Sex shops, coffee shops, beer shops, record shops, noodle shops, theatres and clubs. The artists may have swerved east, but Soho remains London’s brash playground, where clip joint tourists still get rinsed of their cash and office workers still feverishly drink away their workaday stress in beer-soaked boozers.
It was to Soho in the summer of 1987 that my 16 year-old self first sampled the exhilarating highs of clubland, at the Wag and Mud clubs, which were then dominated by the sounds of James Brown and Public Enemy.
Brought up on my mum’s stories of Georgie Fame at The Flamingo – precursor to the Wag night club – and self-consciously listening to my dad’s jazz vinyl, Soho encapsulated glamour, danger and louche morals; to me it was London’s answer to New York’s West Village and going Soho-bound was to my teenage mind like carrying on a family tradition.
The funky drumming of Rare Groove and Hip Hop would soon be replaced by the repetitive beats and squelches of Acid House and Techno; the sounds of our youth changing with the seasons.
And so did the landmarks. The Mud Club closed its doors years ago, as did its neighbour the Astoria; both finally demolished in the construction of Cross Rail, along with Anne Summers’ first shop opposite Centre Point. Further west in Wardour Street the Wag club has been replaced by the ubiquitous coffee shop chain.
Change is of course part of London; buildings come and go, are reused and re-remembered, but the essence of Soho as the capital’s entertainment district remains a constant, as does the crime that goes hand-in-hand with it.
In December 2013, for example, 200 police officers raided 22 brothels and lap dancing clubs, arresting 29 and seizing quantities of Class As. It was the culmination of an 18-month operation to root out drug dealing, prostitution and people trafficking.
Speaking to The Evening Standard, Commander Alison Newcomb of Westminster Police said: “Yes its edginess is why some people come here, but when they do come here we want them to be safe, not to be robbed, and enjoy their night out.”
You are 146 times more likely to be robbed in Soho than in the rest of the UK, an unsurprising statistic, when drunks and tourists and drunken tourists present themselves as such easy pickings in Soho’s surprisingly dark streets and alleyways. But to illustrate the point, The Daily Mail has helpfully included a compilation of CCTV footage of people getting their heads kicked in.
But of course, as the records of the Old Bailey tell us, it was ever thus. The archives of the famous criminal court, which stands opposite the location of the old Newgate prison, is littered with cases of violent street robbery going back to 1674.
Take William Yateman who on 10 May in 1772 was robbed at gunpoint in Dean Street by William Herbert and two accomplices, including a boy of 14 or 15. Giving evidence, Yateman said:
“The first clapped a pistol to my head, when the others came up and swore, if I did not deliver my money immediately, they would blow my brains out.”
The jury found Herbert guilty and he was sentenced to death.
Strangely, on that very same date 39 years earlier in 1733, John Violene, a French immigrant was assaulted by Edward Taylor and two accomplices. The court recorder captures faithfully Violene’s foreign accent:
“It vas vary dark in de night, and dare vas von or two men, and so soon as I go cross de street, von take old of mine hat and pull me down, and den von nock me down upon de arm vid a great stick, and I taut mine arm vas broke, da take ava mine hat.”
All three claimed to be sick at the time, and despite being implicated by an associate, were each acquitted by the jury made up of Englishmen who perhaps couldn’t see past Violene’s Frenchness.
Violene was one of the many French Protestant Huguenot refugees who settled in Soho. In the mid-eighteenth century William Maitland could claim: “Many parts of this parish so greatly abound with French that it is an easy matter for a stranger to imagine himself in France”.
By the mid-19th century, Soho was the destination for immigrants from across Europe, notably Germany and Italy. In the 1890s northern Italians from Piedmont came to wait and cook at the Italian restaurants that were springing up.
In 1904, one such restaurant on Greek Street called Lorenzo’s was the scene of a fight between restaurant owner and namesake Juan Lorenzo and Tossi Maximino. Lorenzo had refused to loan Maximino money, saying “I give to eat, but I do not give money”. Maybe Maximino had been promised the loan or maybe he was simply a chancer who had wandered in off the street; either way the comment caused Maximino to fly into a rage and lob a sugar basin at Lorenzo’s head.
