Changing London

From seedy sex shops to boutique hotels in Soho

I’m drinking a well-brewed latte in a new plush London hotel. Not that much of a usual event given the number of such luxurious establishments in our capital you might say; from the Dorchester in Mayfair to the Mandarin Oriental in Hyde Park they are stayed in and enjoyed by visitors all over the world.  The 91-room Ham Yard hotel, which includes a 188-seat cinema, an original Fifties four-lane bowling alley imported from Texas and a spa, is just another to add to London’s long list. Two of the levels are underground, creating one and a half acres of space under street level.

The most surprising factor in this story, however, is that the Ham Yard is built in what was once one of the seediest parts of Soho, itself one of the capital’s worst districts, sandwiched between Leicester Square and Oxford Street. In this south west corner, drug taking and prostitution was rife – for many years it was London’s red like district. The Blitz didn’t help Soho and the £100m hotel has in fact been built on the district’s last underdeveloped bomb site.

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The Ham Yard hotel – built on the last undeveloped World War Two bomb site

Ham Yard’s arrival here, and the story of the streets that surround it, are reminders of the riches to rags to riches tale that the area as a whole has gone through over the years. Soho was originally a hunting ground (the rallying call being SoHo!, hence the name), but as people sought to escape the polluted and cramped City in the 17th century some of London’s first squares were founded in these parts. But despite efforts of the wealthy landowners like the Earls of Leicester and Portland to make Soho a fashionable place, it was soon eclipsed by the likes of Mayfair and Bloomsbury.

As London’s elite headed further west, Soho attracted considerable immigration, including the Huguenots from 1688, fleeing Catholic France and later the Irish escaping famine. They brought their own fashions and tastes, a factor explaining the array of interesting cafes, restaurants, bars and diverse denominations of churches (the French Church in Soho Square was founded by the Huguenots in the 17th century). But in the process the area became run-down. Any respectable families that remained during the transition had moved away. Located between the wealthy City on one side and powerful Westminster on the other, Soho became quite seedy, with prostitutes plying their trade in and around the pubs, music halls and theatres.

Thomas Beames, whose comments I’ve included in earlier blogs, visited (an area now known as Ingestre Place, and not from the Ham Yard hotel) in 1852 and didn’t have the best words to say about the place:

“There is a mouldy, smoky, dilapidated air about the whole; some of the houses have evidently sunk much; others are closed up with shutters, the windows, in many cases, broken or mended with paper; some houses marine store shops, others inhabited by sweeps and costermongers; the usual number of idlers lounging about, so that should you stop a minute to make inquiries, a crowd of suspicious looking characters would assemble, many youths among them whose age averages from fifteen to twenty; the passages between opposite houses narrow, the pavement covered with decayed vegetable matter; Irish, the vernacular language of the inhabitants.”

In the centre of the buildings he explored, Beames found a two-storey shed said to have housed up to 30 cows (and, at the time of his visit, some pigs). The animals were “hoisted up in a sort of box like those used for the conveyance of horses by railroads” to the upper levels. Beames considered the impact the smell would have had on local residents:

“The stench arising from this packing of unwieldy animals in so small a space, and the near neighbourhood of the pigs, may be conceived. The houses in Husband Street flanked this cow-house, and their back windows looked out upon it. Between these dwellings of the poor and the place we have described were a series of excessively small, narrow, uneven yards not to appearance five feet in breadth, and this was the only open space allotted them.

“In summer, the smell from the cow-house must have been carried into every open window in the tenements described: if Husband Street on the south was thus affected, it will be asked how the dwellers on the north in Cock Court fared, small as the intervening space between the cow- house and this northern boundary is?”

The Berwick Street Rookery was just one of six that he visited for his 1852 book, The Rookeries of London. While he made a point of saying that the houses were not as crowded, squalid and miserable as those in St Giles or Saffron Hill, conditions were still bad:

“The rooms are miserably small; mere closets, very dilapidated, quite unfit for human habitation, scarcely safe, below the level of the ground, with hardly any ventilation; until lately miserably, if at all, drained, their back parts very close in consequence of the cow-house we have described; so that the atmosphere is rendered still more fetid by the rank odour continually emitted from the animals confined.”

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Ingestre Court – built following World War Two in the heart of the area that Beames described

Here lived chimney- sweepers, day labourers and food sellers. Beames noted that the latter replenished their tin cans with vegetables from stores under houses. Other cellars were “over-flowing” with rags which “at certain seasons, are carted away and sent to the paper makers.” He added:

“You are struck with the curious appearance of some of the lower windows in these houses,- old bonnets, veils, articles of dress, faded indeed, shorn of much of their original splendour, are exposed as if to tempt those who pass by; these are unlicensed pawn shops, where women deposit their wearing apparel, and with the money thus obtained gratify their passion for drinking at the next public house.”

As with the other Rookeries he surveyed, two or three of the houses were harboured by thieves. It was also at times a dangerous place with Beames noting that “inquests are common in this locality – many persons die by violence. Not long since, three women of the town were residing here, two of them sisters; the youngest died of concussion of the brain arising from a blow she had received from one of her companions in a scuffle.”

But Beames ended his write-up on a positive note, describing a plan to demolish the properties on the site and build new lodging. The fact that change did soon come to the district can be seen today in Ingestre Place, so named after Lord Ingestre (who became the 19th Earl of Shrewsbury), on what was Husband Street and New Street. Artisan’s lodgings were built in the 1850s and St James’s Dwellings was built for single women in 1886.

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Sign on the door of a private house – a fitting reminder that prostitution used to be a problem in Soho

Fast-forward to the 20th century and Soho, the birthplace of rock and roll, remained seedy. Some streets were lined with little more than sex shops and striptease shows. While these institutions have not completely disappeared, they are less common – many far more discerning businesses have moved into the area in recent years. Smart restaurants and bars attract customers from areas of town that once wouldn’t dream of risking their lives in the dangerous streets of Soho.

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Lively Soho

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