Chinese people began leaving the East End for other parts of London. The Chinese began moving into the part of Soho surrounding Gerrard Street in the 1970s, beginning with Lisle Street that runs parallel to Gerrard. However, I can remember Chinese restaurants in Gerrard Street even in the late 1960s. I recall one example in particular, The Dumpling Inn, which has long been closed. By the 1980s:
“… the area got the full Chinatown treatment; Chinese gates, street furniture and a pavilion were added, plus Gerrard Street, parts of Newport Place and Macclesfield Street became pedestrianised.” (https://chinatown.co.uk/en/about-us/).
In addition, street signs are bilingual, both in English lettering and Chinese (Mandarin) characters.
An area that began to be built-up during London’s expansion soon after the Great Fire of London (1666), has evolved from being a residential street in the late 17th century to an area known for its coffee houses and taverns in the 18th century, Gerrard Street has become world famous for its thriving Chinese activity and wonderful restaurants. Yesterday, 13th of February 2020, despite the pandemic, there were long lines of people, both Chinese and others, who were waiting to celebrate Chinese New Year, the Year of the Ox, by purchasing Chinese cakes from the several Chinese pastry shops in and around Gerrard Street. All that remains is for me to wish you all: “Kong hei fat choy” (which means something like ‘congratulations and be prosperous’.)
THIS IS NOT ABOUT our current plague, the covid19 pandemic, but an earlier one that occurred occasionally in the 19th century. In many countries today, millions of people live with plague and disease and might even accept it as a part of daily life. Fortunately, until recently this was not the case in the UK. However, in the 19th century when diseases and their transmission were less well understood than currently, living conditions in the UK were considerably less healthy than today, disease was rife, and life expectancy was not great. While walking amongst the picturesque steeply sloping back streets of Hampstead village in North London in late November 2020, we spotted a carved stone plaque high on a wall of a house, currently Heathside Preparatory School, on New End (at the point where the street makes a right angle and becomes north-south instead of east-west).
The plaque reads:
“This building was erected by voluntary contributions for a dispensary and soup kitchen. It was intended as a thank-offering to Almighty God for his special mercy in sparing this parish during the visitation of cholera in the year 1849. The site was purchased in 1850 and the building completed in 1853.
He shall deliver thee from the noisome pestilence. Thomas Ainger M.A. incumbent”
As you will discover soon, not everyone in Hampstead was spared from cholera in 1849. One of those, who was afflicted, not in 1849 but five years later, unwittingly made a great contribution to science.
“An energetic parish priest and poor-law guardian; helped to found schools and a dispensary; enlarged his church and promoted the building of new churches in the district around Hampstead.” (https://venn.lib.cam.ac.uk/).
Today, we can have injections that radically reduce the chances of suffering from cholera, but that was not the case back in 1849, when the mechanism by which the disease spreads was not yet understood. One case of the disease that significantly helped to further knowledge of its spread occurred in Hampstead in 1854.
Dr John Snow (1813-1858), who led the way in hygiene and anaesthesia, suspected that cholera was spread via drinking water. He demonstrated that cases of the disease were clustered around particular water sources. During an outbreak of cholera in 1854 in London’s Soho district, which was centred around a pump in Broad Street, now Broadwick Street, he found that by removing the handle from the pump so that the locals could no longer draw their drinking water from there, the local outbreak of cholera was brought to an end. The pump in Broad Street was only three feet away from a leaking cess pit and its water was contaminated by waste matter (www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow/broadstreetpump.html). Snow theorised that the cause of cholera was not as previously thought a ‘miasma’ in the air, but something in drinking water. Now, let Stephanie Snow continue the story (International Journal of Epidemiology, 2002; vol.31: pp 908–911):
“In 1849, the London Medical Gazette had suggested that in regard to Snow’s theory, the experimentum crucis [i.e. critical experiment] would be that the water conveyed to a distant locality where cholera had been hitherto unknown produced the disease in all who used it. One of the cholera victims Snow had traced through his Broad Street investigation was a widow who lived in Hampstead. She had a regular delivery of water from the Broad Street pump as she preferred its taste. Her last delivery was made on 31 August and by 2 September, having drunk the water, she had died from cholera. Snow regarded this as ‘the most conclusive’ of circumstances in proving the connection between the water pump and the cholera outbreak.”
