Thursday, 22 October 2015

Edited extract from: Spitalfields: A history of London in a handful of streets.

The Huguenots: From ‘Poor Strangers’ to model citizens.

With Special Thanks to Dan Cruickshank/June 2015 and The  Huguenots of Spitalfields 

Edited extract from: Spitalfields: The history of London in a handful of streets. Soon to be published. 

The arrival of French Calvinist Protestants – Huguenots – in the British Isles in large numbers from the 1670s to the early decades of the eighteenth century had a profound effect that, after nearly 350 years, continues to ripple through the nation. The Huguenots had a rapid – and very significant – influence on the social, artistic, religious and economic life of Britain and its colonies and provided, and still provides, an influential example of the mutual and ultimately creative benefits that can arise from mass and seemingly tragic forced immigration.

The story of the French Protestant diaspora started in earnest in the late sixteenth century following the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris when the Roman Catholic authorities, in a spasm of uncontrolled and ferocious rage, turned on the Huguenot elite and within weeks somewhere in the region of 20,000 Huguenots were killed in France. Many fled, to protect their lives and to practice their religion, with a significant number settling on the south-east of England – notably in and around Canterbury.

Immigration slowed after 1598 when the Edict of Nantes was ratified in France and civil rights and freedom to worship were guaranteed for Protestants.

But in the 1670s life once again started to become hard for Protestants in France and, haunted by distant memories of Roman Catholic treachery and violence during the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, many started to consider leaving their homeland and the immigration to Britain started – at first a trickle but with a decade a torrent

In 1681 persecution of French Protestants in France was renewed in earnest when Louis XIV authorised the quartering of dragoons in Protestant communities.

The aim of these dragonnades was to suppress the Protestant faith through torment, terror and intimidation and induce conversion to Catholicism.

Initially –and most understandably – many French Protestants preferred to remain in their homeland, in the hope that the persecution would pass.

But it became clear to most that persecution would only cease if they renounced their faith.

This was something very few Huguenots would do.

So increasingly, risking their freedom and even their lives because flight abroad was illegal, tens of thousands fled to Protestant nations.

Between about 1670 and 1710 it is estimated that around 50,000 to 80,000 Huguenots fled France with more than half of these coming to England – and this could have been up to 50,000 if the high estimate of immigration is accepted.

More settled in London than in all other British locations combined so by 1700, it has been estimated that Huguenot’s formed 5% of London’s total population of around 575,000. (Robin Gwynn, The Number of Huguenot Immigrants in the late 17th c, Journal of Historical Geography, vol. 9. No. 4, 1983, pp. 384-398.)

The arrival en masse of French fleeing France could only have been a great embarrassment for Charles II.

At the time he was embroiled in a complex political relationship with France veering from belligerence to securing financial-aid to free him from dependence on Parliament for funds and was reaching a personal reconciliation with Catholicism.

But although it could only hinder - and certainly not help - his maturing policies and private plans Charles II offered the arriving Huguenots a warm and public welcome.

It must be assumed that the king, despite the obvious personal advantages in not offending Louis XIV, felt empathy for refugees having himself spent nearly ten years in exile.

Also, given his tolerant nature and intelligence, it is probable that Charles simply didn’t like the notion of brutish persecution for reasons of religion and wanted to do all in his power to help.

As Robin Gwynne explains:

‘…the warmth and speed of [Charles’s] responses may indicate a genuine generosity of heart. In 1666, even as he was declaring war on France, Charles chose to welcome French Protestants into his country. And when the dragonnades began in 1681, he acted with speed and decisiveness in offering the Huguenots both a home and significant privileges, so that those who came to British shores were well treated for the four years before his death in 1685.’ (Robin Gwynne, Huguenot Heritage: The history and contribution of Huguenots in Britain, Sussex Academic Press, Brighton, 2001 edition p.166).

When history demanded that the self-indulgent Charles take action he was not – to the surprise of many – found wanting.

He retained the bravery and character that he had shown in his youth in 1651 in the second Civil War – fighting for a lost cause, a dead father and an inheritance that seemed beyond recovery.

As Gwynne observes, ‘Charles may have been lazy, Francophile and ultimately Catholic, but he obviously disliked persecution.’ (Gwynne, p. 167).

The king also, perhaps, perceived that the arrival of the Huguenots offered economic benefits outweighing possible political disadvantages.

What Charles had in his power was not only the offer of an official welcome, but also to help create an atmosphere of acceptance for the refugees by publicising the sacrifices they endured for their religious beliefs, and by launching a fund-raising campaign to relieve the more distressed of the newly arrived Huguenots.

All this Charles II did in the simplest and most direct manner by issuing a Brief in 1681 that was to be read in churches around the land.

In this the king made reference to the Huguenot’s persecution for their religious beliefs, to their ‘being forced to abandon their native abodes’ and called them ‘not only distressed strangers, but chiefly persecuted Protestants.’ (Robin Gwynne, Huguenot Heritage: The history and contribution of Huguenots in Britain. Sussex Academic Press, Brighton, 2001 edition, p. 170).

This was emotive stuff calculated to create sympathy within the native Protestant population and encouragement to individual acts of charity.

The poor and persecuted Huguenots were - by Royal approval - evidently worthy, indeed admirable - objects of charity and of national support.

The Huguenots who started to arrive in large numbers in London after 1681 were united by their devotion to their religion and, it would seem, by energy, determination and a dedication to what they perceived as the divine attribute of hard and honest work and to the God-ordained obligation to create a clean, comfortable secure family home.

For them the reasonable display of wealth amassed through honest labour was viewed ‘not as ostentation.’ (See Anne J. Kershen, Strangers, Aliens and Asians: Huguenots, Jews and Bangladeshis in Spitalfields 1660-2000. Routledge, London, 2005, p. 171; and M. Weber, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London, Unwin, 1938).

Their years of experience as a hard pressed and finally a persecuted minority had also forged strong ties within the Huguenot communities and established powerful traditions of mutual support.

Family was all-important and survival mechanisms were clearly well honed. They were people with great natural intelligence and shrewdness and in London in the 1680s they soon discovered the means to survive, even flourish.

For the Huguenots, their arrival in London in large numbers in 1681 had its problems but, generally had been successful. But soon things were to become extremely difficult  - both for those Huguenots still planning to flee to England and for those who had already arrived.
The French Protestant Church, Soho Square. photographed in 1973.mosoho
In October 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes that had tolerated the practice of the Protestant religion in France.

Now, at the stroke of a pen, Louis outlawed the Protestant faith in France and initiated the closure and destruction of Protestant churches and the prosecution and punishment of all professing Protestants.

This, of course, increased the exodus of Protestants from France. But not to England in such numbers as before. The reason is straightforward. In February 1685 Charles II died and James II came to the throne and he for Huguenots, was to prove a deeply unsympathetic and untrustworthy monarch.

