Old Soho and its Pubs
Soho has long had London’s best pubs. But then it has long had the best of everything. Here the shops are fancier, the food in the restaurants tastier, the streets livelier, the nightclubs louder, the nights out longer, the people happier, even the prostitutes – of either sex, sometimes both – better looking. People come here from afar to marvel at the capital of chic, the centre point of style. When they arrive they find glamour, glitz and glitter, as well as great pubs.
By Ed Glinert
Extracted from "London Walks - London Stories" a guide to walks around London - available here
View Map here
Thomas Burke, writing his Nights in Town: A London Autobiography, knew it in 1915. ‘Soho – magic syllables!’ he waxed. ‘When the respectable Londoner wants to feel devilish he goes to Soho, where every street is a song. He walks through Old Compton Street, and, instinctively, he swaggers; he is abroad; he is a dog’.
No one ever drank in Soho for the quality of the beer, rather it was to sup in the presence of glamorous ghosts hovering over the bar stool – Dylan Thomas, Nina Hamnett, George Orwell, Charles De Gaulle, Arthur Rimbaud, Karl Marx – the thought that some of that mystique that made those names so celebrated might rub off, and for the quality of the pub as a saloon of sophistication.
In Soho the inspired imbiber has an insatiable choice. Within a few streets of Soho Square there is the mouth-watering prospect of De Hems on Macclesfield Street; the Crown and Two Chairmen at 32 Dean Street; the John Snow, 39 Broadwick Street; the Dog and Duck at 18 Bateman Street; the French House, 49 Dean Street; the Golden Lion, two doors along at No. 51; the Carlisle Arms of Bateman Street; and the Coach and Horses of 29 Greek Street – most of which Burke would have known a hundred years ago.
Turn every corner and there is another glittering glass gin palace with a shattering story to tell: the Red Lion on Great Windmill Street where Karl Marx devised The Communist Manifesto; the Argyll Arms at 18 Argyll Street, with its well-preserved Victorian fittings, where the novelist George Orwell chastised BBC colleagues for failing to show sufficient proletarian credentials; the Sun and 13 Cantons on Great Pulteney Street, named after the Swiss woollen merchants that used to be based locally.
Of these some have so enticing a reputation it is barely possible to walk past without being sucked in. A pub has stood on the site of De Hem’s, to the south of Shaftesbury Avenue, since 1688 when it opened as the Horse and Dolphin. De Hem, a retired Dutch seaman, took over the premises early in the 20th century. He had a passion for molluscs and decorated the walls with some 300,000 oyster shells, the last of which were removed in the 1950s. Fittingly, it was here during the Second World War that Dutch Resistance fighters gathered. In the 1960s De Hem’s was popular with music business types, particularly Pete Meaden, the Who’s first manager, who once described himself as ‘neat sharp and cool, an all-white Soho Negro of the night’, and would come here every lunchtime to buy rounds of scotch and coke. Both the Soho newcomer and the seasoned Sohoite looking to re-indulge might try to take in the lot … perhaps over the course of a few weeks.
Come out of Tottenham Court Road tube, head towards sedate Soho Square with its Tudor-styled folly and prestigious company headquarters (Paul McCartney Ltd, the Football Association), and then start on nearby Greek Street, south of the Square, at the Pillars of Hercules. The pub is aptly named for the two ends hold up the bridge that runs over Manette Street. The Pillars of Hercules has stood here since 1733 and a century later was a favourite of Francis Thompson, the cricketer-poet who in 1888 was rescued from the doorway, where he was lying in a drunken stupor, by Wilfred Meynell, editor of Merry England, who subsequently gave Thompson his first chance of being published. In the 1970s up-coming authors Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan, frequented the Pillars, as did those who worked for the literary magazine the New Review, then based at 11 Greek Street.
A few hundred yards south on Greek Street is Soho’s best known and most crowded pub, the Coach and Horses. Until recently it had long been presided over by Norman Balon, the self-styled ‘rudest landlord in London’ – there are even coffee mugs in local offices bearing that legend – and it is where Private Eye magazine holds its fortnightly lunches. To get on that guest list is an honour barely with parallel. Those so honoured include Melvyn Bragg, Germaine Greer, Salman Rushdie – even Margaret Thatcher – but not all on the same day. Rushdie scoffed away while Special Branch officers downstairs, on the lookout for suspicious Fatwa-supporting characters, posed as ordinary drinkers. Usually the most dangerous encounter was with Balon himself who was known to terrorise lunch guests with a playful ‘Oi, where the x#&%#x do you think you’re going?’ as they furtively make their way upstairs to the dining room.
