The area which is now Soho was grazing farmland until 1536, when it was taken by Henry VIII as a royal park for the Palace of Whitehall. The name “Soho” first appears in the 17th century. Most authorities believe that the name derives from the old “soho!” hunting call (“Soho! There goes the fox!” etc.). The Duke of Monmouth used “soho” as a rallying call for his men at the Battle of Sedgemoor, half a century after the name was first used for this area of London.
In the 1660s the Crown granted Soho Fields to Henry Jermyn, 1st Earl of St Albans. He leased 19 of its 22 acres to Joseph Girle, who as soon as he had gained permission to build there, promptly passed his lease and licence to bricklayer Richard Frith in 1677, who began its development. In 1698 William III granted the Crown freehold of most of this area to William, Earl of Portland. Meanwhile the southern part of what became the parish of St Anne Soho was sold by the Crown in parcels in the 16th and 17th century, with part going to Robert Sidney, Earl of Leicester.
Despite the best intentions of landowners such as the Earls of Leicester and Portland to develop the land on the grand scale of neighbouring Bloomsbury, Marylebone and Mayfair, it never became a fashionable area for the rich, and immigrants settled in the area: the French church in Soho Square is witness to its position as a centre for French Huguenots in the 17th and 18th centuries. By the mid 1700s the aristocrats who had been living in Soho Square or Gerrard Street had moved away. Soho’s character stems partly from the ensuing neglect by rich and fashionable London, and its lack of development and redevelopment that characterizes its neighbouring areas.
By the mid 1800s all respectable families had moved away and prostitutes, music halls and small theatres had moved in. In the early 1900s foreign nationals opened cheap eating-houses and it became a fashionable place to eat for intellectuals, writers and artists. From the 1930s to the early 1960s, Soho folklore states that the pubs of Soho were packed every night with drunken writers, poets and artists, many of whom never stayed sober long enough to become successful; and it was also during this period that the Soho pub landlords established themselves.
A significant event in the history of epidemiology and public health was the study of an 1854 outbreak of cholera in Soho by Dr. John Snow. He identified the cause of the outbreak as the public water pump located at the junction of Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) and Cambridge Street (now Lexington Street), close to the rear wall of what is today the John Snow public house.
John Snow mapped the addresses of the sick, and noted that they were mostly people whose nearest access to water was the Broad Street pump. He persuaded the authorities to remove the handle of the pump, thus preventing any more of the infected water being collected. The spring below the pump was later found to be contaminated with sewage. This is an early example of epidemiology, public health medicine and the application of science—the germ theory of disease — in real time.
The 2006 appearance of the places related to the Broad Street Pump outbreak of cholera is described here:
Almost every structure that stood on Broad Street in the late summer of 1854 has been replaced by something new — thanks in part to the Luftwaffe, and in part to the creative destruction of booming urban real estate markets. (Even the streets names have been altered. Broad Street was renamed Broadwick in 1936). The pump, of course, is long gone, though a replica with a small plaque stands several blocks from the original site on Broad Street. A block east of where the pump once stood is a sleek glass office building designed by Richard Rogers with exposed piping painted a bold orange; its glassed-in lobby hosts a sleek, perennially crowded sushi restaurant. St. Luke's Church, demolished in 1936, has been replaced by the sixties development Kemp House, whose fourteen stories house a mixed-use blend of offices, flats, and shops. The entrance to the workhouse on Poland Street is now a quotidian urban parking garage, though the workhouse structure is still intact, and visible from Dufours Place, lingering behind the postwar blandness of Broadwick Street like some grand Victorian fossil. (…) On Broad Street itself, only one business has remained constant over the century and half that separates us from those terrible days in September 1854. You can still buy a pint of beer at the pub on the corner of Cambridge Street, not fifteen steps from the site of the pump that once nearly destroyed the neighbourhood. Only the name of the pub is changed. It is now called The John Snow.
A replica of the pump, with a memorial plaque, now stands near the location of the original pump.