James II – who was soon to prove himself a stupid individual  - was little more than a servile creature of France and a practicing Roman Catholic with a morbid obsession to reinstate Roman Catholics in Britain to power and to restore Roman Catholicism as the official faith of the country.

These, and other ill-considered aims, were to lead to James II’s dramatic downfall in 1688 and to the Glorious Revolution and the rise to power of the Protestant William III and his queen - and James’s daughter - Queen Mary.

So in early 1685 - with the accession of the pro-French and pro-Catholic James II to the throne - things looked bleak for the Huguenots in Britain and for those planning to arrive.

In addition, James saw the Huguenots as a threat - not only to him but also to the principle of monarchy since he was convinced that their Puritanical Christianity made them Republicans at heart

But James realised that to openly ignore the Huguenots plight would be to court trouble.

Despite some initial popular alarm at their arrival in large numbers, the Huguenots were, in the end, persecuted Protestants and Britain was an overwhelmingly Protestant nation.

And what was more, the Huguenots were the victims of an autocratic Catholic monarchy that many in Britain found particularly threatening, arrogant and repugnant.

So James II resolved to follow a two-faced policy, calculated to appease the Protestant sensibilities of the majority of his subjects who increasingly supported the Huguenot immigration while also satisfying his French masters.

To this end James, at the time of the Revocation of Nantes in October 1685, ‘prohibited the captains and officers of English ships from taking French subjects on board unless they had passports - which they could not obtain - and punished at least one captain for disobeying this injunction..’ (Gwynne, p. 169).

On coming to the throne James II promised foreign churches in London the same protection and support they had enjoyed during reign of Charles II. But for the Huguenots there were potential complications – indeed James intended that there should be.

In 1685 a Bill was put forward for the ‘general naturalization of French Protestants currently residing in England … and such others as shall come over within a limited time’, but the Court opposition to the Bill ensured that a clause was added that ordered all French churches and congregations to use only the Anglican liturgy translated into French.

This was obviously unacceptable to Calvinist Huguenots - and was evidently intended to be so. They had given up all in their native land for the freedom to worship in their own manner and would scarcely agree to a course of action that compromised this freedom.

The Anglican liturgy was not their liturgy and all knew they would not - could not - use it.

This Bill, if it became law un-amended, would have destroyed all foreign non-conformist churches in England and - perhaps more to the point - have stifled the flow of persecuted French into England.

But, due to the emergency of the unsuccessful Monmouth Rebellion of June and July 1685 the Bill lapsed and no more was heard of it.

However, as Gwynne points out, this legalistic attempt on their religious freedom ensured that Huguenot ‘elders were kept uneasy for rest of [James’s] reign,’ (Gwynne, p. 168).

Then in 1686 James II issued a Brief to be read in churches throughout the land – and it was much diluted in comparison with that of 1681.

In 1681 vivid reference had been made to the Huguenots persecution for their religious beliefs and to them ‘being forced to abandon their native abodes’ and called them ‘not only distressed strangers, but chiefly persecuted Protestants.’ (Robin Gwynne, Huguenot Heritage: The history and contribution of Huguenots in Britain. Sussex Academic Press, Brighton, 2001 edition, p. 170.)

The Brief of 1686 ‘said nothing about conditions in France, nor about persecutions, merely stating that the destitute French Protestants currently in England needed relief.’ (Gwynne, p. 170)

As with the 1681 Brief, that of 1686 called for a public collection on the Huguenots behalf.

But this promise of charitable money was used by James in an attempt to achieve political and religious aims.

The Brief stated that the money raised through donations was to be used to ‘benefit only those who lived in entire conformity and orderly submission to our government established both in church and state’ (Gwynne, p. 171).

No such phrase had been used in the 1681 Brief. How was it to be interpreted?

Were only those refugees who attended conformist French congregations or Anglican churches were to be offered relief? In effect it was taken to mean that all recipients had to produce a certificate to say they had received Communion according to the usage of the Church of England.

Ultimately this stipulation did not prove a significant stumbling block for the Huguenots and was not comparable to the stipulation in the earlier and abandoned Parliamentary Bill that they were to use Anglican liturgy.

As Gwynne explains, ‘since the continental Reformed churches accepted the Anglican Church as a true Protestant church, most refugees felt able to comply with this condition, but only after considerable heart-searching; they were, after all, refugees for the sake of religion, and had left their native land to be free to worship in their own way.’ (Gwynne, p. 171).

But it should be said, James continued to grant letters of denization, that is the granting of certain rights to foreigners residing in Britain.

Despite these apparent tokens of support the Huguenot community believed James to be ‘shifty and untrustworthy, his actions but a front to placate English public opinion.’ (Gwynne, p.168).

Despite the toned-down nature of the 1686 Brief and the lengthy delay between it being drafted and it actually being read in churches (a delay John Evelyn, the diarist and close observer of the political and social life of James’s court, blamed on ‘the interest of the French ambassador and cruel papists.’, Diary of John Evelyn, IV, pp. 506, 508), it still provoked a most generous response from the public.

By March 1687 over £42,000 had been raised.

On the 16th April 1687 ‘an Order of Council prescribed a new general collection in England, Scotland and Ireland raised £200,000 which formed a fund known as the Royal Bounty.’ (The Victoria County History, The History of Middlesex, vol. 2 (general), edited by William Page, 1911, pp. 132-137).

A lay French committee was entrusted with an annual distribution of £16,000 amongst poor refugees and their descendants, while a second ecclesiastical committee distributed £1,718 annually to ‘distressed’ pastors.

This generosity on the part of the public was, says Gwynne, ‘little short of a slap in the royal face.’ (Gwynne, p. 172.)

The reason for the generous response is hinted at in an extraordinary set of contemporary documents compiled by Roger Morrice.

Morrice kept an Entering Book in which he recorded the word on the street - both gossip and informed opinion - from coffee houses and taverns for the edification of a small group of clients who evidently believed knowledge to be power. (The Entering Book of Roger Morrice: a journal of late seventeenth century London, ed. Mark Goldie, Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2007).

According to Morrice the English in 1685 were appalled by the stories they heard.

As Morrice recorded on Saturday November 21 1685: ‘The persecutions and torments of the Protestants in France is still inexpressible, its wrot over by an eye witnesse that Dragoons are sent even into all Countreys, and that in one part of a Province 18,000 Protestants, when the Dragoons came did generally run to the Churches for feare of the Gallies, Torments or Death, and there offered to renounce the Protestant Religion. The Papists would not take their renounciations till they had made the Protestants solemly to sweare that they did not make that renunciation for feare of torment or for any such selfish reason, but out of the sence of the great dishonour they had done God, and the scandal they had cast upon Holy Church by living in such damnable Heresies so long &c.’

Morrice also documented gossip about cruel mutilations alleged to have been perpetrated by the Catholic authorities on apprehended fleeing Huguenots. True or not, such stories were well calculated to enrage English Protestant opinion.