In the last half of the 20th century the Coach and Horses was a home from home for the Spectator columnist and professional alcoholic Jeffrey Bernard: gambler, journalist, fervent alcoholic and four-times married who could regularly be found perched on a favourite stool regaling customers. According to Soho chronicler Daniel Farson ‘[Jeffrey Bernard] paid for his formidable intake of drinks by writing very funnily about the disastrous effect the drinks have on him’. Keith Waterhouse turned Bernard’s life into a West End show, Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, the excuse often found on the page where his Spectator column should have been.
The French House at No. 49 Dean Street opened as the Wine House in 1910 and was run by a German, Schmidt, who was deported when the First
World War broke out. He was replaced by the Frenchman Victor Berlemont, then the only foreign landlord in Britain. Berlemont would eject troublesome customers by announcing: ‘I’m afraid one of us will have to leave, and it’s not going to be me’. During the Second World War the pub became a meeting place for the French Resistance, where Charles De Gaulle allegedly drew up his Free French call-to-arms during lunch upstairs. After the War painters such as Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon became regulars. By then Berlemont had been succeeded by his son, Gaston, who despite being born in Soho and serving in the RAF during the War played up his Gallic background to the full by sporting a flamboyant moustache and engaging in much hand-kissing.
It was in the French House in 1953 that Brendan Behan ate his boeuf bourguignon with both hands. It was also here that year that Dylan Thomas left the only copy of the hand-written manuscript for Under Milk Wood a few weeks before he went to America – for good – in 1953. Thomas told a BBC producer, Douglas Cleverdon, that if he found the original he could sell it. All Thomas knew was that he had dropped it somewhere in Soho, probably in a pub, but had no idea where. Eventually Cleverdon realised that the French House was a likely choice. He found the script and sold it for £2,000 (£40,000 in today’s money). The French House retains its raffish Gallic Bohemian atmosphere. Beer is only served in halves, but alas the blue wisp of a Gitane curling to the ceiling is no more.
From the southern end of Dean Street into Old Compton Street
In Soho all roads leads to Old Compton Street. Only a few hundred yards long, it consists almost entirely of shops, cafes, bars and restaurants, and is packed day and night with tourists, shoppers, restaurant-goers, theatre-lovers and late-night revelers. By midnight Old Compton Street is the liveliest spot in the capital and its pubs are still going strong. At the eastern Charing Cross Road end is the awkwardly named Molly Mogg’s. It was the Coach and Horses from 1731-1981 and features in the 1961 Colin Wilson novel Adrift in Soho which perfectly captures the transient world of the Boho Soho drifter. The hero, Harry Preston, ends up here after leaving the Midlands, lonely and ignored. ‘After a few minutes a bearded youth came in with an arty-looking girl; she wore thick red stockings and a duffle coat. I tried smiling at her when she glanced in my direction, but she looked away as if I were invisible.’
Bar Soho at Nos. 23-25 was the King’s Arms in 1839 when the German composer Richard Wagner stayed here. Inspired by a rough voyage he had recently endured on the Baltic Sea, he began work on his opera, The Flying Dutchman, in Old Compton Street. In 1871 the French symbolist poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud fled Paris following the fall of the Commune and briefly lodged here. By then the pub was the Hibernia Stores, which put on radical lectures upstairs that the two poets attended along with, possibly, Karl Marx. Rimbaud, who once confessed to embracing degradation and trying to ‘derange all his senses’ so that he could write a new kind of verse, met the 28-year-old Verlaine when he was 17 after writing him a fan letter. They scandalised literary Paris by eloping to Soho where Rimbaud complained that the gin tasted like ‘concentrated sewage water’, that London was muddy with a constant fog, and described the city ‘as black as a crow and noisy as a duck’.
Down the road to Compton’s. It was built in 1890 with a façade that featured swags, elaborate heads and a figure of Pan topped by a steep mansard roof that was later removed. Here in 1958 Harry Webb became Cliff Richard after deciding that ‘Harry Webb’ wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll enough. A decade earlier it was where the cultish dilettantish writer Julian Maclaren-Ross discovered from the poet Tambimuttu that the glamour of the area created its own problems for writers, as he described in his autobiographical Memoirs of the Forties:
‘It’s a dangerous place, you must be careful,’ Tambi said.
‘Fights with knives?’
‘No, a worse danger. You might get Sohoitis, you know.’
‘No I don’t. What is it?’
