It has everything you could wish for, and most of the things you wouldn’t want. The network of old streets, alleys and squares that make up London’s notoriously bohemian quarter are steeped in centuries of guile, loucheness, corruption, bombast and plain silliness – ideal compost for ‘Private Eye’ magazine, which inhabits a 17th-century building at its heart. But if you thought Soho’s historic character is safe, think again. Old buildings are being destroyed. So trebles all round to toast its past, says ‘Eye’ journalist Tim Minogue
Apart from having been the office since 1984 of the satirical magazine Private Eye, there are two other things that make Number 6 Carlisle Street, Soho, rather special. It is unlikely that many of the patrons of “London’s finest lesbian bar”, two doors away at Number 4, will be aware of it – let alone the chaps who emerge buffed but smarting after a “boyzilian” wax at the unisex beauty salon at Number 5 – but these diverse businesses inhabit three of the very few houses which have survived from the building boom which saw “Soho Fields” built over in the 1680s and 1690s.
Architecturally, Soho was, and remains, a fascinating, diverse area – yet, strangely, is not often written about. Much of interest endures, but far more has been lost – indeed continues to be lost, with recent unfortunate sudden blazes and unwelcome “legitimate” bulldozers even now steadily diminishing its historic interest. Though often thought of as a Georgian fiefdom, the distinct arrangement of streets and squares, and here and there buildings and parts of buildings, are definitively late 17th century – and, thus, fall within the outer reaches of the SPAB core period.
Since Number 6 Carlisle Street was built, circa 1685, it has been home to a hatter, a wig-maker, a seller of lamp-glasses, a briner (who preserved meat by salting), a lace-maker, a firm of solicitors, various tailors, a domestic service agency, a goldsmith, an ivory-turner, a dancing academy, a stationer, a film production company and, immediately before the Eye, a firm of architects.
But by far the most distinguished resident, as drinkers spilling out from the Nellie Dean pub on the corner may discover, if they raise their heads to the blue plaque on the front of Number 6, was John Christopher Smith (1683-1763), Georg Frideric Handel’s friend and business manager, who died in the house four years after the great composer. Alas, the plaque muddles him up with his son – understandably perhaps, because he too was called John Christopher Smith (1712-1795) and also worked as the composer’s amanuensis. The plaque gives “Smith’s” dates as 1712-1763 – taking the birth date from the son and the date of death from the father. Lord Gnome would not tolerate such sloppiness.
Nevertheless, the knowledge that Handel was almost certainly a regular visitor gives me a small thrill every time I enter the Eye’s gloomy hallway, which retains its original 17th-century panelling, on which hang photographs of distinguished departed contributors including William Rushton, John Wells, Paul Foot and Peter Cook – the so-called “wall of death”. More panelling survives on the stairs, where one encounters a reproduction of Johann Zoffany’s portrait of John Christopher Smith junior – the man who didn’t live here – and in the editor’s office on the first floor. The Eye’s “hacks” work in small rooms which follow the original floor plan, while the magazine is laid out in a modern studio built above what was once the house’s garden at the rear. A large, dank cellar with extensive late 17th-century brickwork and door frames extends beneath the road at the front and to the rear, frequently featuring standing water which is believed to derive from a well.
Until a German air raid on the night of 11 May 1941, Carlisle Street was also the home of a much more notable survivor of the 1680s. Carlisle House, a handsome, pedimented mansion built across the end of the cul-de-sac, faced east into Soho Square. It derived its name from having being the home in the years 1725-1751 of the spectacularly snobbish Lady Anne de Vere Capell – later Countess of Carlisle and wife of Charles Howard, a suspiciously brief holder of the post of First Lord of the Treasury – who attempted to go through life without ever speaking to anyone she regarded as her social inferior.
IN 1763 Carlisle House was purchased by an Italian fencing and riding master, Domenico Angelo Malevotta
Tremamondo, who taught fencing to the Prince of Wales, the future George III. Domenico’s wide circle included the actor David Garrick, the musicians Johann Christian Bach and Karl Abel, who lived next door, and the painters Zoffany, Reynolds, Canaletto and Stubbs. The young dramatist-to-be Richard Brinsley Sheridan took riding lessons here, in exchange for which his father Thomas taught Domenico elocution. George Stubbs, meanwhile, sketched the horses at the riding school at the back. It has been suggested that Charles Dickens took Carlisle House, by then divided into tenements, as the model for Dr Manette and his daughter Lucie’s home-in-exile in A Tale of Two Cities. Badly damaged, the house was in time replaced by a dull office building; this is now earmarked for demolition to make way for a “budget” hotel.