On the public’s response to the Brief, Morrice recorded on Monday May 3rd 1686: ‘In many Parishes in London and in the Suburbs they have given liberally to the Collection for the French Protestants, but very many persons are confidently reported to have given five or ten times more than they have upon an exact enquiry.’ (The Entering Book of Roger Morrice, vol. III, p. 114).

James’s action did, despite provoking public antipathy, achieve one of his aims -
fewer Huguenots crossed the channel in the early years of his reign than had in the years immediately after 1681.

There was another reason, besides James II pusillanimous behaviour, that reduced Huguenot immigration to England. In October 1685, in response to Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia, passed the extraordinarily enlightened and enterprising Edict of Potsdam. This encouraged Huguenots to emigrate to Prussia by offering safe passage, freedom of worship and tax-free status for ten years. In consequence Prussia – and Potsdam in particular – became a centre of Protestant European immigration, offering an attractive alternative to London for large numbers of Huguenots, but also Dutch, Russians and Bohemians. Prussia benefited – economically and culturally - from the energy and commercial initiative of these migrant communities.

In Britain Huguenot immigration no doubt increased once again after the 4th April 1687 with the Declaration of Indulgence that guaranteed freedom of religious worship in the British Isles. By suspending penal laws enforcing conformity to the Anglican church James made it possible for Roman Catholics to worship openly and, by removing the obligation to swear allegiance to the Anglican church before assuming position in public offices, allowed them to start the move back into public life.

But, by the same token of indulgence, James made life easier all other Christian denominations that did not conform to Anglican doctrine or liturgy - including the Calvinistic Huguenots.

Despite this legislation - which almost by accident and certainly paradoxically improved the position of Calvinists while it paved the way for the return of Roman Catholics to power in Britain - James continued to be viewed by Huguenots as untrustworthy and at time directly aggressive. This perception explains why Huguenots fully supported William of Orange’s Protestant ‘invasion’ of 1688.

It was not just that he was a Protestant but that James had, in many ways, proved himself an enemy to the Huguenots and their interests. This distrust of the unreliable and Catholic-tainted Stuarts echoed through the following years, and helps explain why Britain’s Huguenot community opposed the Jacobites so forcefully in 1715 and 1745.

English attitudes to the arrival of the Huguenots
The Huguenot refugees, when they started to arrive in large numbers in London during 1681, quickly saw the opportunities offered by London and with astonishing speed, ability and success set about turning their unfortunate circumstances to great advantage.

But what did their hosts think?

Initially the attitude was ambivalent and divided by class and occupation.

The Protestant middle-class and aristocracy welcomed the arrival of their fellow Protestant and generally middle or merchant class French, and the Huguenots received a hearty welcome – reflecting the ‘official’ welcome of Charles II.

It was after all politically advantageous to offer refuge (the word refugee was coined at this time) to Protestant Frenchmen fleeing persecution in their own land, and much mileage was made out of a situation that appeared to show autocratic monarchy in Catholic France in such a poor light.

But working people, notably journeymen weavers - and merchants involved in the precious metal trade - saw the Huguenots as a potential or actual threat to their livelihoods.

Consequently, despite official and Royal support for the Huguenots, there was a degree of popular unrest – particularly amongst journeymen weavers in the areas in which many of the French initially settled, notably in the East End of London – in and around Spitalfields - and in Norwich in Norfolk.

Spitalfields and Silk.
The arriving Huguenots chose to settle in Spitalfields for a number of reasons: it was near a French Protestant Church in Threadneedle Street, in the City of London; the area was expanding with new homes and workshops being built, and because – for those Huguenots with silk weaving skill or ambitions – the Spitalfields area was home to London’s indigenous weaving industry, initially wool and then silk.

The transformation of the Artillery Ground into Spitalfields first large scale and coherent urban development was completed in 1684 under the control of the pioneering speculative house-builder Nicholas Barbon. These streets of new buildings made Spitalfields a most attractive area for Huguenot families with means or fair prospects.

Builders needed clients to take on their speculations and the Huguenots – ambitious and increasingly wealthy – were promising occupiers for the area’s new speculatively-built housing stock.

The newly arrived Huguenots spotted the opportunity to establish, with astonishing speed and success, a French-style silk industry in London. The Huguenots, through their religion, culture, their habits of hard work and self-reliance and ‘by their sheer numbers, changed the social and cultural dynamic of the neighbourhoods in which they lived.’ (Catherine Swindlehurst in ‘An unruly and presumptuous rabble’: the reaction of the Spitalfields weaving community to the settlement of the Huguenots, 1660-90, p. 388).

Some of the native discontent about the rapid transformation of newly expanded Spitalfield - like a New Town on the north-east edge of the City – into a French enclave dominated by Huguenot tradesmen and merchants, is catalogued by Catherine Swindlehurst in ‘An unruly and presumptuous rabble’: the reaction of the Spitalfields weaving community to the settlement of the Huguenots, 1660-90.

She notes that as early as 1681 one James Jeffries expressed fear of an uprising in Spitalfields against French refugees because some Spitalfields residents, he observed, had amassed weapons, and ‘…those that have them say that those weapons are to defend themselves against the Papists and a Popish successor…’ (PRO. SP29/417/78; Swindlehurst, p. 370).

The Popish reference is confusing but for many uneducated English working people being French was synonymous with being Catholic and some assumed that the Huguenots - arriving in large and sudden numbers - were nothing more than undercover French invasion force of  ‘Papists’ and spies intent on causing mayhem in England.

It is now hard to overestimate the impact the sudden arrival of the French. Many were skilled workers and eager to thrive in their new homeland and full of initiative.

The native labouring community was clearly confused in its response. Its antiquated trade and manufacturing traditions and ingrained inferiority, when faced with competition from high quality French-made luxury artefacts of fashion, made London artisans fearful.

But some saw that the arrival of the French represented a great opportunity that could be grasped.

As Catherine Swindlehurst points out, ‘France and the French silk industry were both the nemesis and the spur towards development of the English silk weaving trade in the late 17th century. For many London weavers, the French trade was something to be both revered and copied, as well as to be scorned and protected against. France was popularly viewed as a sort of vortex of Popish evil, but at the same time, it was respected as an economic power and a fashion centre. The arrival of the Huguenots in England presented new hope in the competition with France in the quality and design of various luxury goods.’ (Catherine Swindlehurst‘An unruly and presumptuous rabble’: the reaction of the Spitalfields weaving community to the settlement of the Huguenots, 1660-90, p. 368).

So the popular response to the arrival of the Huguenots was, to put is mildly, extremely mixed. Many saw them, and their skills, initiative, ambition and driving work ethic, as a threat to the practices of ‘fair trade’ - a notion that, among other things, promoted and protected established practices of production and scale of wages.

Evidently one of the immediate fears harboured by English weavers was that the French incomers would undercut them by accepting lower wages and charging less for their work.
Huguenots of Spitalfields Silk Dress.
This had been perceived as common practice in immigrant communities in the past as they strove to establish themselves. As one pamphlet poem, published in 1681, observed: ‘..weavers all may curse their fates/Because the French work under rates…’ (The Valient Weaver, London, 1681; Swindlehurst, pp 369-70).

