Stories of the Streets of London

Baker, H. Barton


CHAPTER XII: Soho--Its Streets and Reminiscences

CHAPTER XII: Soho--Its Streets and Reminiscences


A WAYFARER, in the earliest decades of the eighteenth century, after passing St. Giles's Church, and Roundhouse-the station-house of that day-would have found himself at the junction of two country roads; the one, on the left, leading to Uxbridge, the other, straight before him, to Hampstead. A little to the north-east, where now stands the British Museum, he would have caught sight of stately Montagu House, and to the east of that the less conspicuous pile of Bedford House, both encompassed by extensive grounds; north of these mansions all would be open meadows, much frequented by hot-blooded gentlemen, among whom, as with Mercutio, it was a word and a blow. Many bloody duels were fought in those fields.[1] 

At the corner of the northern road our wayfarer's eye might have rested upon a wooden booth, wherein the redoubtable James Figg, whose pictorial card was engraved by Hogarth, challenged all comers with fists, broadsword, quarter-staff, or any other weapon, to try conclusions with him. A few years later his pupil, John Broughton, the first of the champion pugilists, opened a much larger booth on the ground, where Hanway Street now stands, and was patronised by the elite of fashion; for while the area was crowned with the ruffianism of St. Giles, mingled with citizens and professional men, the galleries were filled with lords and ladies, headed by Frederick Prince of Wales on one side, and his Royal Highness of Cumberland -deadly rivals-on the other, with their respective sultanas, all of whom took as much delight in seeing Broughton and Slack, the butcher, beat one another into a red jelly, as did the groundlings below.

While, as I have said, all to the north was open country, on the south the town, even in the time of Charles II., extended some little distance west of the church. Indeed, building between Leicester Fields and Tyburn Road (now Oxford Street) must have commenced in the reign of his father, as in the parish books of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, Peter Cunningham


found an entry, under date 1636, referring to persons who lived at the brick kilns near " So Hoe!"

The origin of that curious name has been always a puzzle to antiquaries. As everybody knows, it is a hunting cry, and in the sixteenth century, curiously as it sounds to us, the neighbourhood afforded good sport, and on certain days the Lord Mayor and aldermen there hunted the hare and the fox, that could then find thyme-scented herbage and bosky coverts upon the ground over which Dean Street and Wardour Street now run their unsavoury lengths, and many a puss has been bagged, and many a brush secured round about St. Giles's Church.[2]  Thus it might have been the cry of the huntsmen that suggested "So Hoe!"

Years afterwards that cry led thousands to death on the bloody field of Sedgemoor, where it was the watchword of the unfortunate Duke of Monmouth, who had a noble mansion on the south side of King's Square, afterwards renamed Soho. At that time, and many years afterwards, Soho Square was one of the handsomest parts of the metropolis; it had a railedin grass-plotted centre, with a fountain in the middle. The imposing pile of Monmouth House dominated all the neighbouring domiciles; standing within a large courtyard, its gardens extended to Compton Street. Monmouth Street, afterwards Dudley Street, so notorious as an emporium of " Ole Clo," was built


over a part of them. Monmouth House was demolished more than a century ago; the Women's Hospital occupies a portion of the site.

Another famous resident of the Square was Madame Corneleys, who, about 1770, was giving her splendid masquerade balls at Carlisle House, formerly the residence of the Earls of Carlisle, which stood at the corner of Carlisle Street, then Merry Andrew Street. Madame Corneleys was a German singer who came over to England to follow her vocation, lost her voice, and was only rescued from utter destitution by a prize in the lottery of £20,000. Her garret in St. Giles's was quickly exchanged for fashionable apartments; Madame became a ionne ; the bestdressed woman in London, drove the smartest of equipages, and gave little card parties, which proved so lucrative that she was able to spend £ 11,000 on furnishing Carlisle House for her reception. It was at the suggestion of his Grace of Queensberry that she added bals masques to her other entertainments, and the town went " horn mad " over them.

Not since the days of "King Monmouth" had the Square presented such scenes of gaiety. From nine at night until six in the morning one continuous stream of gilded and emblazoned carriages, with gorgeous coachmen and footmen, made their way through an evil-smelling mass of rags, filth and ruffianism, assembled to jeer, applaud, insult and rob. Hither came dukes and duchesses and princes of the blood, some in very eccentric costumes; the


Countess of Pomfret one night made a sensation as the Witch of Endor, the Duchess of Kingston-the heroine of a most notorious trial for bigamy ; she who hounded Sam Foote to death for satirizing her and her myrmidons in his Trip to Calais-created a yet greater, when she appeared as Iphigenia, her beautiful and voluptuous figure only veiled by gauzes; the admired of all observers was a noble lady, every seam of whose dress of cloth of gold was encrusted with precious stones, and who carried upon her head, neck, and arms diamonds worth £100,000. But the climax was reached when a captain in the Guards presented himself as Adam, with the addition only of fleshcoloured tights to the biblical costume. Might the gentleman who, made up as a corpse, alighted from a coffin and danced in a winding-sheet, afford a hint to some one competing for a prize at the Covent Garden balls ? A Roman Catholic chapel now occupies the site of Carlisle House.

