Wednesday 20 June 2012

Fond Memories of Soho then & now 1957-2012 Pt2

Fond Memories Of Soho Part 2

George Skeggs

The Soho area contained a cross section of different groups from different social backgrounds, working class Teddy Boys and their hated foe, also working class, the trend setting Mods. 

On the other side of the street as it were, the beats or beatniks, middle class, the self-style intellectuals who’s counterculture was inspired by the works of Kerouac and Sartre of whom many were jazz freaks. 

There was also a liberal sprinkling of skid row down and outs, journalists, art students from St Martins art school in Charing Cross rd, hack writers and some on the borders of sanity, (example- Iron Foot Jack) and a liberal sprinkling of villains’ (Jack Spot self styled king of the underworld and rival Billy Hill who was born in Seven Dials. 

The intellectuals tended to congregate in the French (pub), or to give it’s proper moniker, The York Minister which is in Dean St, and still the main watering hole for artists and writers today or the old Colony Room, also in Dean St. which has since closed.
George as a Mod.

There were certain territorial tensions between these different groups be it real or imagined. This tension was picked up by Colin McInnes in his book ‘Absolute Beginners‘, and portrayed in the Julien Temple film of the same name. Temples film was slated by the critics of whom many came from Soho’s intellectual wing who, as I had been told, walked out of the the films preview claiming it was utter rubbish and made them all look like buffoons’ and promptly went off to Wheelers to sulk and get pissed. Having seen the film a few times, I thought it captured the feel and essence of Soho for me and my teenage friends on our first, and later visits, to Soho.

I thought McInnes book was a great read, and Julien Temple’s interpretation was spot on especially the racism at the time. By late 1959/60 I considered myself and my fellow cronies, Modernist’s and more into the new street style. Le Macabre coffee bar in Meard St was an interesting place to visit one guy I remember who held court there, was Bohemian Johnny, who had long blonde flowing hair and was dressed all in black with a black cape, held together with a silver pin, he look like something out of a Hammer Horror film. In the late 1970/80s my cousin owned Hammer Films whose address was Hammer house in Wardour St. However, as you descended into the semi darkness you were confronted by black walls, black tables, and black chairs.

 In fact the tables were made to look like coffins with lighted candles in plastic skulls on top with skeletons hanging from the walls giving a subterranean atmosphere. Other places around Soho used old Chianti bottles for candle holders to give their premises’ a more Mediterranean feel. We would often go along to the 100 club on Oxford St to see the Humphrey Lyttelton’s band. 

The place was always packed with beatnik’s and jazz fans it was a great place for dancing. Holding your partners hand you would do a kind of skip and shuffle to the beat. Some of the girls danced bare footed and some would wear long white granddad night shirts, all, of which was outrageous at the time On some weekends we would go by train from Victoria to Chislehurst Caves for the jazz and skiffle, which was in Kent to find it full of the Soho beats, who could also be seen at Ken Colyer’s studio 51 club in Grt Newport St. 

The caves had been used as air raid shelter’s, during world war two, but was a great venue for live music plus it was all in candle light and felt even more subversive than ever.

A little later the ‘Greasers’ discovered our little secret club in the caves and it became a rendezvous for them and their motorbikes, which finally droves us Beats out. It soon got too heavy with punch-ups and other stuff which ruined the atmosphere, as we soon discovered when we all went back there as ‘ Modernist’s on our scooters in 1961 all sporting college boy haircuts.

However, by now the ’Greasers’  to us ‘Mods’ excuse the pun were ‘cavemen, and by then the Caves were not hip anymore. Carnaby St in Soho and the Kings Road Chelsea were the new scene, for aspiring fashionista’s, and peacocks, places which weren’t natural  reservations for the greasers, who by then had been renamed ’Rockers.’ They found a new homes in north London on the A1 at the old transport ’Ace Café’ or the 59 club in east London which was originally both a mod and rockers club, of which I was one of the founder members.

It was officially opened by Cliff Richard who sang his hit record ‘Move it’, after which we all jived to ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ by Little Richard, which was a much better number to dance to, at the time, as I was a big fan of a Little Richard. As ‘Modernist’s’ we would spend as much time as possible cruising Soho on our scooters, and posing down the Kings Road in our new gear.

Using our own designs, some of our clothes, and shoes, were made to measure at the local cobbler, and tailor shop, this was just before Carnaby St had appeared on the fashion map late 1958/59. Fred Perry tennis shirts became a fashion item, which we bought from his new store in Carnaby St. I also wore green snakeskin shoes with Cuban heels to my own design.