The fear seems to have been felt keenly in the early 1680s in Spitalfields small community of English weavers.

Tensions grew rapidly, so by early August 1683 riots were feared. In the State Papers are preserved eyewitness reports: ‘the factious partt [of the weavers] thereabouts has been very bold and presumptuous this last week: and… they do cabal together oftener than has been usual.’

English weavers, it was observed, gathered in public houses ‘in opposition to the French weavers in their neighbourhood’ and it was feared that if the weavers ‘can get a sufficient number together, they will rise and knock [the French] on the head.’ (PRO, SP 29/431/ 21, Swindlehurst, p. 366).

Weavers gathered at local inns, where they brooded on the alleged trade abuses being practiced by the French and plotted protest. One informant told the authorities that he had ‘…found out the three houses of their meeting viz at the sign of the Poor Robin in Bishopsgate Street, at the sign of the Town of Hackney in the same street, and at the Cock in Whitegate Alley near the Fields’ (probably in what is now Widegate Street).

Some of the weavers attending these meetings were, warned the informant, ‘not sober and rationull.’ (PRO. SP29/431/21-20, Swindlehust, pp. 370-71).

The official response to this information was a controlled display of force. On 9th August Charles II ordered horse guards to be ‘quartered about Islington, Hackney or Mile End to keep the weavers in order,’ (PRO, SP29/430/79, Swindlehurst, p. 371) and the City’s trained-bands were kept in Devonshire Square, just off Bishopsgate, and immediately to the south of Spitalfields.

This tactic seems to have worked, and certainly prevented violence against the Huguenots, but ill feeling simmered not far beneath the surface.

On the 25th August an informant reported that ‘he was desiered by two journeymen weavers…to meet in Swan Fields one Monday morning and he doth conclude is in order to some bad designe, it being the same method they took when they burnt the ingin loombs.’ (PRO. SP29/431/3, Swindlehurst, p. 371).

The reference is to engine-loom riots of 1675 when Spitalfield silk ribbon weavers rioted against the introduction of machinery that heralded automation and consequently was seen as a threat to the local workforce.

But in London all proposed violent protest came to nothing, probably because the presence of armed troops was a sobering prospect and an effective deterrent.

But there were severe riots in Norwich in August and September 1683, where Huguenots had also settled. These were, observes Catherine Swindlehurst, ‘a grim reminder of the scale and intensity of popular disaffection felt for the French weavers.’

One of the ways in which the newly arrived Huguenots weavers (or Huguenots who desired to enter the weaving industry) were integrated with native weavers was through the offices of the long established Weavers’ Company. However in the 1680s its power was limited since it could exercise its jurisdiction only in the City of London and, until the second decade of the 18th century, only with difficulty in ‘suburban’ areas such as Spitalfields, Shoreditch and Bethnal Green. (Swindlehurst, p. 370 ).

However the way in which the company attempted to reconcile Huguenot and English weavers is revealed in contemporary documents. For example, John Larguier of Nîmes was granted the status of master by the Weavers’ Company in 1684 when he not only proved that he was ‘fully inabled to weave and perfect lutestrings, alamodes and other fine silks as well as service and beauty in all respects as they are perfected in France’, but also agreed to the ‘condition that he imply himself, and others of the English nation, in making the said alamode and lutestring silks for one year from this day.’ (Guildhall Library, MS 4655/9, fos. 12, pp. 37-8, and Catherine Swindlehurst, 368-9).

This condition was obviously a response to the established fear that the newly arrived French weavers would keep their skills, new technologies and trade ‘secrets’ exclusively within their own community and employ only French apprentices and journeymen.

A powerful physical reminder of the issues and anxieties raised among English Protestants and the authorities is the monumental and majestic Anglican parish church of Christ Church Spitalfields – construction of which started in 1714 to the designs of Nicholas Hawksmoor.

In a key way the church is a direct response to the settlement of Huguenots in Spitalfields and its environs.

Being Calvinists the Huguenots desired to establish and worship in their own churches in their own way, and not attend Anglican parish churches.

In response the church authorities felt obliged to promote the interest - and presence - of the established state religion in areas of urban expansion with large dissenting populations.

The obvious - if expensive - way to do this was through the construction of new, architecturally impressive and strategically placed, Anglican churches in newly created and administratively important parishes.

Although the idea for new churches was discussed as early as the 1680s money was in short supply, with the revenue from the coal tax going towards the reconstruction of new parish churches and St. Paul’s cathedral in the fire ravaged City.

But after 1710, when this major construction project was nearly complete, coal tax money became available for new churches and in 1711 the Act for Building Fifty new Anglican parish churches in London was passed.

One of the target area of this Act was Spitalfields, where Christ Church was built and a new parish created in 1729 when the church was complete.

By the time the construction Christ Church started the Huguenots had been established in large numbers in Spitalfields for around thirty years and by the time the church was completed in 1729 the Huguenots were – essentially – Spitalfields.

Huguenot families were the families that mattered – they were the significant merchants and entrepreneurs, they ran the area, occupied many of its largest and grandest houses, were a respected part of London society with many rising high in the professions and the Weavers’ Company and had command of Spitalfields wealth and most of its wealth-generating industries. 

The Huguenots also, even if they did not worship in the church, acted as parish officers and through the churches dual role as town hall were deeply involved in the government of Spitalfields Parish, as well as the adjoining Liberties of the Artillery Ground and Norton Folgate.

The respect with which the Huguenots were held in the early eighteenth century – and the reasons for this respect – is captured by John Strype in his 1720 edition of the Survey of London and Westminster:

‘The North west Parts of this Parish (Spittle Fields and Parts adjacent), of later Times became a great Harbour for Poor Protestant Strangers, Waloons and French; who as in former Days, so of late, have been forced to become Exiles from their own Country for their Religion, and for the avoiding cruel Persecution. Here they have found quiet and security, and settled themselves in their several Trades and Occupations; Weavers especially. Whereby God’s Blessing surely is not only brought upon the Parish, by receiving poor Strangers (Come ye Blessed of my Father, Etc, For I was a Stranger and ye took me in) but also a great Advantage hath accrued to the whole Nation, by the rich Manufactures of weaving Silks and Stuffs and Camlets: which Art they brought along with them. And this Benefit also to the Neighbourhood; that these Strangers may serve for Patterns of Thrift, Honesty, Industry, and Sobriety, as well.’ (Volume II. 1 Book Four, p. 48 - includes a map of Spittlefields and places Adjacent.)

Strype’s extremely positive view of the benefits of the Huguenot arrival and settlement in Spitalfields is fascinating since it records an opinion that was, presumably, commonly held in 1720.

But there were dissenting views, and one is offered by an extraordinary fellow called Jean Baptiste Denis.

