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Disappearing Cities: Soho — Gangsters, artists, brothels and landlords

Chris Sullivan, the founder of the famous Wag Club, looks at the history of London’s Soho district and how greed and acquisition replaced art and conviviality.

Dean Street Town House Boarded Up, Soho
Disappearing Cities: Soho
Gangsters, Artists, Brothels and Landlords

Chris Sullivan, the founder of the famous Wag Club, looks at the history of London’s Soho district and how greed and acquisition replaced art and conviviality.

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Cycling around Soho yesterday, even though we know why, I was still amazed to see a ghost town. Almost everything was shut. Even the Soho House private members club was boarded up. I also felt a certain nostalgia for old Soho. This was almost how it was in the 80s and 90s  at 7 am when we exited one of  Soho’s many all night drinking clubs.

And I know exactly what it was like. I studied art at St Martins in Charing Cross Road until 1981. The following year, I opened the Wag Club in Wardour Street that ran six nights a week for almost 19 years, and I lived there until 2001. I still find myself knocking about Soho at least three times a week.

My Soho nightspot the Wag Club was more than a club. It was a place where impoverished artistic ingénuse met valuable contacts, saw bands, fashion shows, art exhibits, and hung around with like-minded people… Where would they go now?

The march of gentrification, corporatization and overwhelming greed has changed Soho beyond recognition. In the 80s chain restaurants did not want to be anywhere near Soho. Neither did PR companies or posh hotels while city boys only visited there for hookers or to throw up. They would never have dreamt of living in the vicinity.

From Royal Hunting Ground To Karl Marx

That wasn’t always the case. When Henry VIII nicked the land off a bunch of Catholic friars in 1536 and turned it into one of his many hunting grounds, it wasn’t safe for peasants for fear of poaching accusations and the gallows. It was named Soho after a hunting and war cry. The area was woodland until it became a sought after place to live after the Great Fire of 166.

Leicester Square was the site of the Earl Of Leicester’s mansion, built in 1668. Then came French Huguenots, Greeks, Italians — including the painter Canaletto and Casanova who settled on Greek Street in 1764. Then Jews — the first synagogue in Westminster was opened in Great Pulteney Street in 1771.

So it continued until Soho’s first official brothel opened at 21 Soho Square in 1778 prompting bawdy music halls, drinking dens, gambling clubs, opium parlours, bordellos, mucho strumpet and nonconformists to inundate Soho. Percy Bysshe Shelley lived on Poland St in 1811: Mozart, Constable and Thomas De Quincey on Frith Street: Franz Liszt at 18 Great Marlborough Street and in 1851 Karl Marx made 28 Dean Street his home. Soho also attracted criminals; highwayman, pickpockets, burglars. Gentleman Jack Sheppard lived in Soho near Piccadilly in 1723 while Ikey Soloman, on whom the character of Fagin is based, worked Soho to the bone.

The End of Respectability

After the Soho cholera outbreak of 1854 ‘respectable ‘families moved out. The debauched Soho that ensued inspired Robert Louis Stephenson to write Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Oscar Wilde to pen The Picture of Dorian Grey.

In 1920s Soho the rich ‘Bright Young Things’ featured in Evelyn Waugh’s novell Vile Bodies came to buy and consume cocaine in all night drinking dens alongside villains, artists, homosexuals and hookers. (Soho has also always catered for the LGBT community with clubs that were illegal before 1967 when Labour decriminalised homosexuality, especially Old Compton in Old Compton Street.)

While many areas of London floundered during the First and Second World Wars, Soho thrived as every soldier spent freely in its bars, bordellos and betting dens before shipping out to be shot at. The vicinity was particularly popular with Afro-American servicemen who lapped up Soho’s racial tolerance in clubs such as ‘The Americana’ underneath the Mapleton Hotel on Coventry St.

Gangsters and the Sex Trade

Where there’s brass there’s muck. Gangsters have long fought over Soho. Clerkenwell born Darby Sabini and his hundred-strong mob-controlled Soho from the 1920s until in 1941 when Sabini was interned as an Italian enemy alien.

