Rebels, Rogues and Rakes: the People who Made Soho
Soho frequently tops the polls as London’s favourite neighbourhood.
With its historic pubs, hip bars, diverse cuisine and a proliferation of specialist shops, this recognition is well-deserved. Despite raging property prices, the march of gentrification and the transformation brought about by Crossrail, Soho still has a soul.
The neighbourhood started life as medieval monastic lands owned by either the Abbey of Abingdon or the Abbey of Vale Royal – the freehold details have become misty over time. With Henry VIII’s Brexit-like break with Rome, the monasteries were done away with. Their gardens and orchards became a royal hunting forest close to the King’s palace at Whitehall. The huntsmen’s cry of ‘so-ho’ gave the area its name.
As successive monarchs needed to get their hands on cash, or confer favours on loyal followers, plots of land were sold off. In 1635, the second Earl of Leicester built one of London’s grandest residences at Leicester House in Leicester Fields – now Leicester Square. Aristocratic freeholders sub-let land to get-rich-quick builders eager to spot an opportunity. It was these men – Beake, Mearde, Tyler and others – who developed the Soho we know today and whose streets bear their names.
Fashionable Soho became desirable in the 1800s (just as it did again in the 1960s) – but on each occasion only for the briefest of moments. The creation of Regent’s Street in 1825 by celebrated architect John Nash, shifted the focus of aristocratic society further west, with Mayfair becoming the place to be. Soho’s grand houses declined, the rich and the powerful fled west and a new breed of Soho citizen moved in. The first were Huguenot protestant
weavers fleeing persecution by Catholic absolutist French monarch Louis XV. They were followed by Jews escaping pogroms in eastern Europe. Then came Italians, Greeks, Irish and Lithuanians.
The idea of Soho being a place where foreign ways of doing things were tolerated, attracted artists, makers and musicians. Those outside the mainstream found not just cheap digs in Soho, but a sense of tolerance and belonging. This atmosphere pervades to this day.
Soho has evolved over the years in a stop-start fashion. It’s had its peaks and troughs, but its ability to re-invent itself has ensured its place in our city’s history – and our hearts. This story of its re-invention is best told through some key characters who have shaped Soho over the centuries.
These include lovelorn diarist and former London Magazine contributor, William Hazlitt (1778-1830), who is said to have died in Frith Street in the arms of his housekeeper. Hazlitt is considered now to be one of the greatest critics in the English language. Some attributed his death to too much teadrinking (cholera or stomach cancer is the more likely cause). The story goes that, in the immediate moments after his death, said housekeeper concealed Hazlitt’s still-warm body behind a large piece of furniture as prospective tenants looked round the house.
Famously, Hazlitt’s last words were: ‘Well, I’ve had a happy life.’ This was a surprise to his friends and associates, like the essayist Charles Lamb, who had witnessed Hazlitt’s bouts of depression. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said of Hazlitt that his manners were ‘99 in a 100 singularly repulsive’. Hazlitt’s life was in fact an emotionally-charged one dominated by obsession and unrequited love.
After an unsuccessful first marriage, Hazlitt fell in love with the daughter of his landlord but these feelings weren’t mutual. He wrote a painfully honest account about this three-year unsuccessful obsession in his book Libor Amoris. He then moved on, marrying wife number two, widower Mrs Bridgewater. She left him abruptly after a continental tour. Hazlitt was