He who was not only a French immigrant but also a Calvinist. Earlier in life he had been a Roman Catholic priest but he converted, gave up a respectable and secure life in France and in 1705 took refuge in London.

For reason unknown, although perhaps not without reason, this former Catholic loathed his fellow Frenchmen and Calvinists

He poured out his spleen in a book, with a long title that says it all: A Plot Discovered: wherein is set forth the insolence and ingratitude, of the greatest part of the French refugees, towards the English, their benefactors.

The faults Denis perceived, and to which he chose to draw attention, included the ‘general corruption that reigns among the refugees,’ their pride, ingratitude, and their injustice and ungenerosity towards proselytes. The Huguenot ‘Master-Weavers in Spittle-Fields’ were, he wrote, ‘a people stiff-neck’d and uncircumcis’d of heart …. Whose pride and ambition have tower’d to such a height, as to make their condition not only envy’d by the greatest merchants in the City, but have also made themselves formidable to the most antient and most powerful Companies of the nation.’

In sardonic vein Denis observed what ‘a glorious set of people indeed are these French master weavers … that ruin the body, of which they denominate themselves members, purely to enrich themselves by the ruin, the spoils of the unfortunate, not sparing their own countrymen…the greatest part of the refuges are a cast-out people, without honour or principle … a ridiculous concourse of vagabonds.’ (Information courtesty of Robin Gwynne)

These are presumably the exaggerated ravings of a disappointed man. But, they could offer a clue to a prevailing undercurrent of opinion. It Strype reflects the commonly held positive attitude to the Huguenots does Denis capture with accuracy the negative attitudes, prejudices and assumptions held by more xenophobic Londoners?

But even if widely held in the early years of the 18th century, the views expressed by Denis did not prevail.

No doubt one of the main reasons for the eventual and fulsome acceptance of the Huguenots – by even journeymen weavers who once felt themselves threated – was the fact that the Huguenots had virtually invented a new and valuable industry in London.

The high quality silk they produced was unprecedented in Britain.

Huguenot weavers and masters, and the trade they created, clearly had not directly supplanted a native workforce or local trade but – on the contrary – had created new markets, employment, skills and wealth.

Soho and silver.
The precious metals industry became the most interesting and important of Soho’s trades.

From the late seventeenth century Huguenots established themselves, mostly in south Soho around Gerrard Street, Great Windmill Street and the Newport Market area and created a highly valuable trade.

Some of the Huguenot immigrants who settled in Soho brought their skills with them while others - as with many of the Huguenot silk weavers - identified and exploited the fact that in England there was a demand for high quality wares with a French sense of style and elegance.

The leading members of the Soho precious metals trade included Peter Archambo, Paul de Lamerie and Paul Crespin.

Archambo became an apprentice in 1710 to a fellow Huguenot silversmith named Jacob Margas who had a workshop in St. Martin’s Lane, which was then the south-east boundary of Soho.
Dan Cruickshank at Black's members club giving his talk ‘Silver and Silk’, which explored the fascinating life and trade of Huguenot London from c1681 to the mid-18th century.
The problems that Archambo faced were typical of those that beset Huguenot silver and goldsmiths in late seventeenth century London and were among the key reasons for the establishment of their silver trade in Soho.

The early experiences of Huguenot silk weavers and silver smiths were very different – indeed in stark contrast.

The Huguenots had from a early time succeeded in entering and rising high in the Weavers’ Company.

But initially Huguenot silver and gold smiths who tried to enter the English precious metal industry through the established means of the Goldsmith Company found their path blocked and their futures blighted

When Huguenots seeking to work with precious metals arrived in London in the late seventeenth century they settled near Goldsmiths’ Hall, in the City of London, which was the capital’s traditional centre for the silver and gold trade and -most conveniently - near a French Protestant church in Threadneedle Street.

But problems soon arose. Silver and gold smiths needed to gain the Freedom of the City of London through a livery company in order to trade in the city – and in London generally.

The obvious livery company to join was the Goldsmiths’ but this was controlled by London-born tradesmen who were suspicious of the talented Huguenot arrivals - jealous of their skills, daunted by their industrious nature and work-ethic, and so fearful that they would win many commissions.

So the London tradesmen closed ranks and kept the Huguenots out of the Goldsmiths’ Company and so deny them the chance to become Freemen of the City.

And this was a serious threat because quite simply, no Freedom of the City meant no work!

But the Huguenots were nothing if not canny and determined and would not to be stopped.

Their solution was to make jealousy their friend.

They played on traditional City rivalries and found that other livery companies were happy to accept them, even if only upset the arrogant Goldsmiths.

So in 1720 Archambo became free of the Butchers’ Company and Paul Crespin became free of the Longe Bowe String makers, and through these companies gained freedom of the City.

But establishing themselves amongst their London rivals near Goldsmiths’ Hall presented another problem so the Huguenots founded their own centre of trade in south Soho, and  near the French Protestant church located in the Savoy, just south of the Strand.

One Huguenot tradesman who did manage to join the Goldsmiths’ Company was Paul de Lamerie. He became one of the most able and successful of the Huguenot tradesmen and has been called by the Victoria and Albert Museum ‘the greatest silversmith working in England in the eighteenth century.’ 

De Lamerie was born in April 1688 in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in the United Provinces (now The Netherlands) and came to London with his immigrant family - of minor aristocratic ancestry - when just one year old.

At the age of fourteen de Lamerie was apprenticed to a Huguenot goldsmith named Pierre Platel and in 1713 opened his own workshop, probably in Great Windmill Street, Soho, where his established his own mark. 

But not, it seems, until after some difficulties with the Goldsmith’s Company.

In 1714 he was called before the court of the Company for failing to have his work hallmarked.

This was a serious charge. By the early eighteenth century silver ware possessed various hallmarks to establish the date and location of its manufacture and the quality of the silver from which it was made.

These marks could also include an emblem or initials to reveal the manufacturer of the piece - and only makers who traded under their own names and whose association with a piece could enhance its value were in the habit of signing their work.

But hallmarks that included a makers identifying mark could prove a problem. If a maker put his mark on a piece it was difficult for him to dodge paying duty, as they were obliged to do by law.

It would seem that the avoidance of duty was the main reason de Lamerie sought anonymity. Certainly the company took a stern view of his actions and fined him a hefty £20.

De Lamerie’s response seems to have been to mock the company and attempt to undermine its authority. He purchased a stock of second rate unmarked silver objects made by anonymous London smiths and had it hallmarked as his own. The company got wind of what was going on and accused de Lamerie of having bought ‘Foreigners work and got ye same toucht at ye Hall.’

The contest between de Lamerie and the Goldsmith Company was prolonged – but does not seem to have damaged him professionally - for example in 1716 he was appointed as gold and silversmith to George I

However in 1717 he was once again accused by the Company of with selling large quantities of plate that he had not brought to the Company to be marked ‘according to law.’