For an area so rich in historical associations, few really old buildings survive. The four horsemen of the architectural apocalypse – greed, stupidity, fire and war – have taken a heavy toll on the area’s physical fabric. Only two of Soho Square’s original houses survive, Numbers 10 and 14. Among many sad losses are William Blake’s birthplace on Broadwick Street, which was then known as Broad Street. A hideous block of flats now stands on the site.
The campaign to save Blake’s birthplace began around 1962, and rumbled on until it was eventually pulled down in 1965. This was the time, remember, when treasures such as the Euston Arch were being consigned to history, despite the huge outcry. Poor William’s house, though clearly marked with a commemorative plaque, was not spared. Had it survived, it would now be one of the capital’s cultural must-sees. A final irony is that the grotesque block that replaced it – which took the artist’s name, adding insult to injury – is itself now slated for redevelopment, to be replaced with… another block of flats. This one will be aimed at “artistic” types with a lot of spare cash.
Blake’s local church in Soho, St Anne’s, was consecrated in 1686 to serve the newly-built parish. It too fell victim to a German incendiary bomb, in September 1940. The tower, however, survives, and can be visited by arrangement. The 1960s saw large-scale demolitions take place across Soho, removing dozens of houses and shops dating from the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Nor, of course, has the introduction of the statutory listing regime and the rise of a greater sensitivity to historic buildings and areas protected venerable old survivals from untimely accidents.
On 10th July 2009, 76 Dean Street, which had one of the best early Georgian interiors in London, was gutted by fire. This fine, grade II listed building boasted one of the best-preserved very early 18th-century townhouse murals anywhere in Britain – a large-scale set of naval scenes, warships in full sail on balmy seas. As well as the murals, it retained a large proportion of its original fixtures and fittings. The owner of the now gravely damaged house is a commercial office firm. Faulty air conditioning has been identified as the cause of the blaze. The owner wishes to demolish and rebuild. Westminster Council and English Heritage oppose demolition. But even now there is some hope for Number 76. A spokesperson for English Heritage has just told Cornerstone: “Pre-application discussions are taking place with the owners and Westminster City Council – the owners have agreed to repair the surviving historic panelling, and to reconstruct the historic interiors of the rear rooms.
‘MOST FASHIONABLE WAS THE HANDSOME SQUARE, WITH A STATUE OF CHARLES II AT ITS CENTRE ATOP A FOUNTAIN WHOSE SPOUTS REPRESENTED THE RIVERS THAMES, SEVERN, TYNE AND HUMBER’
“The shell of the rear extension will be demolished and, it is proposed, replaced with a new one. Fortunately, the building is extremely well recorded, so it is possible to reconstruct the lost rooms to a high degree of accuracy.”
It’s not been all bad news in Soho. From time to time, outbursts of conservation zeal have held back the forces of destruction. That the elegant early Georgian terrace on the north side of Broadwick Street survives at all is down to architectural campaigning, and interiors have had their champions too, most notably in the case of Westminster Council, who in 1989 prosecuted the owners of 67 Dean Street following the unauthorised removal of its original 18th-century panelling. The prosecution was successful, leading to a fine of £14,000 and – miraculously, perhaps – the eventual reinstatement of the original panelling.
BACK at Carlisle Street, the site of Domenico Angelo’s riding and fencing school is now occupied by Film House, formerly the HQ of British Pathé, onetime makers of stirring cinema newsreels. I find the idea of a riding school amid the cramped streets of Soho strange and exhilarating, yet less than 100 years previously Soho Fields had been open countryside bounded by the ancient highways Tyburn Road (Oxford Street), Hog Lane (Charing Cross Road) and Coleman Hedge Lane (Wardour Street). The area’s name derives from “So-hoe”, an old hunting call, which is thought to have attached itself to an ale house on Coleman Hedge Lane.
Soho Fields were not built on until the late 17th century because a series of Royal proclamations forbade it. But following the plague and the Great Fire, the demand of London’s better-off inhabitants to live somewhere cleaner, with fresher air than the City, became unstoppable. So licences and leases were granted and the 22 acres of the newly-formed St Anne’s parish disappeared under bricks and mortar. The most fashionable place to live was the handsome square, originally King’s Square, with a statue of Charles II at its centre atop a fountain whose four spouts represented the rivers Thames, Severn, Tyne and Humber.
That statue of King Charles has a fascinating micro-history of its own. The work of Caius Gabriel Cibber, the stone monarch presided over change in the square for nearly two centuries, until it was removed in 1875, having decayed to such an extent that the Victorians thought it a relic whose greatly eroded presence had ceased to speak of regal magnificence. It passed through several sets of hands, and locations, until WS Gilbert became owner of Norman Shaw’s Grim’s Dyke House, near Harrow – where the statue graced an island in the ornamental lake. It is likely that Charles II was a silent witness to Gilbert’s untimely death in the water there in 1911, when he suffered a heart attack while giving two young ladies a swimming lesson. In her will, Lady Gilbert ordered that the statue be returned to the square. And so it was, in 1938 – just in time for the war.