These were worn with a bottle green double breasted Italian style box jacket with cloth buttons in the same fabric. This style was known a bum freezer due to its short length. Later on in the mid-60s we started to wear two tone mohair suits. We, as the first wave of Mods, also carried the old plastic Paka-Macs in the panniers of our scooters to kept our smart clothes dry and clean on wet excursions to Brighton. Some of the lads later, would wear Parkas, or ex army service Ponchos and karki desert hats, some preferred the pork pie hat as I did.

Fortunately, from a fashion point of view It was still not illegal to have to wear a crash helmet, which would have spoilt the cut of our clothing. The ’Mod revivalists’ of today tend to look a bit to nerdy, wearing crash helmets. We had a choice which we excised in a rebellious way; you just had to  look cool.
 An item of footwear which never seems to get mentioned, when talking about Mod Styling, was the ‘moccasin’, which were made of soft leather, and bought on mail order or from a departmental store called Gamages, now gone which was in High Holborn.

They came in kit form which you made yourself using the simple instructions supplied. Another favourite were Swede Desert Chukka boots, which had crepe soles. I bought these in Charing Cross Rd, close to Tin Pan Alley (Denmark St) where I had previously bought my first pair of teddy boy brothel creepers. In the wintertime I would ride around on my Vespa wearing a Price of Wales check overcoat bought from Lord John boutique in Carnaby St. We were also keen on French casual styling as well, which was all the rage.

To look really cool we would smoke either Gauloises, Gitanes cigarettes, when hanging out in the Old Wimpey Bars on Shaftesbury Avenue, or down the Kings Road Chelsea. To impress and look super cool to impress the girls we would also smoke Sobranie, Russian blacks with gold tips. We also watched French films, the titles, all of which have now eluded me.

My best mate often wore a black French beret, and the blue and white striped matelot shirt, a kind of hip uniform common  around the coffee bars of Soho. We both looked the business him on his Lambretta and me on my Paggio Vespa GS. We were in hipsville, cool cats that was the scene.

One character in the late 5Os and early 6Os Soho was Raye DuVal who billed himself as ‘Britain’s Ace Drummer’ and had the world record for playing the drums no stop, for so many days without a break, how many ? I can‘t remember now. He often appeared at  the Top Ten Club in Berwick St and also at Chislehurst Caves. 

On the corner of Berwick  St and D’arblay St was the Freight Train coffee bar, A folksy hangout which was opened by Chas McDevitt on the strength of his hit record called ‘Freight Train’ which featured, Scots lass Nancy Whiskey singing  vocals. Chas used to live on the corner of Old Compton St and Charing Cross Rd  opposite Molly Moggs. 

Part of the building was also being use for prostitution. Sam Widges Coffee bar in Berwick St was opposite the Freight Train and in the basement was the Top Ten Club which was run by Vince Taylor and the Playboys. 

In 1960 I meet, and later married a local Covent Garden girl who appeared to be half beatnik and half Mod, whom I had meet in the ‘Farm’ Coffee bar a beatnik hang out on Monmouth St, Seven Dials, which was run by Brian & Susan Robins. 

It reminded me of Le Macabre without the coffins. It was a arty place full of ethnic stuff. Opposite was the Nucleus Coffee Bar which had previously been run by Gary Winkler. Its clientele, Hank Marvin and Bruce Welch soon to be part of Cliff Richards backing group the Drifters, all 2is coffee bar protégés, and were amongst many others on the fringes of the music scene at that time.
Site of 2i's in Old Compton Street.

After Gary had left, it became a place which attracted all kinds of flotsam and jetsam, from prostitutes, drug dealers, and low life’s of all kinds, which also included artists and poets who would gyrate from the ‘Farm’ on the other side of the street for a change of atmosphere.

After a few visits we got friendly with a young prostitute, who was sporting a broken arm, in a sling, after she had been beat up by her pimp. We were planning to go to Brighton, and sleep under the pier for the weekend and asked her, to come with us for a break away from Soho, and to have a break away, from her pimp. Sadly, She declined, and that weekend ended up getting her throat cut, by one of her clients she had picked up on a Soho street. I found out after reading about her murder  which was a headline story in the News Of The World.

Next door to the ‘Nucleus’ was Manns the picture framers who were, and still are,  neighbours of mine. Their shop front was blasted by shotgun pellets after an altercation by drug dealers outside their premises from another group of dealers hanging out in the Nucleus. By now Beatle mania was sweeping the country, and a great place to buy made to measures shoes was Anello and David. Anello’s also had a shop on Oxford St and another in New Compton St, which was close to Gamba shoes on the corner of Old Compton St and Dean St.

Both shops provided ballet shoes to the theatrical trade in the West End. Anello’s being a big supplier to The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and its ballet schools.