The eventual solution to the long-running dispute was to the company to admit de Lamerie as a Liveryman and to control him by making him part of the precious metal establishment. (Lucy Inglis, Georgian London: into the streets, 2013, p. 171).

From around this time – 1719 or so - de Lamerie seems to have regularly marked his products, with his initial mark being a capital LA with a crown and small star above and a fleur de lis below.

By the 1730s he was dominant in his field, supplying the rich, powerful and titled in Britain and abroad with artefacts of consummate beauty - characteristically reflecting the favoured rococo manner of the time - and of extraordinary expense.

In 1738 de Lamerie moved his home and probably his workshop to 40 Gerrard Street - then the best address in the heart of south Soho’s silver and gold district. Current number 40 Gerrard Street bears a plaque marking de Lamerie’s occupation – but the existing house is not his and dates only from the late eighteenth century.

When de Lamerie died in 1751 he was buried in St. Anne’s church, Soho. This was typical Huguenot practice. Although de Lamerie probably did not worship in St. Anne’s but in a Huguenot ‘temple’ he was happy to be buried in an Anglican church. This was partly because Huguenot temples - always built as cheaply as possible - tended not to have expensive or extensive burial grounds or vaults, but also because in Calvinist belief the final resting place of the earthly and mortal remains were relatively of little importance in comparison with the fate and value of the immortal soul.

And as far as Huguenots were concerned the value of the soul was enhanced by the pursuit of a vigorous work ethic. Honest trade and toil were seen as godly, and success and the massing of legitimate wealth and worldly goods as admirable.
But of course the desire to achieve material success and amass wealth was perhaps not only in potential conflict with the building of spiritual grace but could also be one of Satan’s most successful snares. The desire for fame, glory and riches has always been one of man’s great temptations and so it was, in a most revealing way, for de Lamerie.

In 1722 - when still consolidating his position as one of Britain’s leading gold and silver smiths - de Lamerie became embroiled in an ultimately most embarrassing, if not utterly disastrous, court case which suggests his early misbehaviour with the Goldsmiths was the typical expression of a calculating and greedy character.

A chimney-sweep’s boy named Armory, who had found a jewel, took it to de Lamerie’s shop to have it valued. De Lamerie’s apprentice took the jewel and offered to pay only three halfpence for its setting. When the boy asked for the return of the jewel along with the setting the apprentice refused, presumably on the grounds that the jewel had been found and did not belong to the boy.

Friends of the boy advised a court action and the verdict of the King’s Bench set a legal benchmark. It ruled that although the boy did not have absolute title to the jewel he had the right to keep it until its true owner was established. In consequence de Lamerie was ordered to return the jewel or give the boy its value in money. To his credit de Lamerie did not pretend he had no jewel from the boy and even agreed to it be being valued by others, who declared it to be of the highest quality. (Armory v Delamirie EWHC KB J 94, 31 July 1722).

This action of de Lamerie and his apprentice – which was in effect an attempt at ‘legal’ robbery and exploitation of a humble youth - offers an insight, perhaps, into the ruthless practices employed by the Huguenot business community.

It also established a legal ruling that helped to establish personal property law and the notion of  ‘finders, keepers’.

The Huguenots Of Soho | Spitalfields Life.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Will Burns in conservation with Artist, Robert Rubbish.

Will Burns was born in London and raised in Buckinghamshire and was named as one of the 4 Faber & Faber New Poets for 2014 with his pamphlet in that series published in October 2014.

Born in 1973Robert Rubbish Greene studied Communication Art & Design at Royal College of Art in London from 2003 – 2005.

Historic London is an especially inspirational place for his work which brings together his interests in curiosities, joke shops, facial hair, Victorian punk revivalism and gin.

I meet Robert Rubbish by the postbox on the corner of Dean St and Old Compton St. To Robert this is the centre of the centre of the universe. He is wearing a tweed jacket, white shirt, red tie and blue trousers. His sideburns extend into his moustache in what might have once been called whiskers, as opposed to a beard. His hair is tied back in a ponytail. We have met to talk about his forthcoming exhibition concerning the history and culture of Soho, a place we have both, and quite separately, grown attached to during our lives in London.
Let’s start with this idea you have talked a little about, the idea of Soho as a woman, where did that come from?

Robert Rubbish:
The start of that came from when we were at college, and this friend of ours (the Le Gun collective), Ben Brannigan, who was in the year above us, and there was some conversation, I don’t remember exactly where, a pub probably, but anyway Ben used this phrase, Soho can be an ugly woman on a Friday night, and we all laughed. But I thought deeper about that, about how Soho could be a woman and how ugly the place can appear on a Friday or Saturday night. And I always liked the idea of that. The phrase, the idea. It just stuck with me.

I’ve always felt that there was a real difference between the feeling of the place mid-week and at the weekend.

Yeah, and at different times of the day as well. Like, there are a few shifts, you know? In the morning, you know, the place doesn’t really come alive until eleven or something, and then midday, lunchtime there are people working round here who go out drinking, afternoon drinking, then the night time. And when the night time ends, if you’re here at three, four in the morning, it’s the drug addicts and just weird, random people. It’s a very weird vibe then. And they eventually all go and there’s nothing. Until it wakes up again. Bar Italia used to be open 24 hours a day, so you could go there, and in the 80s there were cafes that stayed open. But there are these shifts, like I say, where many different things are happening at different times of the day.

In that regard, to use your metaphor of the woman, Soho can come to represent all those facets of a person...

Yeah, and I suppose the metaphor also comes from that Shane MacGowan song London You’re a Lady, where his vision of the city is that she’s a lady. He talks about London as a real woman, you know? The city’s not cartographic or topographic, but an actual being. He sings, It was deep down in your womb, my love, I drank my quart of sin, While Chinamen played cards and draughts and knocked back Mickey Finns. And that’s obviously about Chinatown, Soho. So all these parts of the city become physical in a bodily sense. I also always liked the idea that ships were called ‘she’ and there’s a strange nautical aspect to Soho as well.

I wanted to ask about that actually, that image of the sailor runs through a fair bit of Le Gun’s work, yours and Neal’s particularly, so what have you learned about that aspect of Soho, and where does that part of the history of Soho sit in your version of the place?

Well one of the programmes I’ll be making (for Soho Radio), and one part of the show as well is called ‘Sailors in Soho’ and it’s that odd thing where I’ve not seen a sailor in Soho, I mean maybe at Gay Pride or something, but not in normal life. But it’s an image that somehow seems to stick with me.

I suppose where once upon a time though you would recognize a sailor by his clothes, how would you now?

Yeah, I mean in wartime, sailors or soldiers on leave would have money and come to Soho to binge. It’s just another image of binging really, and how Soho came to embody that. Like in Mac the Knife, the Kurt Weill lyrics mention Soho and spending money like a sailor. That sort of thing. A sailor off the boat wants booze, drugs, women, or men. They want a sort of hedonism I guess, and that whole idea becomes synonymous with Soho.