The widow had lived at ‘West End’, which until the 19th century was that name of what is now West Hampstead.
The plaque in New End suggests that Hampstead Parish was ‘spared’ from the cholera in 1849. That was almost true. In that year, Hampstead had 8 deaths from cholera per 10,000, whereas many areas of London reported between 100 and 200 deaths from cholera per 10,000 (www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow/publichealth118_387_394_2004.pdf). The rate of cholera fatalities in its area was determined by the location of its drinking water supply. The uppermost rates of deaths from cholera in 1849 were exceedingly high compared with even the highest rates of covid19 infection anywhere in the UK during the second half of 2020.
John Snow had been alerted to the existence of the widow in Hampstead by Reverend Henry Whitehead (1825-1896), a vicar in London’s Soho district, who was at first sceptical of Snow’s theory of the water-borne transmission of cholera (http://www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/snow/whitehead.html) and favoured the idea that cholera existed as an airborne ‘miasma’. Although Snow and Whitehead differed on their ideas on the transmission of cholera, they decided to work together. Peter Daniell and David Markoff provide more detail (www.choleraandthethames.co.uk/cholera-in-london/cholera-in-soho/) about the widow in Hampstead:
“Whitehead was able to tell Snow about a widow living in Hampstead, who had died of cholera on the … 2nd September [i.e. 1854], and her niece, who lived in Islington, who had succumbed with the same symptoms the following day. Since neither of these women had been near Soho for a long time, it was impossible that they could have contracted the disease through breathing in the polluted air of the area. Intrigued, Dr Snow rode up to Hampstead to interview the widow’s son. He discovered from him that the widow had once lived in Broad Street, and that she had liked the taste of the well-water there so much that she had sent her servant down to Soho every day to bring back a large bottle of it for her by cart. The last bottle of water—which her niece had also drunk from—had been fetched on 31st August, at the very start of the Soho epidemic. This was just the sort of evidence he needed to prove the argument of the miasmatists wrong.”
If we had not noticed the plaque in Hampstead, I doubt that I would have become aware of the West End widow’s role in the unravelling of the method of transmission of cholera. Below the plaque and on the same wall, there is a pink granite object, which looks like a broken drinking fountain. This bears the date ‘1859’, five years after the large outbreak in Soho, and I hope that people did not contract cholera by drinking from it. It was in that year, that Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891) began his programme of improving London’s sewerage system. This helped to reduce the out breaks of cholera, but there was at least one more in the East End of London in 1866.
IN MANY MINDS ‘SOHO’ conjures up sleazy night spots, strip joints, sex shops, and risqué nightlife. For me, Soho contains many memories of my childhood. And before you wonder about what kind of upbringing I had, let me emphasise that these recollections have nothing to do with the seamier side of this colourful district in London’s West End. If you are hoping for something more ‘exciting’, stop reading now to avoid disappointment.
My mother was an artist. Her preferred metier was sculpture. In the 1960s, she used to work in the sculpture workshops at the St Martin’s School of Art on Charing Cross Road. She welded pieces of metal to create artworks. Her companions in the studio included now famous artists such as Philip King and Anthony Caro.
In addition to being a sculptor my mother was acknowledged by friends and family as being a good cook. She was a disciple of the food writer Elizabeth David, who helped introduce French and Italian cuisines into British kitchens. Ms David’s recipes required ingredients and cuts of meat not readily available to British shoppers in the 1960s. However, St Martin’s was close to Soho, in particular Old Compton Street and Brewer Street, where the ‘exotic’ ingredients needed for Ms David’s recipes were easily accessible. These streets contained a variety of shops that catered to French southern European culinary needs.
We lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb, an attractive but, in my opinion, rather dull place. As a youngster, I loved being taken into central London. My mother often took me to the West End. We used to take the ‘tube’ to Oxford Circus Station. Near there, we always entered Dickins and Jones department store. Why, I cannot say, because my mother rarely bought anything there. The ground floor of the shop was dedicated to perfume and other cosmetic sales. Once, one of the salespeople, called to me. Without prompting, she advised me never to use after shave lotions. I was far too young to have begun shaving, but I have followed her unsolicited advice ever since then. I have not yet been brave enough to experiment with these lotions and to discover why she advised against them.
After leaving the department store, we used to visit the Danish Centre in Conduit Street, where I would be treated to an open sandwich and a kransekage, a Danish confection containing marzipan. From there, we used to head for Soho.
Meat was always bought at Benoit Bulcke, a Belgian butcher shop on the corner of Old Compton Street and a smaller side street. According to my mother, only this place knew how to cut meat properly, and she was not someone to argue with. Their motto was “Meat to Please You, Pleased to Meet You”. They moved from Soho to northwest London some years ago.
Coffee was always purchased at the still extant Algerian Coffee Stores. The shop’s appearance remains unchanged since I was a child. My mother used to choose Mocha Mysore, a name which meant nothing to me as a child. Decades later, when I began visiting India, I got to visit Mysore and also Indian coffee plantations. One innovation at the Algerian Coffee Stores instituted long after my childhood, and well before the Covid-19 crisis, was the inclusion of a small counter where exquisitely made espresso coffee is served.
Other groceries were bought at Lina Stores, still in existence, and Camisa, another Italian grocery nearby. Almost every visit to Soho included a stop at Bar Italia. Founded in 1949, this coffee bar still exists. Entering it is like stepping straight from Soho into a typical bar in Italy. Much of its décor remains as I first remember it, but now the far wall of the café is lined with an enormous TV screen on which Italian football matches can be watched. Whenever we visited Bar Italia, my mother would point at a doorway close to it and tell me that it led to Jimmy’s restaurant. Founded in 1948, it was the first Greek restaurant to be opened in Soho. Although she always mentioned the place, we never ate there. However, close by in a parallel street there was an Italian restaurant, Otello, which my parents visited often, sometimes taking my sister and me.
One shop that no longer exists was on the short stretch of Old Compton Street between Moor Street and Charing Cross Road. It had trays of vegetables and salad greens on stalls on the pavement outside the front of the store. It was a French run greengrocer, whose name I cannot recall. One of the things my mother bought there was something that sounded to my young ears like ‘mush’ (rhyming with ‘slush’). I had no idea what it was or what it was used for, but I know that my mother prized it greatly. Many, many years later, I realised what she was buying was in fact ‘mache’, also known as ‘lambs lettuce’ or ‘corn salad’, and to botanists as Valerianella locusta. In the 1960s when my mother was buying mache in Soho, hardly anyone in the UK would have heard of it, let alone eaten it. Today, it is a common ingredient of packaged salads found in supermarkets. I had no idea that back in the 1960s, my mother had become a foodie trend-setter by serving us mache in our salads.
My mother died forty years ago, and Soho has changed since then, but much remains that she would have recognised. Whenever I sip coffee at Bar Italia, I raise my tiny cup of strong black coffee to her memory. Mache more than that, I cannot do!
THE USAGE OF THE WORD ‘GAY’ to refer to same sex relationships dates back to the 1960s.
Before this time, back in 1953, Victor Sassie opened a Hungarian restaurant in Greek Street in London’s Soho district. It closed a few years ago in 2018.
Apart from serving Hungarian specialities, the Gay Hussar was a popular meeting place for politicians.
My father was often invited to meet his colleague, friend, and occasional co-author the Hungarian born (Lord) Peter Bauer at the Gay Hussar. Dad was not too keen on the fare at the restaurant because he found it too rich and a bit heavy. I only ate there once. I thought that the cooking in Hungary was better than that on offer in Greek Street.
The Gay Hussar was not the only Hungarian eatery in Soho. The other was Csarda in Dean Street. This closed long before the Gay Hussar. It is one of my few minor regrets that I was never able to eat at the Csarda.
The ‘unearthing’ of an ashtray from the Gay Hussar is what prompted me to write about this no longer existing restaurant.