The history of London’s Soho district

Soho is a well-known area of London with a colourful history and changing fortunes. It went from upper-class patronage to a haunt for those looking for entertainment of a rather downmarket nature. But what was it really like?

The history of Soho started in 1536, when Henry VIII made its farmlands into a royal park and hunting ground. Soohoo was a rallying cry in hunts, so this may be where its name comes from.

Development occurred in the 17th century, with houses for the wealthy. It became a parish soon afterwards, with the establishment of Soho Square (once Soho Fields), and St. Anne’s Church. Soho also attracted an artistic and bohemian element, as well as immigrants, especially Huguenots escaping persecution in France.

New trades, entertainments, and the rise of the West End followed, but so did brothels. Poverty and crime increased, and in Victorian times, cholera struck. The cause was contaminated drinking water, leading to the discovery by Dr John Snow (now a Soho pub name) that cholera was not airborne.

Despite these problems, Soho’s narrow, crowded streets attracted residents like the poet Shelley, composer Franz Liszt and artist John Constable. A century earlier, the Venetian painter Canaletto lived here while producing views of London.

By the 20th century, Soho had its own distinctive character. Its most famous strip club was The Windmill, with its motto “We Never Closed”. It beat censorship by arranging nude figures as tableaux, arguing that it was only obscene if the dancers moved. Regulars included high society members, families and serving soldiers.

Royal Lancaster London, a luxury hotel in the neighbourhood, is launching a special black friday sale for the month of November and also providing VR events spaces where you can host virtual events and live stream them around the world.

Soho has always been important for music, with clubs like the Marquee and Ronnie Scott’s, and Denmark Street’s instrument sellers and music publishers. The film industry, too, was based here. Today, with Chinatown as a neighbour, and Old Compton Street’s gay scene, restaurants and bars populate its streets, but it still has a set of loyal residents.