In Old Soho With Leslie Hardcastle
At the House of St Barnabas-in-Soho
There are some people who have the ability to transform a place that is familiar, by showing it to you through their eyes and revealing it anew. One such person is Soho resident Leslie Hardcastle. “There’s the Soho you see when you go out for the night and there’s the quiet Soho of people living their daily lives,” he informed me, by way of introduction to our afternoon stroll around the territory.
A man of redoubtable character, Leslie had already cooked eleven stews and seventeen shepherd’s pies that day, in order that he and his wife Wendy might have them in reserve, set against the expediency of all the social and professional demands upon their time, living at the heart of such a lively milieu as that to be found in Soho.
“Under the table, we’ve got Dorothy L. Sayers,” he announced to me as we sat in the tower of St Anne’s Soho, where the renowned crime writer was once church warden and her ashes are now interred beneath the floor. This is the headquarters of the Soho Society, an organisation which has unified the diverse communities and fought for more than thirty years to preserve the identity of Soho by saving the old buildings, keeping the craftsmen and small businesses and the independent shops, and by creating the Soho Housing Association to provide homes to local residents. “There were all these people who had lived here for years and didn’t know each other, but had the same problems, and they were brought together by fighting against those who wanted to pull the place down and put up an office block.” Leslie explained, “Thelma Seears booked a room in Kettners Restaurant for thirty and one hundred and fifty people turned up, and the Soho Society was born.”
We climbed the ladder to the view the clock by Gillett & Co of 1884. Leslie discovered the pieces of it among twenty-five years of pigeon debris when the church permitted the Soho Society use of the space. Amazingly, all the bits were found except one and Leslie delighted to tell me that, when he rang up Gillett & Co, they still had it in stock.“We’ve got 40,000 clocks around the world and someone’s got to take care of them,” they told him. Here we also found the names of W.Collinson, Gravemaker, 1833 and I.Fox, 1822 incised upon the panelling. Mr Fox gained notoriety as the priest who burnt the coffins and dumped the bodies in a corner. Turning our minds from this macabre thought, we peered out to the grass below were people thronged, enjoying the sunshine. As we left the precint, Leslie told me that the reason you step up two metres to the churchyard was on account of the forty thousand bodies piled there.
As we walked out into the street, he pointed out the site of the former eighteenth century Watch House, now superceded by CCTV cameras at street corners, observed from a central control room at the Trocadero. “We’ve got fifty-three pubs in Soho,” he boasted as he put his best foot forward up the pavement. It was the first of many of the blessings of Soho life that I was to learn from Leslie that afternoon.“Mozart gave a concert in this street,” he added, for good measure, as we turned a corner.
“My uncle had a toy shop in Newport Place,” Leslie admitted, stopping to catch his breath and revealing how Soho first became irresistible to him as a boy, “He was an actor who appeared in almost every film of his era, for five minutes. As a child, I loved to come up from Croydon and give him a hand with his stock-taking, anybody who was anybody in British Cinema came to visit him in his shop.”
“My mother and father were on the stage and split up.” Leslie continued, “My mother was in ‘No, No, Nanette’ at the Royal Theatre Hull and it got bombed, so I left alone in the black-out, and crossed the country and came back to London.” Leslie’s first job was in Soho in 1943 at British Lion Films and he has lived in Soho since 1960.
As we turned into Soho Sq, now ravaged by trenches for the construction of Crossrail, Leslie delighted to evoke its former incarnation as King’s Sq, lined by the mansions of aristocrats and by embassies, scenes of social entertainments upon a extravagant scale where Casanova was once a guest. “Sixty-seven Members of Parliament have lived in Soho,” Leslie told me as we crossed the lawn.
By now, we were at St Barnabas-in-Soho, a magnificent eighteenth century dwelling built for the wealthy plantation-owning Beckford family, and still retaining its fancy plasterwork and panelling of 1754. As Soho became less fashionable in the nineteenth century, this became the Offices of the Metropolitan Board of Works where Joseph Bazalguette planned the London sewer system. Dickens was a frequent visitor and may have based the house of Dr Manette in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ upon the House of St Barnabas. As the area declined further, the building became a shelter for homeless families with as many as five hundred people in residence. One can only wonder what they made of the affluent architecture of former days.
“I was married here in 1947,” confided Leslie, as we drifted through the empty rooms and entered the hidden garden, seeking the cool of the nineteenth century chapel, “I was walking past one day and came in to ask, but we had to get permission from the Bishop of London because it is not consecrated. Fortunately – as we didn’t have much money – it is quite small, so we all went next door to an Italian cafe for our wedding breakfast.”
We crossed through Meard St towards Berwick St Market and along Peter St where a famous old brothel had gone.“They took the building down and you could just see the stairs,” Leslie recalled,“I wondered how many men had walked up and down that staircase.” Indicating another piece of new construction, Al Jolson had a Kosher Deli there,” he said.
By now, we were in need of refreshment and I followed Leslie up a creaky stair to a tiny dining club with harsh acoustics where, in the mid-afternoon, literary gents with red faces and white hair, sporting bow ties and tight collars, were chattering like magpies and roaring like hyenas at each other’s jokes while quaffing red wine. “This room was last decorated in 1840,” said Leslie in disappointment as I grew accustomed to the din. Making hasty retreat, we confronted the site of the former police station in Broadwick St, recently demolished. “We were the only village with two hundred and fifty policemen sleeping over every night,” Leslie commented, turning melancholy now at the site of destruction upon such a scale.
Our destination was the Georgian terrace in Great Pulteney St where Leslie has lived since 1963. “Hadyn composed his symphonies and Polidori wrote ‘The Vampire’ here,” he said, as he searched for his key. “In 1970 , it was sold to a property developer who wanted to demolish it but we wouldn’t leave,” he explained as we climbed the crooked staircase, “We got the lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela and we won. From that the Housing Association was formed and this building is now twelve flats with new homes built at the back.”
Hours had passed as we tramped the dusty streets and I had learnt more about Soho than I could cram into my notebook or this article. “I sometimes wonder why I go on beefing about Soho?” Leslie mused, thinking out loud, but he had already answered the question with his own passionate monologue that had filled the afternoon so pleasantly.
Old Compton St is named after Henry Compton.
In the tower room of St Anne’s, Soho.
In the clock room of St Anne’s, Soho.
“We’ve got 40,000 clocks around the world and someone’s got to take care of them,” said W.Gillett & Co when Leslie rang to get a replacement part for this clock from 1884.
Looking down upon the churchyard.
St Anne’s, Soho.
Eighteenth century shopfront in Dean St.
Sculpture telling the story of the Huguenots at the protestant church in Soho Sq.
“Excuse me! Is this your coat?” - Charles II sculpted by Caius Cibber in Soho Sq, 1681.
House of St Barnabas-in-Soho where Bazalguette planned London’s drains.
Bust of Henry Munro from the Bethlem Hospital in Spitalfields who founded the House of Charity.
Plasterwork from 1754 and metal prop to guard against the effects of Crossrail excavations.
“Soho has always been a naughty place.”
Back stairs at the House of St Barnabas with bannisters designed to accommodate crinolines.
The original front door of the House of St Barnabas on the original ground floor of 1720, which became the basement once the ground level of Soho was raised two metres by 1740.
Eighteenth century house on the corner of Meard St and Dean St.
The landowners disagreed upon the alignment of the terraces where their properties met in Meard St.
Camisa, a Soho landmark.
Walker Court where the Soho Society wants a preservation order upon the sex shops before classy boutiques take over.
In Berwick St Market.
Leslie Hardcastle, long-term Soho resident.