Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Piccadilly. My Stop.

Piccadilly. My Stop, by Clayton Littlewood.

I step off the train, onto the escalator, up the stairs, until I’m above ground, on the Dilly Boy ‘meat rack’ of old, on the outskirts of Soho. I walk down Brewer Street, past the ‘closing-down’ Vin Mag, the NCP Car Park, my mood lifting as I enter the village, following in the footsteps of my heroes; Wilde, Crisp, Almond and Horsley.

Walker's Ct. Soft Cell-Non Stop Erotic Cabaret.
I first came to Soho in the 80s, drawn by the Non Stop Erotic Cabaret world of seedy films and sex dwarves. I’d stand outside Madam JoJo’s, gazing up at Marc’s flat, or linger outside the Trident Studios on St Anne’s Court (home to Bolan, Bowie and Freddie), hoping to catch a glimpse of my hero. Then at night, high on speed, I’d climb a rickety staircase on Wardour Street to the The Pink Panther, mixing with rent boys and goth girls, East End crims and West End toffs, drag kings and scene queens, ‘dancing, laughing, living, loving’. That was my Soho, so long ago.

Old Compton St.
From the dying embers of the sex industry (on Walker's Court) I cross the film world of Wardour Street, turning into the gay world of Old Compton Street. On my right, Cafe Espana. On my left, St Quentin’s old haunt, The Black Cat (where he was beaten by ‘the roughs’). The street’s awash tonight, with tourists and hen nights, Hari Krishnas and socialites, a melting pot of London life, thrown together on one street, like a modern day Hogarth painting. I walk past the 2is (the birthplace of British rock and roll), a pack of bears outside Comptons (the new Coleherne clones), bowing my head in remembrance as I pass the Admiral Duncan, breathing in the rich aroma from the 125 year old Algerian Coffee Shop, until I’m standing on the Dean Street crossroads. It was these magical few yards that Daniel Farson captured when chronicling Bacon’s ‘gilded gutter life’, that 50s Love Is The Devil drunken period when he’d stagger from Gaston’s bohemian The French House, to Muriel’s ‘concentration of camp’ at The Colony, recovering over breakfast at number 50, Cafe Torino’s, where a ten foot marionette once perched above the door, and where ‘dark Italians and pale young artists and poets’ would search halfheartedly for jobs. I have a connection to this building. This is where my partner and I once lived, in the damp rat-infested basement, just feet away from Elizabethan plague pits (and where I too would chronicle life on this street).

The Gargoyle Club.
I turn into Dean Street, waving at Maggie, one of the madams from the ‘walk up’, heading for Meard Street, the little cobbled Georgian thoroughfare where the famous Soho clubs The Mandrake and The Gargoyle once stood; where Tallulah Bankhead danced, where Fred Astaire was entranced, where Farson took Josh Avery in the book Dog Days of Soho. The prettiest street in the village. Whenever I’m in Soho I make a point of coming here. I stand outside number seven, the house with the sign that reads,

This is not a brothel.

‘This is not a brothel. There are no prostitutes at this address,’ and I remember. For it was here that Sebastian Horsely, the Soho dandy, once lived. I would ring his bell, the shutters would open on the 1st floor and he’d lean out, in a black silk negligee with a marabou feather–lined neck, his face coated in a fine white powder, his eyes caked in last night’s mascara and he’d purr ‘Hello Romeo, Juliet here. Welcome to Horsley Towers.’ When he died his coffin was wrapped in blood-red tissue paper, draped in jewels and it was placed in a Victorian style horse drawn hearse. And the hearse went all round the streets of Soho. It was as if Sebastian was saying a last goodbye to the village that he loved.

Pam outside the French.
Now I’m back on Dean Street, looking toward The Golden Lion (a one time serial killer haunt). It was here I last saw Pam, the local homeless ‘celebrity’. Wherever I was in Soho, Pam was here too. If I was walking past the Coach and Horses, Pam would step out of a doorway. If I was having a coffee outside Maison Bertaux, her radar would home in on me, dressed in her usual attire; camouflage trousers, donkey jacket, ‘barn owl’ NHS glasses, sporting a number one haircut. ‘Gotta gold one for me?’ she’d mumble. I’d hand her a coin. She’d squint at it, not looking impressed. ‘It’s all I’ve got, Pam.’ Then she’d wrap her arms around me, snuffling into my jacket. ‘Thank you ... Luv you!’ And off she’d trundle, like something from Beatrix Potter. Pam the Fag Lady. The hardest worker on Old Compton Street.

I turn left into Old Compton Street, and look, there’s the woman with the striking eye makeup and the ‘bum length’ multi-coloured plaits. And over there, that’s Michele, the aging trans woman, shuffling past, in a moth-eaten fur. Like an ancient Romanov in exile. This street maybe predominately youth oriented, but the old return, often unnoticed, to remember, to reflect. They see a different Soho. The ghosts.