SOME extremely grand individuals had houses in King’s Square/Soho Square in the early days, principally Charles II’s illegitimate son James, the Duke of Monmouth, whose magnificent mansion, possibly designed by Wren, stood on the south side of the square. Monmouth was beheaded in 1685 after leading the failed rebellion against his uncle, James II. The site is now occupied by the Soho Health Centre, formerly the Women’s Hospital.
Other distinguished residents of the square have included the naval hero, Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, Commander-in-Chief of the British fleet, who drowned off the Scilly Isles in 1707, at Number 20; Crimea nurse Mary Seacole at Number 14; and the great botanist Sir Joseph Banks at Number 32. Their contributions to humanity were all enormous, but by far the most interesting resident of the square was a woman whose contribution to the greater good was zero.
Immoral, promiscuous, spendthrift, dishonest and egotistical, Teresa Cornelys was an opera singer and adventuress – and one of Casanova’s lovers. She was born in Venice in 1723 and for most of the 1760s and 1770s dominated the London social scene with her exclusive and expensive “assemblies” at another Carlisle House, a mansion on the east side of the square, where St Patrick’s church now stands. Rumours persist that a narrow tunnel connects the two Carlisle Houses.
The furniture for Teresa’s grand pleasure house was made by her friend (until he realised he would never be paid) Thomas Chippendale, the music was provided by JC Bach and Karl Abel, and anyone who was anyone had to be there. As the years went on, the parties became wilder. Venetian-style masked balls enabled secret affairs to be carried on in the warren of bedrooms upstairs, while, downstairs, the drinking and dancing continued until dawn and beyond. On one fairly typical night a Belgian called Joseph Merlin attempted to demonstrate his new invention – roller skates – while playing the violin. He collided at speed with a large mirror, which shattered, severely lacerating the drunken fiddler and postponing the advent of roller-skating as a popular pastime for more than 100 years.
Despite the tens of thousands of pounds that passed through her hands, Teresa Cornelys was constantly in debt. When the fashionable set deserted her for an even grander pleasure palace, the Pantheon, which opened in Oxford Street in 1772, her finances became ever more chaotic. She was eventually hounded by her creditors into the Fleet Prison, where she died in squalor in 1797.
If Mrs Cornelys was a pioneer of louche behaviour in Soho, she was quickly followed by a more sinister element, which has never really gone away. In the 1780s and 90s, on the corner opposite Carlisle House across Sutton Row, stood “The White House” – an “hotel” which, according to the journalist Henry Mayhew, writing some years later, was “a notorious place of ill-fame”. It wasn’t just any old walk-up knocking shop, but a “magical” brothel, fitted out with various mechanical contraptions designed to terrify the unwary.
Soho still has its share of houses of ill-repute, but in the 21st century there is a more amiable feel than there was for much of the second half of the 20th, when the area was dominated by the sex trade, the protection racket and the bent copper. People still throng here in search of pleasures of one sort or another, much as they have done for more than 300 years, but these days the atmosphere is far less seedy and furtive than it once was.
YET big changes are underway in our little corner, where more buildings are coming down and vast holes are appearing in the ground to accommodate the building of platforms and ticket halls for the huge Crossrail project, due for completion in 2016. As readers of Cornerstone will know, one of these buildings – the nice, intact Georgian house at 94 Dean Street, a few doors down from poor old fire-blackened Number 76 – recently featured in SPAB casework. Draconian powers granted to sweep away buildings for the huge Crossrail transport project mean that formal, statutory heritage group and local authority opposition to proposed demolitions relating to the scheme can simply be side-stepped. So it has been with 94 Dean Street – an essential site, apparently, for a ventilation shaft. Detailed recording work has been undertaken at this house, but of course we would all prefer to hang on to an old house, rather than look at drawings and photographs of it, no matter how beautifully done.
And architectural oblivion has arrived at Private Eye’s doorstep. Almost literally. A painted yellow circle, some 15 feet across, has appeared on the surface of Carlisle Street, a few steps from our front door. It presages another Crossrail excavation and will bring four years of noise, dust and vibration – not an ideal accompaniment for ferreting out stories or writing jokes. So it looks as if the Eye may have to move, for a while at least. If it does happen, I hope we will not be going too far from the ghosts of Handel, Mrs Cornelys and Peter Cook.
Tim Minogue writes Private Eye’s ‘Rotten Boroughs’column. Additional research by Robin Stummer.