The music scene in Soho can be traced back to 1948 and Club Eleven which is generally revered as the fountainhead of modern jazz in the UK. It was located at 41 Great Windmill Street. The Harmony Inn was an unsavoury cafe and hang-out for musicians on Archer Street operating during the 1940s and 1950s. It stayed open very late attracting jazz fans from the nearby Cy Laurie Jazz Club.
And the ghastly fire in Soho, seven children at a go — In the crowd stands Mack the Knife, but he's not asked and doesn't know.
The Ken Colyer Band's 51 Club (Great Newport Street) opened in the eary fifties. Blues guitarist and harmonica player Cyril Davies and guitarist Bob Watson launched the London Skiffle Centre, London’s first skiffle club, on the first floor of the Roundhouse pub on Wardour Street in 1952 .
In the early 1950s, Soho became the center of the Beatnik culture in London. Coffee Bars like Le Macabre (Wardour Street) which had coffin shaped tables, fostered beat poetry, jive dance and political debate. The Goings On located in Archer Street was and Sunday afternoon club, organised by Liverpool beat poets Pete Brown, Johnny Byrne and Spike Hawkins, that opened in January 1966. For the rest of the week it operated as an illegal gambling den. Other “beat” coffee bars in Soho included the French, Le Grande, Stockpot, Melbray, Universal, La Roca, Freight Train (Skiffle star Chas McDevitt’s place), El Toro, Picasso, Las Vegas, and the Moka Bar.
The 2 i’s Coffee Bar (live acts performed in the tiny basement) was probably the first rock club in Europe, opened in 1956 (59 Old Compton Street) and soon Soho was the centre of the fledgling rock scene in London. Clubs included the Flamingo Club (which started in 1952 as Jazz at the Mapleton), La Discotheque, Whiskey a Go Go, Ronan O'Rahilly's (of pirate radio station, Radio Caroline fame) The Scene in 1962 (first mod club - near the Windmill Theatre in Ham Yard - formally The Piccadilly Club) and jazz clubs like Ronnie Scott's (opened in 1959 at 39 Gerrard Street and moved to 47 Frith Street in 1965 ) and the 100 Club.
Soho's Wardour Street was the home of the legendary Marquee Club (90 Wardour Street) which opened in 1958 and where the Rolling Stones first performed in July 1962. Eric Clapton and Brian Jones both lived for a time in Soho sharing a flat with future rock publicist, Tony Brainsby. Later, the Sex Pistols lived above number 6 Denmark Sreet, and recorded their first demos there.
Record shops cluster in the area around Berwick Street, where shops such as Blackmarket Records and Vinyl Junkies offer the latest releases. Soho is also the home of London's main gay village, around Old Compton Street, where there are dozens of businesses thriving on the pink pound. On April 30 1999, the Admiral Duncan pub on Old Compton Street, which serves the gay community, was damaged by a nail bomb planted by neo-Nazi David Copeland. It left three dead (two of whom were heterosexual) and 30 injured.
Soho is home to religious and spiritual groups, notably St Ann's Church on Dean Street (damaged by a V1 flying bomb during World War II, and re-opened in 1990), St Patrick's Church in Soho Square (founded by Irish immigrants in the 19th century), City Gates Church with their centre in Greens Court, the Hare Krishna Temple off Soho Square and a small mosque on Berwick Street.
Gerrard Street is the centre of London's Chinatown, a mix of import companies and restaurants (including Lee Ho Fook's, mentioned in Warren Zevon's song Werewolves of London). Street festivals are held throughout the year, most notably on the Chinese New Year.
On Valentines Day 2006, a new campaign was launched to drive business back into the heart of Soho London. The campaign, called I Love Soho, was created by high profile Marketing Manager Prannay Rughani (who also heads up the Paramount Pictures licensed multi-million pound Cheers bars in Europe, and in addition, the Soho Clubs and Bars Group), and also features a community focused web-site (www.ilovesoho.co.uk). The campaign was launched in a blaze of publicity at the iconic former Raymond Revue Bar in Walkers Court made famous by its strip license and neons, with such celebrities in attendance as Charlotte Church, Amy Winehouse and Paris Hilton. I Love Soho is backed by the former Mayor of London Ken Livingston, the Soho Society, Westminster Council and Visit London.
