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The History of Soho

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Although it seems incredible when walking the busy streets of one of London’s most fashionable inner city areas, Soho was originally a collection of quiet rural grassland and fields. The rural idlyll was once a hunting ground belonging to Henry VIII and attached to the Palace of Whitehall . The Crown subsequently granted a lease on the area Soho Fields to Henry Jermyn, 1st Earl of St Albans. The Earl then sub let 19 of the 22 acres to Joseph Girle, who managed to get permission to build there. Upon gaining these rights to develop the area, Girle passed the lease and the licence to build to bricklayer Richard Frith in 1677. This marked the start of development there and the end of the area’s rural character. Frith began to build on the plot almost immediately. The freehold for the Soho area was passed by King William III to William, Earl of Portland in 1698. The southern portion of Soho, later to become the Parish of St Anne , was sold off by the Crown in parcels during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Earl of Leicester, Robert Sidney was one of the purchasers.

It was always the intention of the landowners that Soho would become a fashionable area, attractive to the wealthy and influential cream of London. Neighbouring districts such as Bloomsbury , Marylebone and Mayfair had been developed on a grand scale and had successfully bloomed into very desirable districts. However, the plan failed and the few wealthy aristocrats that had made their home in Soho eventually sold up and moved on. The area became inhabited by immigrants. The Huguenot from France founded the French Church in Soho Square in the 17th century. The character of Soho began to change as the money moved out and theatre houses and drinking dens moved in. Along with the music halls and theatres came prostitutes and by the mid 19th century Soho was firmly associated with the more colourful aspects of life!

During the 19th century Soho played a part in the advancement of science. During the cholera outbreak of 1854, Dr John Snow ’s study of the Broad Street Pump lead to him identifying the cause of the disease. It was a significant development in eradicating cholera which caused so much death and suffering in Britain’s unsanitary cities at the time.

By the turn of the 20th century Soho’s character was established and the area began to attract writers, artists and intellectuals - all drawn to the unique flavour of Soho. The area became fashionable for different reasons, it began to emerge as the Bohemia of central London. The first years of the 20th century saw this theme develop as immigrants opened eating houses in Soho and these gave the artistic
community a place to gather to dream and scheme. From the 1930s to the 1960s pubs and clubs sprang up in Soho as the area lived up to its well deserved reputation for bawdy colour.

Blues and jazz found a natural home in Soho’s sleazy clubs and pubs. In 1948 a new establishment opened that heralded the start of Soho’s association with the jazz and blues music scene. ‘Club Eleven’ was at 41 Great Windmill Street and is considered an essential part of British jazz history. Soho’s association with the alternative side of
music continued through the rock and roll years and it became a centre of the ‘Mod’ culture of the late 50s and early 60s. ‘The Scene’, the first mod club, opened near the Windmill Theatre in 1962. Musicians have continued to live and play in Soho even though now most of the myriad independent record shops that were once the pride of the area are now all but gone.

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A widespread taste for pornography means that nature is alerting us to some threat of extinction - James G Ballard
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