It’s the figure of the itinerant really, isn’t it? The writer, artist, sailor. The unemployed. Soho retains a real aura for those kinds of people, I think.

Yeah, I mean, it’s harder and harder to live like that here but... but you know it’s very important place for drug addicts at night because there’s a lot of people, a lot of money, but then also a real community of sort of hustlers, I guess. Outsiders, people getting away with living differently.

Right. And do you feel like Soho came to represent that idea of ‘getting away with’ living how you wanted to in contrast to a very mundane kind of suburban upbringing in Jersey. Did Soho come to be a kind of supreme London experience for you, in a way that nowhere else in the city could?

Yeah, for sure. I think it was in Jersey where I read Judith Summer’s history of Soho in the library and Dog Days in Soho which is about a sailor actually, a true account, about a guy who hung around that whole Francis Bacon set. So I read those two books before coming here to the Royal College and I was like, Ok, here we go... I mean, you knew about Soho but all of sudden the history opened up a bit. And there was also The Jam’s A-Bomb in Wardour St, The Kinks’ LolaPinball Wizard…  I was into mod as well when I was a kid, and Soho was a bit mythical in that mod revival. I started to hear about places and wondered if they still existed, The Colony Room, The French House. 

I think I might have even been to The Coach years before. So I was reading about things that happened here in the fifties, and asking if these places still exist. And then when I came here to study we found places like Centrale on Moor St, which was just unchanged, straight out of the fifties, a little Italian restaurant, cheap, where you could take your own booze. And the New Piccadilly cafe as well, place that were obviously still functioning, but hadn’t really changed, you know?
And then the pubs, like The Coach which was still run by Norman Balon, who’d run it since the sixties, the rudest landlord in England. And The French, which is run by Lesley, who’d taken it over from Gaston. The Colony still existed; Gerry’s, Trisha’s, which was newer, but still had that vibe.

So when did you move to London?


And have you ever lived here, in Soho?

No, I lived in Hammersmith, so still West London.

You weren’t straight into that East London artistic Diaspora?

Haha. No,  I was living in Hammersmith, going to college in Kensington, and we’d started going to The Spanish bar, because it was open late, we were kind of skirting around the edges of Soho, really, before we knew anyone.

Well, you tend to, don’t you? You dip your toe in, and you slowly find your feet in the place.

Yeah, you get a little bit braver, if that’s the right word.

Yeah, or happenstance, you meet someone who invites you to something, or takes you for a pint in the right place or whatever...

Yeah, exactly.

And who do you mean when you refer to ‘we’ in all of this?

The core of what would become Le Gun, Billy Bragg, Alex Wright, Neal Fox, who also had a fascination with the place because his Granddad used to drink around here and Bloomsbury. So we both had this interest. And Billy had gone to St Martin’s, so he was based in Long acre. And he knew the West End. He knew where you could get cheap food and a late drink. Places that have all gone actually. I think we started drinking in The Glasshouse actually. Maybe have a few in there and go to The French. But I didn’t like The French to begin with. Didn’t like the vibe. I preferred The Coach, we had better times in The Coach. There seemed to be more hedonists. It was quite different to how it is now.

We’re skipping around here a bit, sorry, but when you mentioned Jersey earlier, and the hedonists you came across in Soho, I thought of that recent interview with David Hockney where he talks about the search for a bohemian way of living as opposed to a suburban one. Have you been influenced by Hockney at all?

Yeah, I think he’s fascinating. You know, he’s the guy in his generation who moves forward all the time, in his work, in his thought, everything. He manages to be anti-whatever is going on at that moment in terms of a zeitgeist or whatever you call it, but without being reactionary. He embraces technology, changing times. In that BBC documentary he talks about the idea of bohemia.

Yeah, I thought about that when preparing this and reading about your ideas of Soho…

It’s like you could take Soho and Jersey and yes, they do seem opposites, but then there were small elements on Jersey, like The Haultians Club, which was an old school club, grammar school club, which had the feeling of a Soho club. Not as wild, but you know, painted green which was weird for a start, and then it had that vibey thing where you had to go down a little corridor to get to it, and at the end was this green door and an oasis in that cultural desert. 

But there were similarities in that you could be here in a pub, and be talking to a transvestite who had maybe been a high end lawyer all his life and there he was talking to you and your girlfriend, or the guy who runs the spanking shop, but the thing was it was normal here, these people are just residents in their village.

But if you were to examine that kind of breadth of life in a suburban setting, you’d have to suspend so much of your disbelief. You’d have a setting like Midsomer Murders or whatever where there’s all this life, death, sex and murder in a small set of villages and part of you wants to say, ‘another bloody murder in that village?’ But in a city, and an area in a city like Soho it really does encompass all that expanse of human experience.

Yeah, quite. Or Bergerac, of course! I mean, it is, or was, really, a type of bohemia. A place where the normal rules of the city didn’t quite apply. There are rules here, but they’re a bit more open, or fluid. Like sexuality has always been ok. All sexual preferences have always been accepted here. Even before Old Compton St became what it is now. In the 50s. 

If you read about Soho in the 50s, Robert McBride and Robert Cohoon who were two artists and lovers but they were accepted in a way here that they might not have been elsewhere. Everyone was accepted as part of a community. Outsiders again I guess. Soho has always had acceptance of black sheep. But then people are normal people as well. And there’s all the people who live here. I mean I’m just a blow-in. But the whole place is a real, vibrant community.

So you get that rubbing up of people and ideas?

Yeah, and people who take refuge in places that accept them. Like I was interviewing my mate Rodent, who was a roadie for The Sex Pistols, for the Jock Scott film, and he was saying that all that crowd had to drink in lesbian and gay clubs like Louisa’s, not always because they were interested in that culture, but because they were going to get beaten up in normal pubs or whatever because of how they dressed.

But then the cultures feed into each other.

Yes. Malcolm McLaren understood all that. He wanted to become a kind of tin-pan-alley svengali, and he knew he had to get to Soho, the dirty Soho with sex shops, but also that had been the place where you’d find existentialism, people in berets, sex, poetry, you know? The music, Denmark St, Chinatown, Wardour St and the film industry, fashion, boutiques in Carnarby St. Record shops, cafes, youth culture. 

Everything happened here. Right through to Black Market and dance music, Cuts, the hairdressers. All of it. Maybe it’s that sense, and it’s losing it a little bit, but it’s still there, a feeling of it being Continental somehow. You know, it feels European.

Well again, that’s an idea that’s antithetical to suburbia in a way. The American modernists who moved here were aspiring to ideas of Europe as much as they were to England specifically. I’m thinking of Eliot, really. There’s a great Paris Review interview with Lawrence Durrell, to make a very loose Jersey connection, where he talks about the idea of Europe having an appeal to him as it was so un-suburban.