Soho is near the heart of London's theatre area, and is a centre of the independent film and video industry as well as the television and film post-production industry. It is home to Soho Theatre, built in 2000 to present new plays and stand-up comedy. The British Board of Film Classification, formerly known as the British Board of Film Censors, can be found in Soho Square.
Soho is criss-crossed by a rooftop telecommunication network, and below ground level with fiber optics making up Sohonet, which connects the Soho media and post-production community to British film studio locations such as Pinewood Studios and Shepperton Studios, and to other major production centres such as Rome, New York City, Los Angeles, Sydney, and Wellington, New Zealand.
There are also plans by Westminster Council to deploy high-bandwidth Wi-Fi networks in Soho as part of a program to further encourage the development of the area as a centre for media and technology industries.
The Soho area has been at the heart of London's sex industry for at least 200 years.
Prior to the introduction of the Street Offences Act in 1959, prostitutes packed the streets and alleys of Soho and by the early sixties the area was home to nearly a hundred strip clubs and almost every doorway in Soho had little postcards advertising "Large Chest for Sale" or "French Lessons Given". These were known as "walk ups". With prostitution driven off the streets, many clubs such as The Blue Lagoon became prostitution fronts. The Metropolitan Police Vice squad at that time suffered from corrupt police officers involved with enforcing organised crime control of the area, but simultaneously accepting "back-handers" or bribes.
Clip Joints also surfaced in the sixties, these establishments sold colored water as champagne with the promise of sex to follow, thus fleecing tourists looking for a "good time". Also in 1960, London's first sex cinema theatre, the Compton Cinema Club (a membership only club to get around the law) opened at 56 Old Compton Street. It was owned by Michael Klinger who produced many of the early Roman Polański Films such as Cul-de-Sac (1966). Michael Klinger also owned the Heaven and Hell hostess club (which had earlier been just a Beatnik club) across the road and a few doors down from the 2I's on the corner of Old Compton Street and Dean Street.
Harrison Marks, a "glamour photographer" and girlie magazine publisher had a photographic gallery located in Gerrard Street and published several magazines including Spic and Span, which sold from the late fifties on. The content, however, by today's standard was very innocent.
By the mid seventies the sex shops had grown from the handful opened by Carl Slack in the early sixties to a total of fifty nine sex shops which then dominated the square mile. Some had secret backrooms selling hardcore photographs, Beeline Books (Published in America by David Zentner ) and Olympia press editions. By the 1980s, purges of the police force along with a tightening of licensing controls by the City of Westminster led to a crackdown on these illegal premises. By 2000, a substantial relaxation of general censorship, and the licensing or closing of unlicensed sex shops had reduced the red-light area to just a small area around Brewer Street and Berwick Street. Several strip clubs in the area were reported in London's Evening Standard newspaper in February 2003 to still be rip-offs (known as Clip joints), aiming to intimidate customers into paying for absurdly over-priced drinks and very mild 'erotic entertainment'. Prostitution is still widespread in parts of Soho, with several buildings used as brothels, and there is a persistent problem with drug dealing on some street corners.
The Windmill Theatre was notorious for its risqué nude tableaux vivants, in which the models had to remain motionless to avoid censorship. It opened in June 1931 and was the only theatre in London which never closed , except for the twelve compulsory days between 4 and 16 September 1939, throughout the blitz. It stood on the site of a windmill that dated back to the reign of Charles II until late in the eighteenth century. The theatre was sold to the Compton Cinema Group and it closed on 31 October 1964 and was reconstructed as a cinema and casino.
The name and control of the theatre (but crucially, not the property itself) was bought by Gerald Simi in 1997. Gradually the theatre's fortunes waned, with Simi citing rising rent demands from Raymond as the cause.
The Revuebar closed on June 10, 2004 and became a gay bar and cabaret venue called Too2Much, designed by Anarchitect.. In November 2006, it changed its name to Soho Revue Bar. The launch party included performances by Boy George, Anthony Costa, and Marcella Detroit.