‘If you get Sohoitis,’ Tambi said very seriously, ‘you will stay there always day and night and get no work done ever. You have been warned.’
Maclaren-Ross evidently caught Sohoitis, for his masterpiece, Memoirs of the Forties, for which he was paid chapter by chapter, was still unfinished when he died of a heart attack in 1964, just after finishing an entire bottle of brandy to celebrate a new commission.
Now, further west to Poland Street and environs
The most exciting Soho pubs can be found in the oddest places. The King’s Arms at 23 Poland Street is dwarfed by Marks & Spencer’s Pantheon building. The Ancient Order of Druids first met here on 28 November 1781, their activities precipitating a revival of interest in the Ancient Britons.
Literary historians like to believe that William Blake, who celebrated his 24th birthday that day and lived locally, was present. The John Snow at 39 Broadwick Street is always packed, probably because the beer, Sam Smith’s, is about a pound cheaper than its rivals. Don’t wander in without a thought for Snow, an inspired local mid-19th century physician whose surgery stood on this site and there single-handedly solved Soho’s 1850s cholera epidemic. The Endurance at 90 Berwick Street was the King of Corsica for decades. It was one of the oddest pub names in the country, chosen in honour of the French mercenary Theodore Neuhoff who was once invited to become king of the island of Corsica and died in Soho in 1756. He is buried in the disused churchyard of St Anne on Wardour Street and
took to his grave the knowledge of where he buried his vast horde of treasure. Experts believe it may be under West Ham United’s Upton Park football ground but no one has tried digging up the pitch yet. Kingly Street, right over at the West End of the neighbourhood, is easy to miss. It is a tiny street, almost an alley, tucked away behind Carnaby Street. Until recently it sported one of London’s greatest greasy-spoon cafes, Voltaro, but still has the Caledonian themed Clachan pub, which has some of its original Victorian wood carvings. The chic store Liberty used to own the building and wanted to turn it into a warehouse but pulled out in time.
Back to the centre and Old Soho
Running north-south through the centre of Soho is Wardour Street. Long ago it was known as Old Soho, an evocative and romantic name remembered by Ray Davies in the opening of the Kinks 1970 hit ‘Lola’. It should be the great Soho pub street but it is more of a working place; advertising agencies and film production companies are rife on Wardour. For decades its best known pub was the Intrepid Fox, home of bikers and hair freaks. The Intrepid Fox was named after Charles James Fox, the Whig politician whose support for the French Revolution convinced many of his colleagues to join the Tories. Fox frequented the pub and the landlord was so impressed he offered free drinks to anyone who promised to vote for him. The pub is currently closed but will probably reopen soon under a different name soon.
That is what has happened nearby at the corner of Great Windmill Street and Archer Street where what was the Red Lion is now the Bar@1. Karl Marx attended the Communist debating club that met here in the 1850s. He was watched by the Prussian government agent Wilhelm Stieber who was monitoring Marx under instructions from the Prussian Minister of the Interior, Ferdinand von Westphalen -- Marx’s brother-in-law. Stieber reported back to von Westphalen that the Communists were plotting in code to kill Queen Victoria, and though von Westphalen reported this to Lord
Palmerston, the foreign secretary, the latter sat on the information. When the Prussians complained that the British authorities were not showing sufficient concern the home secretary explained that ‘under our laws, mere discussion of regicide . . . does not constitute sufficient grounds for the arrest of the conspirators’. The cell was wound up in September 1850 and moved to Cologne where it was rounded up by the Prussian police.
It was also to the Red Lion that Marx and Friedrich Engels brought the outline of their new Communist Manifesto to the Communist League congress. It must have seemed strange at the time. No such body as the Communist Party then existed nor was the work really a manifesto. As a piece of literature The Manifesto of the Communist Party is clumsy and pedestrian. Its famous early line – ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’ – pales alongside its precursor, Rousseau’s great epithet from the Social Contract: ‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains’. But as a piece of political propaganda its resonance has been phenomenal.
Only one other book – the Bible – and that is of unsure translation – has had such an impact on humanity. The Manifesto of the Communist Party was the cornerstone of a philosophy that powered the Soviet Union, China, Mongolia, North Korea and much of east Europe for the latter half of the 20th century, and that still propels much political thought worldwide. It is certainly the most influential book that ever arose from a meeting in a pub in Soho.
Want to read the rest? Buy "London Walks: London Stories" now and get 25% off with free p+p. Click here and enter the offer code VISITBRITAIN at the checkout
Photos by Ewan Munro - some rights reserved