Islington’s White Gang then took over until 1947 when Britain’s first celebrity gangster Billy Hill, ‘The King of Soho’- joined up with Jack Spotand took over. They controlled the city’s gambling and protection rackets from his Dean Street headquarters — the current site of the Groucho Club. But Hill and Spot didn’t consider the sex business a trade for a proper man, which is where the Maltese came in.

Eugenio Messina and his brothers controlled the Soho sex trade before and after the Second World War. But after they both were deported the crown was passed onto another Maltese born gangster. In 1963 ‘Big Frank’ Mifsud who formed ‘The Syndicate’ with Bernie Silver. The illicit sex trade rocketed when prostitution was made illegal in 1959 (under a Conservative government of course). ‘Walk-Ups’ to private rooms and dingy brothels boomed. By the 70s there were more than thirty strip clubs in Soho, as well as countless porno bookshops and cinemas, clip joints and peep shows.


Meanwhile, Soho had become the favoured location for artists and writers.  Brendan Behan, Dylan Thomas, Charles Laughton, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Peter O’Toole, Peter Cook and Jeffrey Bernard were Soho Boho to the core.

Simultaneously, Soho was the birth place of ‘pop’ music and teen culture through coffee bars like the 2 I’s in the basement of 59 Old Compton Street where Billy Fury, Cliff Richard and Adam Faith were talent spotted.

Consequently, Soho was the swinging sixties. It was the centre of mod, beatnik, jazz and rhythm n’ blues. The Beatles first London gig was in Soho, the Rolling Stones made their debut at The Marquee on July 12th 1962. David Bowie, The Kinks and Led Zeppelin were just a few of the other bands that performed their regularly, while The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s first gig was at The Bag o’ Nails in Kingly St in 1966.

Soho, around Carnaby Street, was the global centre of fashion throughout the 1960s. John Stephens opened ‘His Clothes’ on Beak Street with his boyfriend Bill Franks and then went on to open a further fifteen boutiques on Carnaby Street. Fashion labels flocked to the vicinity, and even in the 1980s there were still designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Demob, John Richmond, Mary Quant, Pam Hogg in the area.  

The 1980s

By the 80s Soho was a straight out red-light district filled with streetwalkers and red lights in every window. It wasn’t clever or pretty or nice. Only adventurous tourists, stag parties, gangs of louts, drunks and the brave visited.  But this attracted young club-goers, such as yours truly. Seeing a gap in the market we persuaded Soho club owners to give us their empty nights and we brought our own crowd and DJs

In 1981 Soho was grooving like a mother and by 1983 it was the place to go . Every night there was a club catering to each of the many youth cults that proliferated. Funk, Electro, Goth, Ska, Soul, Rock, Comedy, Rap nights abounded. I opened the Wag Club. The Soho Brasserie the Groucho Club followed until, by the late 80s, there were at least 40 nightclubs thriving in just this one square mile.

In addition to these, there were at least six all-night illegal drinking clubs open until the postman came.  Fashionable tourists who had read about this exciting Soho in magazines such as The Face, Blitz and iD, flooded the area and, now that the sex industry had abated somewhat, stylish media companies, record shops and clothing stores moved in. Soho was buzzing. This was the Soho that everyone is nostalgic about.

Gentrification Killed The Golden Goose

This status quo continued up until the mid-90s when landlords realised the area’s potential, not as a red-light district, but an inner-city shopping mall. They greedily started doubling, sometimes trebling rents and hence the rates. This led many great venerable Soho institutions to go bankrupt or be sold up, including the Wag, the Marquee’, Gossips, the Brain, Pop and Maya, and many great affordable restaurants that had been part of Soho since the 50s.

Then the 2005 rent review bankrupted even more landmark establishments, followed by the Crossrail Development that demolished a good half dozen affordable nightspots including The Astoria’, a beautiful art deco cinema built in 1927. Since then, there has been the virtual closure of the famous guitar shops on Denmark St and a cull of the bars in Hanway Street to make way for a Primark superstore.