Yes, and there were always lots of nationalities around here as well. There were Italian food shops, the cafes. I found this book recently called Little Inns of Soho, a tiny little book. And it’s just a guy going round reviewing restaurants. And these little books, they’re like time machines, you know? You open them and it’s like, wow, that’s the way it was. In a lot of these places during rationing you had to bring your own egg, you know? But here in 1948 you could get Chinese food, Indian food, Spanish, French food. It might be the only place in London you could get those things. I think what I’m interested in though is layers, odd connections. Like in this book he talks about the Barcelona Restaurant in Beak St, where the British Surrealist group always met. It was where George Melly first encountered the surrealists, and it was run by a Spanish republican. 
I like these funny places. They are a bit surreal themselves, because you’re in London, but not. It’s a kind of vision that someone’s got of Spain. 

Their memories of the place, their ideas of it. And like the Colony Room, that always felt surreal in the true sense. A kind of zone of different realities, unlike anywhere else.

Right, I like that thought about the layers of a place. One of the things I wanted to talk about was this idea of how a sense of place builds up over time. Auden described it as topophilia in relation to Betjeman’s concern with place - an interest or obsession with place, and obviously there are powerful examples in the natural landscape, stone circles, cairns, barrows, ritual burial sites. Do you feel something similar here? An urban equivalent?

Absolutely. For example the postbox, I always thought of Soho as the centre of the universe, and the postbox is the centre of the centre. I only have to stand there and it seems that I’ll encounter something. There’s a certain magic to it. Just be there and something will happen. In the old days, I’d stand there with a beer and someone will come along, and say, I’ll take you somewhere, come drinking with us. That kind of thing. You can look back to a time when this part of the city was fields, and then as it builds up in layers. And you know, it almost feels walled in some ways. A city within a city.

That’s interesting, because if you think about what’s around it, it’s a strange set of neighbors really. Oxford St, Regents St, Leicester Square - emblematic of a very different experience of London.

Yeah, and it’s a bit disjointed now, because if you read about it, Chinatown used to be very like Soho, full of slightly dodgy places, strip clubs, night clubs, opium dens. More vibrant. But now it’s been dislodged a bit from Soho, and it’s under threat as well from rent rises and gentrification. Which is a real shame, I think.

So talking about that idea, the threat to Soho from the problems London faces everywhere as rents soar and people are shunted further and further out and nothing but chains can afford to rent property, what are your feelings on that?

Well I mean I’ve watched the passing of old Soho in real time. Anyone who’s hung around here in the last ten years or so. There were real remnants of the 50s here, small ones, but still remnants. Still remnants of the sex industry, but the internet killed that. Like Irvine Welsh predicted, everyone’s now a wanker. But all the small little places, the local, that was all here. The Colony Room, which had been here since ’48. All that made a strong hub. The Colony, The Groucho, The French, Blacks, Gerry’s. The Dean St shuffle, you know? I remember one summer when The French was open late. So you’d get kicked out of The Colony, into The French, out of there into The Groucho, and from there into Gerry’s. The strip, bar after bar. But they were interesting places as well, not just pubs full of tourists.

I always find that those places have this sense of an understanding that anyone in there is kind of fair game to talk to, to interact with. It’s another kind of suspension of the normal behavior in the city, if that makes sense?

Of course, it’s encouraged. Things are a little looser. You sort of pick people up here. You used to be in a pub in the afternoon or whatever and someone would say, Oh where you going now? The French, and they’d come along. And there was always someone still there at the end of the night, and you had no knowledge of who they were or where they came from. Days later they’d be with you. It’s very bad for you, this behavior! But all these places were very much about talking and mixing with people.

And therefore attractive to writers and artists or whatever.

Yeah, and people who maybe didn’t live in London anymore, moved out, maybe, but if they came into town, they’d head for Soho you know? So you’d head somewhere and there would be some musician out, holding court, or an old actor who’d come into London for the day…  But it’s not just about the people who were there. I believe that there’s something about the feeling of a place. When The Colony Room closed, a lot of people were looking for where we were going to drink next. And there was a placed on Romilly St where Dick, who had been the head barman in The Colony, had a bar. And everyone tried as hard as they could to have a good time there, but it just wasn’t working. Whether that was the architecture, the shape of the room, who knows? It must be something more than just the size of the room, right? There’s a place around the corner and it’s been so many different bars or clubs since I’ve known the area and it just never sticks.

So do you think making this work, you’ve felt like there was some mourning for a passing of a period of your life, mirrored in the passing of a period in a place?

Yeah, for sure. It’s one of the reasons I want to do it, and to make the film I want to make about Soho, as cliché as it sounds, a love letter to the place. I might have missed the boat, because things are just changing so fast. Berwick St has been carved up, Wanker’s Court will go soon, Madame Jojo’s. I mean, who needs a helicopter pad on the top of Raymond’s Revuebar? Who does that benefit? But it’s not about nostalgia either, it’s the opposite, really because the architects developing that building are saying, oh well, we’ve re-installed the neon sign from Raymond’s Revuebar. That’s heritage. But it’s just an empty gesture. It’s like knocking down The French House and putting up a crap French restaurant but keeping the sign. It’s pointless.

Yeah, there’s a conservative, reactionary way of fetishizing the idea of a sense of place, but there’s also a radical, living equivalent idea that accepts change, because everything changes, but doesn’t want things to be reduced to a kind of sham version of themselves. I mean The French House was called The York Minster and that changed, for reasons that are central to the myth of the place, so it’s not change itself that is bad, it’s this artificial, reductive, homogenizing change that we’re seeing now that’s problematic.


And that’s an example of what people called the place, it became. I mean property developers just want to sell a version of place. They don’t care about it, except to market it. Like there’s a Mexican bar that’s got sex shop neon signs outside. What’s that saying? Nothing. It’s just an easy emblem of a very thin idea of the places history. That’s what we’ll be left with. I’m trying to document what it really is. To look at the real past of the place, in full. The first night clubs, Iron Foot Jack, King of the Bohemians, who’s interesting because he was so uncool. A chancer who nobody really liked. Mourning the past of a place is funny. The myth of places, like the Francis Bacon set, it is that, myth. But it’s still an important place. The West End. 

If you turn this into Covent Garden, or whatever, what are we left with? What happens when the independent shops or the little pubs can’t afford to be here? But even collective purchasing or something here can’t be done because of the price of London property. It’s as if the wheels are in motion. A plan for London that’s been rolled out, allow people to live in a place, make it vibrant, and then move the developers in. And people are surprised, but it’s happened everywhere. It’s interesting what Grayson Perry was saying about rich people not creating culture. 

He understands that he’s part of the whole issue as well, but he says interesting things about what opportunities were available. Now people from art school come out with all that debt, nowhere to live, and what work will they get? That punk rock DIY idea is over, because money prohibits these things. You have to accept that things will die, things will change. But what we have now is out of control. A housing crisis, the Tory party, that clown for a mayor. And I want this show, this work to highlight the real relevance of this area, or any area. It’s more than just real estate. 

Interview: Will Burns, Summer 2015.

All clowns welcome.

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