The White House, upon the scenes of which Messrs. Cross & Blackwell now stew jams and pickles, was no more reputable, even less so, than Madame Corneleys'; it was a gambling hell, bagnio, assembly house, under the immediate patronage of George Regent; the Marquis of Hertford (my " Lord Steyne "), " Old Q," and others of that ilk. The Soho Bazaar is the house in which that illustrious naturalist, Sir Joseph Banks, lived and died.

Readers of The Confessions of an English Opium Eater may remember that big, lonely, unfurnished


house at the north-west corner of Greek Street (originally Grig Street), in which De Quincey, then little more than a boy, took up his quarters on his first arrival in London, sleeping upon the floor with a bundle of law papers for a pillow, and a horseman's cloak for sole covering: they may also remember that night when he sat down upon the steps of a house in the Square in company with "noble-minded Ann " a poor outcast whom he had met in his eternal perambulations of Oxford Street, that " stonyhearted stepmother," and how he would have died of inanition had not that good Magdalene run and got him some hot spiced wine. I know nothing more sadly impressive in biography than De Quincey's story of that episode in his strange life.

Building went on so fast in the fields about So Hoe in the days of Old Rowley that the king considered it necessary to issue a proclamation forbidding the erection of any more cottages in Windmill and Dog Fields, as they choked up the air of his Majesty's palaces and parks, and threatened to draw away water which was conveyed thither in aqueducts for royalty's especial convenience! In 1688, however, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the French Huguenots poured into London; while a great part took up their abode in Spitalfields, a number equal to filling 800 houses flocked into Soho, which from that time became a French quarter.

There is much history and anecdote connected with the dim and dingy streets of Soho: Crown Street,


now Charing Cross Road, originally Hog Lane, is the scene of Hogarth's picture, " Noon," and the old almshouses on the western side are supposed to have been founded by Nell Gwynne. Dean Street is chiefly notable for the little theatre, built some sixty years ago by Fanny Kelly. William Hazlitt died in Frith Street, and was interred in the churchyard of that odd, depressing specimen of ecclesiastical architecture, St. Ann's ; wherein also lie the notorious duellist Lord Camelford, and Theodore, titular King of Corsica, whose tomb is marked by a somewhat pompous tablet.

The story of this crownless monarch is one of the romances of history. Born in 1696, of a noble Prussian family, he served under Charles XII. of Sweden, and so distinguished himself that the people of Corsica, then under the heavy yoke of Genoa, at that time an independent republic, invited him to become their king. His reign was brief; the Genoese set a price upon his head, his own subjects conspired against him, and he was obliged to fly to escape assassination. After that he wandered from country to country, imploring, but in vain, the monarchs to assist him to recover his crown. At last he arrived in London, utterly destitute, took up his abode in Soho, found means, probably at the gambling table, to make an appearance, and nearly persuaded Lady Lucy Stanhope to share with him his kingdom en l'air. Byandby his old foes, the Genoese, employed agents to buy up his debts, threw him into prison, and made the


price of his release a formal renunciation of all claim upon the Corsican throne. Worry, want, and loss of liberty, however, had done their worst; when released from jail he was penniless; he took a Sedan chair to the house of the Portuguese ambassador, hoping to borrow a little money. Not finding the gentleman at home he had not wherewithal to pay the chairmen, and desired the man to carry him to a tailor's, in Greek Street, who had worked for him, and of whom he begged a shelter. Three days afterwards the phantom monarch was no more.

In a curious and indirect way King Theodore is associated with a notorious scandal of English royalty. He left behind him an illegitimate son, who bore the name of Frederick and became a colonel in the British army. By an amour with a young girl, Frederick had a daughter, but as the girl afterwards married a man named Thompson, the child was brought up as Mary Anne Thompson. Mary Anne was very pretty and fascinating, and when quite young a builder's son, named Clarke, fell in love with her and married her. But he was a worthless, dissipated fellow, who treated her so badly that she left him. Mrs. Clarke then became the chere amie of more than one gentleman of fortune, and while living at Blackheath accidentally attracted the attention of a distinguished-looking person who turned out to be the Duke of York. His Royal Highness was madly infatuated, and settled her in a sumptuous house in Gloucester Place. As every one knows, the duke was the commander-in-chief, and


