Soho has always held a fascination for Londoners and visitors, and it is being celebrated through a new app being launched by the National Trust. Soho Stories uses GPS technology to deliver stories and commentary by legendary Bohemians to bring the area’s post-war history and culture to life. Users can choose to listen remotely or wander freely around the area, receiving site-specific memories, history, anecdotes and humour about the places they pass.
We have selected some of our favourite stories about the area:
Janet Street Porter - writer, journalist and broadcaster
I was one of the founder members of the Groucho Club. Definitely the best time at the Club was in the early 90s, when Damien Hirst was always getting his willy out. And he would get it out so many times, that no-one ever noticed it (Well, it wasn’t very big to start with).
Around that time I’d made a series on television when I walked from Edinburgh to London. I didn’t know that Courtney Love had watched it, but when I met her it turned out she was an expert on the programme and wanted to have dinner with me. I was very worried about her offending other people so I took Jay Jopling with me and asked them to put us on a table as far away from other people as possible. Half way through dinner Courtney was getting really drunk so we decided to take her to the Groucho – and she then said she wanted to have sex with me. But luckily at that moment Alex James from Blur came in so I introduced them to each other and … well, you’ll have to ask him what happened next.
Sophie Parkin – author of ‘The Colony Room Club 1948-2008 : A History of Bohemian Soho, see thecolonyroom.co.uk
41 Dean Street seems nothing exceptional. It’s ugly as hell now and there’s nothing to tell you it was once the most extraordinary doorway in London, when the most important artists, writers and creative minds of the twentieth century walked over its threshold into the Colony Room Club. The Club was started in 1948 by a woman called Muriel Belcher, who would sit on a high stool at the bar and call everyone c*nty.
There was a real mixture of people, so you would have a plumber and the bank manager in there, but you’d also have Princess Margaret, Lord Snowdon and Francis Bacon. Francis was a god amongst men and could hold a room without saying anything. He was employed by Muriel to bring his friends to the club. He was paid £10 per week and as much champagne as he wanted to drink. He used to say ‘Champagne for my real friends and real pain for my sham friends’.
Frankie Fraser – ex-Soho Gangster
I was employed by Billy Hill, who was the boss of all bosses. He was paid by the Soho club owners to look after them. He got a cut of their profits, and I got a cut of his profits. If a club needed smashing up, or if a club manager needed to be kidnapped – or have his ears cut off – that was my job, and I was very good at it. The only thing was, I never ate the ears. I used to put them down the toilet, flush the chain and they’d float off somewhere down the Thames.
Every so often a gangster called Jack Spot would cut someone to keep his averages up. But when he attacked ‘Italian Albert’ he made a mistake. Italian Albert was a strong man and managed to get the knife off Jack Spot and done him in with it. Me and Italian Albert were great friends but this time he’d crossed a path so he had to be done. I cut him. Cut him to pieces. He shouted ‘help!’ and I said ‘you’re getting it’. Bosh – I did him again with the hammer. A lovely hammer. Gave him one or two lovely cracks with it and all. It was great, and I enjoyed doing it all as he was an absolute dog. He was never allowed back in Soho after that. You couldn’t kill him because you couldn’t find him.
Jean Picton – ex Windmill Girl
I was a Windmill Girl in the 1950s. At the time the Windmill Theatre was quite unique. The censorship laws in England were very tight indeed, but for some unknown reason Mrs Henderson was able to charm the Lord Chamberlain into making an agreement that if she had unclothed girls in her shows, they didn’t move. So the Windmill became known for the statuesque posing of pretty girls on high plinths, starkers. When you’re standing naked and completely still on a foot-square plinth, with a very comical wig on your head, you can’t help but see the funny side of it. You spend the four minutes thinking mundane thoughts like, ‘what shall I have for supper?’ It was so un-sexual you wouldn’t believe it.
The first three rows of seats were the iconic rows, reserved for the gents –including the ‘raincoats’ who’d open their newspapers when the girls came on. The front rows were nearly always full – but if one chap left, which they sometimes did when the girls went off-stage and the comics came on, the seat would clunk and there would be a mad rush of boys from the back. They wouldn’t come round the seats – they would jump over. It was known as the steeplechase. Vivian Van Damme often complained that more money was spent on repairing those first three rows of seats than on the maintenance of the whole theatre.
Barry Miles, author of London Calling
The attitude has always been fairly casual in Soho. For instance, before the Church of St Anne’s on Dean Street was bombed, the vicar used to run across the road during particularly long hymns to the French Pub, knock back a quick glass of something and then get back before the hymn had ended.
Later on, after the church was bombed in the Blitz and all that was left was the church tower, the traffic went the other way. People like Lucien Freud would pick up girls from the French Pub and run across the street to the church tower where there were a number of nooks and crannies, particularly on the upper levels, where people could have a quick ‘knee trembler’.
Soho Stories App is free and available to download from the App store. Visit http://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/soho-stories/id528325471?mt=8%20
A slimmer version ‘Soho Stories – Lite Edition’ is available on the Google Play store for Android phones. Visit: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=uk.org.nationaltrust.sohostories&hl=en