Antony Rob­bins

Rebels, Rogues and Rakes: the Peo­ple who Made Soho

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

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