consequently the military were very strongly represented at Mrs. Clarke's receptions. It now occurred to the lady that she might make an addition to her income by disposing of the duke's patronage-that is to say, selling commissions below the Horse Guards price: for instance, a captaincy worth £ 1500 and a majority, which would have fetched £2600, could be obtained at Gloucester Place for ,£700 and £ 900. How the inevitable discovery was brought about is not the least curious part of the story. Among her morning visitors was Colonel Wardle, M.P., a most notorious Radical, who was so bitterly opposed to the court that Mrs. Clarke never informed the duke of this acquaintance. One day when Wardle was with her the royal carriage drove up to the door. Unable to get the colonel out of the room, she thrust him beneath a sofa. It was not her lover, however, but an aide-de-camp, who had come about the purchase of a commission for a friend, and a conversation ensued which opened Wardle's eyes to the iniquity that was going on. Being a red-hot reformer, he made no scruple of using this information against the duke. The exposure made a tremendous sensation, and although there was no vestige of proof that the duke knew anything about his mistress's doings, he naturally resigned his post and his inamorata. Nevertheless Mrs. Clarke was cute enough to get £7000 down and an annuity of £ 400 a year settled upon her in exchange for his Royal Highness's love letters, which she had threatened to publish, on condition


that she left the country and never returned to it. She died at Boulogne in 1852.

The most notable thoroughfare of Soho is Gerard Street. Until Shaftesbury Avenue played such havoc with the old neighbourhood and let in the light of modernity, Gerard Street still wore an air of respectable if decayed dignity, quite different to the frowsy squalor of Wardour and Greek Streets, and the faint echoes of the feet of the illustrious dead who had once inhabited it still seemed to linger in its drowsy atmosphere. At No. 43, which is the veritable house, in a room on the ground floor, "glorious" John Dryden wrote some of his best plays and later poems. Can we not fancy his plump figure, clad in a wellfitting suit of black, his fresh-coloured face, shaded by his own wavy, grey hair, issuing from that pedimented doorway for his daily visit to Wills', and returning in the small hours of the morning not quite so steady of step or precise of mien as when he departed? On a May day, in the year 1700, the great poet here passed away. His remains were escorted to Westminster Abbey by a procession on foot, on horse and in carriages, headed by a band of music.

Lord Mohun, whom we shall meet in the next chapter, lived in a house which, after being partly consumed by fire, was pulled down to build the Pelican Club. And after him an equally notorious roue', Lord Lyttleton, of ghost-story fame-a story which has been told too often for me to venture upon its repetition-made it his abode. Early in the nineteenth


century Charles Kemble resided there; and it was from that house that his daughter Fanny issued on the memorable night when she made her debut as Juliet at Covent Garden, created a furore, and saved her father from bankruptcy. Edmund Burke resided in Gerard Street, and "Rainy Day" Smith,[3]  in his Recollections, tells us that he had often watched the great orator in his drawing-room, after his return from the Commons, dictating to an amanuensis during the greater part of the night. And to turn from fact to fiction, do you not remember that Mr. Jaggers of Great Expectations lived in Gerrard Street, and there entertained Pip at dinner ?

Close by, at the junction of Compton with Greek Street, stood the famous Turk's Head Tavern, at which, in 1763, Johnson first started The Club-after Garrick's death, in 1779, known as the Literary Club-which included amongst its members Burke, Fox, Reynolds, Sheridan, Lord Spencer, Goldsmith and other celebrated men of the time. Its members were at first strictly limited to nine, a number soon afterwards extended to thirty. It met at the Turk's Head until 1783, when in consequence of the landlord's death it was removed to St. James's Street.

Passing through what is left of that once unsavoury emporium, Newport Market, and turning into Cranbourne Street, which was only a narrow alley sixty years ago, we find ourselves in Leicester Square.


[1] Bloomsbury is named after the ancient manor of the De Blemontes or De Blemunds, which in the reign of Henry VIII. fell into the hands of the Wriothesleys, Earls of Southampton (see p. 98). Hence Southampton Row, and it was through the marriage of Lady Rachel Wriothesley, heiress of the house, to Lord William Russell that the estate came to the Bedfords. Bloomsbury Square was built in the reign of Charles II., and there was little building north of this and Great Russell Street until the end of the century. Bedford House was not pulled down until 1800. Close to where Woburn Square now stands was the noted Field ofForty Footsteps, where, as the legend goes, two brothers, about 1680, fought a duel to the death-about a woman, of course-and left the impress of their feet stamped indelibly upon the earth. Many veracious witnesses, Southey and "Rainy Day Smith " among the number, attest to have seen these impressions, on which the grass never grew, as late as the year 1800.

[2] Pepys notes the running down and killing of a buck in St. James's Park in 1664.

[3] So nicknamed from a work he wrote called A Book for a Rainy Day.