A minute later I’m at ‘Fruit Corner’, the proliferation of coffee shops on the corner of Frith Street, within sight of Kettners. It is said that Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas entertained rent boys there. And a couple of decades before them, two other doomed lovers, Rimbaud and Verlaine, socialised in a public house on this street. And this is what I love about Soho - sitting in these coffee shops, by the window, writing in my notebook, watching the mayhem outside - I imagine the artists, the writers and the eccentrics that have flocked here over the centuries, attracted by the cosmopolitan feel, the lure of sex, and the hint of danger that lies within. You can’t transport this vibe. It’s in the brickwork. It’s in their footsteps. The High Street chains maybe moving in, but old Soho is still here if you care to look. There’s nowhere like it in the world. And one day it will rise again. It always does.

The Caravan Club.

A Call for Volunteers. Caravan Club Project. In 2017 organisations across the country mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act that partially decriminalised homosexuality and the signals it sent out about rights and freedoms. This spring, The National Archives and the National Trust are working with set designers to recreate the Caravan Club of 1934; an illegal gay club that was the subject of a sensational court case in 1934. The space will act as a focal point for a wider programme of volunteer led tours, debates, events, and a guidebook that celebrates the history of club culture c. from 1918 to now in the Soho, Covent Garden and Fitzrovia areas. There will also be a physical and online archival displays curated by The National Archives.We’re offering 25-35 volunteers the chance to be trained as National Trust tour guides as part of the project. In addition to meeting like-minded people and broadening your knowledge, you’ll be invited to a special ‘club night’ for volunteers to thank you for your time.If you’re passionate about LGBTQ+ heritage, love learning about London’s history and are a confident speaker in front of small groups, we’d love for you to get in touch. Click here for more info on volunteering. 


Thursday, 5 January 2017

In the Shadow of the Prince Edward Theatre.

The Prince Edward Theatre has been a familiar Soho landmark for generations of people to enjoy since opening its doors on the 3 April 1930. Its own illustrious history has seen the theatre go through many transformations over the past 86 years. In 1929 the buildings which stood on the corner of Old Compton Street and Greek Street were demolished to make way for the new theatre completely eliminating any trace of the people and business which occupied the address of 41 Greek Street and 53 Old Compton Street.

While the buildings were home to a diverse mix of inhabitants and occupations the silk and linen drapery business was the main trade which eventually spanned several buildings as the business grew from small shops to a wholesale warehouse business.
Here are just a few of the businesses which occupied the space along with Auctioneers, Candle makers and residents living in the rooms above the offices and shops.
1796, 41 Greek Street, Thomas Clarke, Silk Dyer
1807, 41 Greek Street, Stephen Callahan, Silk Dyer
1808, 53 Old Compton Street, William and Joseph Bryan, Linen Drapers

In April 1824 Andrews, Stobbs and Maggs opens at 41 Greek Street 1826, 41 Greek Street, John Jenner and Ambrose Boodle, Linen Drapers and Mercers
1826, The Examiner, 12 November reports

The Evening Standard, 16 October 1828 reports, new proprietors of the “Emporium” Messrs Wagner and Chapman, Greek Street Soho, The business closed in 1830 when William Chapman and George Wagner were declared bankrupt.

In 1862, the final chapter of the address at the corner of Greek Street and Old Compton Street commenced when William Taylor Reddan a butcher’s son from Parson Drove in Cambridgeshire opened his drapers business, William Reddan & Sons Ltd.
William’s empire spanned several buildings 51 to 54 Old Compton Street and 41 & 42 Greek Street with around 14 drapers’ assistants and staff living above the business. Reddan’s was renowned for its Victorian charm and its most discerning cliental on its books which included Winston Churchill and members of the Royal family.

Image of William Reddan & Sons Ltd Drapers shop in 1926, 3 years before the buildings were demolished to make way for the Prince Edward Theatre. In 1899 the building numbers changed to 22, 24 & 28 Old Compton Street.

Members of William’s own family worked within the business, his brother Charles set up his own drapers business in North London. William died in 1920 year after his Wife Emma and was survived by his four children; in 1928 his children Minnie and Charles wound up their fathers 66 year old business and sold the premises to the Hay Hill Syndicate to make way for the Prince Edward Theatre. Reddan’s loyal staff moved on and his trusted store managers were remembered in Williams will.
On Monday 3 September 1928 The Evening Telegraph reports on the close of Reddan’s, One landmark falls into the shadow of another.
Further reading at  Arthur Lloyd Music Hall and Theatre History Website

The Prince Edward Theatre research by mosoho volunteer Sarah Buttery.
Sarah’s own family has a long history in Soho with Italian restaurants; Sarah worked for Kettner’s before its closure last January to make way for the next phase of its life and has researched the history of Kettner’s, the families and people involved in running the business and holds a private archive of information and artefacts which she has collected over the past few years. I hope Sarah will share this untold story with us in 2017.

We offer a bespoke research service to business and individuals. If you'd like to find out more please email: you@mosoho.org.uk

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