Then the world famous Madame JoJo’s on Brewer Street, with its original 1950s interior that embodied the true spirit of Soho, was closed by its landlords Soho Estates, who still own half of Soho, to make way for a tasteless new development.

Gentrification has killed golden goose and expunged the area of young people, who previously flocked to Soho for a night out. This has destroyed a profitable income stream which I estimate at around £110 million per annum from clubs alone, not even adding the additional revenue from pubs and restaurants.

Others have estimated this type of gentrification has resulted in a loss of  £16 billion a year to the UK night-time industries. Then there is the loss of employment. Most clubs will employ at least thirty people a week, as well as entertainers, DJs, security, cleaners, while a luxury flat (if they are occupied — which most aren’t) might only employ just a part-time cook and a cleaner. So thousands of people have lost their jobs.

The Death of Night Time Soho

Admittedly, London Mayor Sadiq Khan has introduced a 24-hour London Underground service that has helped. But after 2 am clubs that serve drinks are thin on the ground. If Khan wants to rejuvenate the night-time industry which employs 1.6 million Londoners all he has to do is push Westminster Council to grant more club licenses, introduce rent caps and declare Soho a 24-hour area as they did in Amsterdam’s Rembrandtplein.

 “In the night time economy, there’s a lot of talent,’ explains Amsterdam’s Night Mayor former club promoter Mirik Milan. “Think of all the graphic designers, party promoters, DJs—all these people that use the night as a serious playground to develop their skills and in the end, have their daytime job. This is definitely really important for everywhere in the world.”

My Soho nightspot the Wag Club was more than a club. It was a place where impoverished artistic ingénuse met valuable contacts, saw bands, fashion shows, art exhibits, and hung around with like-minded people. Here they hatched plots that often resulted in UK bands reaching the top of the charts all over the world, and British fashion designers to become globally influential.  Where would they go now? On the site of the Wag sits O’Neil’s Irish theme pub.

London rents are the highest of any city on earth. Unless we want to live in a cultural vacuum, something has to be done and soon.

The latest loss is Hix Soho — a restaurant that not only served food but also had club nights, poetry readings and art exhibits/ It had its rent trebled.

Another Soho cri de cœur is China town. One restaurant has seen its rent rise from £66,00 per annum in 2000 to £350,000 in 2019 and expect another big rent hike next year. The betting shops have moved in: nine so far with more to come. As Christine Yau, chairman of the London Chinese Community Centre told the BBC. “It [Chinatown] is becoming the betting destination and this is very bad for London.  Chinatown is about culture, about tradition and heritage.” 

Recently, in an effort to resuscitate the dying dog, small live venues were excluded from business rates. But I fear it’s too late as the deluge of the likes of All Bar One and chain restaurant has killed the vibe.  

Is this the End of Soho — or Will it Rise Again?

Landlords don’t care about the annihilation of Soho’s soul. just as long their shareholders can stash more money offshore. Meanwhile, we suffer. I moved to London, bought a flat and invested in this city. It feels like I went for a meal in a rather quirky little restaurant full of idiosyncratic charm and invention only for it to be replaced by a McDonald’s halfway through eating my main course.

To me, this is just part of a bigger long term plan by the Government to turn London into a Disney-like theme park with chain shops that, fit only for tourists. It is happening all over inner London: Hackney, Shoreditch, Portobello and now even Peckham. According to property firm CBRE Central London rents, at an average of £2,500 per month, are the highest of any city on earth. Unless we want to live in a cultural vacuum, something has to be done and soon.

But all is not lost yet. Soho bounced back in the 80s and perhaps, after the COVID-19 pandemic, it will rise again as people crave entertainment, live music and simply the j oy of hanging out with others. Maybe this message will get through to the Soho landlords as they sit in their houses in Monaco and Jersey. Beyond gloating over their millions with nothing to spend it on, hopefully, even they will realise that what matters is not acquisition, not a new car or a new designer dress, but being with friends, socialising and sharing.

We live in hope.

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