Soho Square – Sex and Sorrow
Updated: Jan 19, 2019
THE ARISTOCRATS MOVE IN – AND THEN BACK OUT AGAIN
When Soho was first developed in the late seventeenth century this square was one of the most desirable places in London, indeed the southern side of the square was given over to the construction of a Christopher-Wren-designed miniature palace for the illegitimate son of King Charles II, the Duke of Monmouth. Aristocratic residents were attracted by the wide, well-designed streets and the area’s proximity to the royal court at St James’s just two-thirds of a mile to the south west.
At the same time it became a favoured destination for French protestants fleeing persecution in Europe. Generally skilled tradesmen in the luxury industries, they too were attracted by the proximity to potential customers at the royal court and the new aristocratic suburb of St James’s.
As Soho’s desirability for French immigrants increased, so did its undesirability to the early aristocratic inhabitants. By nineteenth century, almost all of the aristocrats had moved even further westwards to areas such as Mayfair or Marylebone.
TERESA CORNELYS & HER PARTIES
However, it was not an aristocrat but a young Italian musician and singer who was perhaps Soho's most glamorous resident; the Italian-born Mrs Teresa Cornelys who lived in Carlisle House where St Patrick's Church now stands. She arrived here in 1760 and started to host parties from her home. Essentially, she ran an early nightclub. Invitations to parties at her house were sold and guests were promised the latest music and most sumptuous surroundings. And she did not disappoint; the famous German musician Johann Christian Bach provided the music and acclaimed furniture craftsman Thomas Chippendale supplied the furnishings. This was luxury.
The parties were often masqued balls, which added a frisson of excitement to the proceedings. Who was talking to whom? Which young lady had just disappeared upstairs with which young man? The gossip went into overdrive, which of course made even more people want a ticket to her celebrated gatherings.
Up to five hundred people at a time would attend, with her parties becoming such a fixture of the London scene that parliament once adjourned early so that all the members could attend an event she was hosting.
She was a master at public relations, regularly hosting parties for senior servants only so that they would spread the word to the masters and mistresses of the splendour of Carlisle House. She also employed, at considerable expense a ‘writing puffer’ to ensure that her name was favourably mentioned in the press. She certainly grew very successful, at one point she kept thirty-three servants, two secretaries, eight horses and a country house. Not bad for a girl who got knocked up in a Venice alleyway by the infamous casanova Casanova at seventeen.
She was however spending far more than she was earning, in 1772 the house was sold off to clear her debts and she was locked up in a debtors’ prison. She was also continuously running foul of the authorities, being prosecuted for running a house where people could ‘riot or misbehave themselves’.
Although Teresa Cornelys' party home was never a brothel, it was of course a favoured haunt of pimps, working girls and their clients.
Prostitution has long been a part of Soho’s story. When Soho was first developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was the ideal place for wealthy aristocrats to secrete their mistresses; near enough to their homes in Mayfair and St James’s but far away enough not to cause embarrassment.
With the arrival of growing numbers of foreign residents throughout the eighteenth century, the streets of Soho also had a transience and anonymity that other parts of London lacked, which again was perfect for people who wanted to go about undisturbed.
Prostitution was rampant in the eighteenth century, it is estimated that about a third of women in London found themselves involved in the trade at one point in their lives. For a few it was an easy way of earning some money and securing a level of independence otherwise inaccessible in the world of motherhood and housewifery.
THE GRIM REALITY OF NINETEENTH CENTURY PROSTITUTION
At No 21 Soho Square ‘The Manor House’ was a famous nineteenth century brothel called the White House. The rooms were garishly decorated and themed; furniture was attached to springs and traps to present the appearance of a normal room until the machinery was set in motion and then it would transform into a sex dungeon.
It all sounds like good clean honest fun between consenting adults so far.
However, in one of the rooms a sofa could descend into a room of total darkness known as the ‘Coal Hole’, in another the lights would gradually dim whilst candles would self-ignite to reveal a coffin with the client’s chosen name (Anne, Mary, whichever woman had taken his fancy) written on it.
This is quite disturbing stuff.
Because for almost everyone involved in prostitution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was not a fun way of securing your independence or earning a bit of drinking money; it was a desperate and degrading way of avoiding starvation.
Thomas de Quincy, the nineteenth century author of ‘Confessions of an Opium Eater’ records how after having run away from Manchester Grammar School as a seventeen year-old, he befriended a fifteen year-old prostitute called Ann down in London. Together they wandered the streets of Soho as she sold her body to make some money so that they could eat.
(It is interesting that what he presents as a romantic tale, is basically the story of a young man living off a child prostitute’s earnings)
One day he collapsed from hunger here in Soho Square and realised that he had to return to his family. Ann walked with him to catch his stagecoach back home, but on their way they said their final goodbyes to each other on a side street by Golden Square, holding each other and weeping.
Thomas de Quincy intended to be away for a week at the most so they agreed that in eight days’ time, and every night thereafter, at six o’clock she would wait for him at their favoured Soho doorway.
But he forgot to ask her surname. There were hundreds of thousands of Annes in London, and tens of thousands of desperate girls like her.
When he came back to London, she was not there and he had no way of finding her.
THE HOUSE OF ST BARNABAS & WILLIAM BECKFORD
The House of St Barnabas on the south-eastern corner of Soho Square was established in the mid-nineteenth century to keep young women from falling into a life of prostitution. It still has a money chute, down which passers-by could drop coins, which would fall into a collection tin in the kitchen.
In the eighteenth century the building had been the childhood home of William Beckford, who inherited a vast fortune at just ten years old; one million pounds in cash, an estate in Wiltshire and four plantations in Jamaica. This was the equivalent of inheriting Samsung or Google nowadays.
William did as was expected of him and married at twenty-four and although fond of his wife he was more fond of cruising in London’s public toilets and parade grounds.
His acceptance of his sexuality, and the insulation of his vast wealth, made him complacent. When his love letters to a young aristocrat were published in 1784, he had to take his wife and daughter to the Continent to escape the ensuing scandal, where his wife died in childbirth.
On the Continent Beckford honed his skills as an art collector that has won him fame with antiquarians ever since. He returned home a lonely man and went to live at his Wiltshire estate where he built a vast gothic pile.
His art collection at Fonthill contained works by Raphael, Lippi, Bellini and Velázquez. He commissioned works by the finest silversmiths of the day and bought early works by Turner (who had gone to school at the Soho Academy on this square) and William Blake (who grew up just five minutes walk away from here as well).
Amazingly, he eventually began to run out of money. In 1822 he put Fonthill and its contents up for sale. It was the sale of the century Christie’s printed 70,000 catalogues and sold them for a guinea a piece, and at Fonthill there was not a room in an inn for miles.
William Beckford died in Bath in 1844 still daydreaming and collecting. Fonthill fell down and his art collection was dispersed around the world.
Why not come on a Soho Walking Tour?