At this point kitchen porter Leopold Gaudion tried to intervene but in the scuffle the two men ended up trading blows outside in the street, before Maximino pulled out a revolver. Gaudion tells the court: “He had his arm straight out with the revolver and fired—he pointed it a second time in my direction—I heard the shot and ran away.”
Maximino, realising the gravity of shooting at a man in a crowded street in broad daylight, fled towards Soho Square where he was apprehended. When later questioned at a police station with the help of an interpreter, Maximino simply said: “I was afraid, I did not intend to kill.”
Soho’s restaurants, pubs, clubs and brothels had by now become favourite destinations for London’s fun-seekers; and where there’s entertainment, there’s money to be made – a truth well understood by criminals. Between 1897 and 1900, for example, the police raided 37 premises, 20 of which were illegal gambling dens and the rest brothels.
The feared Albanian Mafia and the home-grown Hunt Gang out of East London, who allegedly control much of the sex trade today, are simply the latest in a long line of gangsters to rule the Soho roost. In the first decade of the 20th century, the Titanics (AKA the Hoxton Boys) and the Elephant Boys from over the water, fought for control of Soho’s streets.
But the 20s and 30s belonged to Darby Sabini and his brothers, Irish-Sicilians born and bred on the mean streets of Saffron Hill, or Little Italy as it was known because of its large Italian community.
Sabini and his crew were kings of the racetrack wars, which saw gangs from across England cut and slash each other for the lucrative protection of the illegal bookmakers during this period. And from their base in Clerkenwell, the Sabinis kept a grip on Soho’s gambling and drinking clubs, preying on lesser criminals for a share of their ill-gotten gains.
Then WW2 came; the Sabini brother were interned as enemy aliens and Soho became the cash cow for their rivals the White Gang led by Big Alf White.
Yet it is the gangster Jack Spot and self-styled ‘King of the Underworld’ Billy Hill who are most synonymous with Soho. As Fergus Linnane describes in his book London’Underworld, Spot – the son of Polish Jews – was a flamboyant hoodlum and club owner from the East End, who had risen up the underworld ranks, dealing violently with anti-Semites, including Mosely’s Blackshirts, along the way.
Billy Hill was born into a crime family from Seven Dials, near Covent Garden and the old Rookery of St. Giles. He made a fortune in protection rackets, the black market and gambling during the war. He also had a liking for chivs and used them with a certain panache, carving the ‘V’ for victory sign on opponents cheeks.
Both had profited from the black market and race tracks during WW2 and coveted Soho for the money and reputation it could give them. They formed an unholy alliance to seize their prize from the Whites. In 1947 Spot and 10 henchmen caught Big Alf’s son Harry and two others at a Piccadilly pub. Declaring Harry had been “Yiddified”, Spot bottled him and the other two were set upon. Everyone expected the Whites to seek their revenge but when they were called out for a final showdown, they didn’t show.
A period of peace ensued and for the next decade the good times rolled for Spot and Hill until inevitably, ego got the better of them and the two fell out. By now middle aged and comfortable, the services of the next generation of mobsters were required, Spot using the sociopathic Kray twins to guard his race track pitch at Epsom and Hill recruiting notorious underworld enforcer and infamous tooth-puller, Mad Frankie Fraser.
As the rivalry between Spot and Hill grew more bitter, Spot was finally attacked outside his apartment and had his face carved up by Hill’s thugs, including Fraser.
Unable to stomach the fight, both men faded from view, their position taken by a succession of gangsters eager for the riches that Soho’s vice, drugs and nightlife could provide – the area, for example, would briefly provide a glittering backdrop to the Kray’s dark deeds.
Of course it’s easy to overplay Soho’s history of crime, just as it’s difficult to define its geographical borders; Soho is a state of mind, a place to get on it and get some action – the crime’s just incidental.