By 1961/2 my wife to be was working for the Boss Mr Ricco in their workshop and store in Drury Lane opposite the old Winter Garden Theatre, (which was rebuilt as New London Theatre) Anello’s became the Mecca for rock stars searching out the now famous Beatle Boots, These boots were also known as Chelsea boots which had elasticated sides with Cuban heels which the Beatles had adopted as a fashion statement. 

She fitted out most of the big bands at the time including The Animals, Bob Dylan, Manfred Mann the Mersey Beats and many others. It was only after the Beatles had bought a pair they were christened ‘Beatle Boots’.
The Beatles in Soho

As Beatle mania was  sweeping the nation, the Drury Lane outlet was swamped out every weekend with kids from all over the country queuing all the way up Drury Lane in search of this, latest fashion item, to add to their wardrobes. Having lived in Covent Garden since 1963, Soho and the surrounding West End, became my manor. In the 60s new clubs were opining in Soho to cater for the teen boom. Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames appeared at the basement club The Flamingo ( also known a the Mingo). It was here in the 1960s that Christine Keelers boyfriend threatened to shoot her.

Later the Whiskey A Go Go opened on the floor above the Mingo. The club was situated at the south end of Wardour St, and faced Gerrard St, now  known as China town. The whiskey A Go Go used to be shoe shop, and is now part of the O’Neill chain of restaurants, and The Flamingo is now Ladbrokes the bookmakers.

Another place close by was the London Bullion Exchange which was next to the Log Cabin. The Cabin  had a reputation for being the haunt of  the (Faces) or (Chaps) of which the criminal fraternity like to call themselves I‘d been down there with a friend who had been meeting someone, it felt rather heavy, it was in the 1970s when it was still open. They also used the greasy spoon Harmony Café in Archer St next to the stage door of the Windmill Theatre,  and opposite the Musicians Union. 

Some of the shops and  clubs have long since gone but some still survive. Now gone the French bakers ‘The Boulangerie’ (wonderful smell)which was situated next to ‘L’Escargot’ Greek St opposite Peter Cooks ‘Establishment Club’ (closed) which was at no 18.

Also gone ‘Pugh’s’ Welsh dairy in Frith St. I would often pop in for bread and milk when returning home after visits to the Marshall St clinic with my two young daughters after their regular health checks and vaccinations. 
The Pugh Family leave Soho

Also  gone ‘Gamba Shoes’ in Old Compton St and ‘Anello and David’ ballet shoes over the road on the corner of New Compton St. However, I did have a choice though, living on the edge of Soho, in Covent Garden.

Also gone are the wet fish shops I used to use in the 1960s. It was either ‘Richards’ fish shop on the corner of Drury Lane and Macklin St, which had a brothel above the shop. Or their sister shop on Brewer St. The Brewer St shop, was  opposite ‘Lina Stores’ at no 18. Lina Stores are still in business today. Another Shop that needs a mention, is ‘The Algerian Coffee Store’, which gave Old Compton St then, and still does today, that wonderful prevailing aroma of fresh ground coffee. 

Today (2012) I still shop at Camisa’s in Old Compton St for cheese and Pama ham. Now retied, I still manage to chill out in Soho, drinking cappuccinos and having tea at Patisserie Valerie, watching the changing scene after shopping trips to Berwick St market.

When passing ’Bar Italia’ I reminisce when I see another generation of ‘Mods’ posing with their scooters, but looking a bit nerdy having to wear crash helmets, since the law was changed. It wasn’t against law when I was a teenager, so we could look more cool than the revivalists do today.

I remember a few years back, going into ‘Maison Bertaux’ and without thinking, asked Michele for a cappuccino? The polite reply I got was ‘This is a French establishment! Not Italian‘. 

Such is the ethnic mix of Soho, which is much the same as it has always been, which adds to it eccentric charm (although eccentricity seems to be on the decline, there’s not many left on the reservation these days) even so Soho’s reputation for being eclectic and different still remains, and long may it be so.

George with Jo Weir (OBE) at the Soho Festival 2011 (Winner of Best Dressed Man)
Thanks George. X mosoho 2012


  1. Replies
    1. Hi Antony I'm glad you enjoyed it! It was a joy to have put pen to paper--there are two other parts to read as well!

  2. Ron, Ed, and Paul MANN...Ron lived at the Peabody Estate...would love to meet up with them again...any idea where they are now?

  3. Hello Alan, I rarely see any of the Mann family, last time was a year ago-it was lenny and his wife who moved from peabody many many years ago but they are still living in Covent Garden, but I have no contact details--One other avenue--Pip Granger interviewed Ronnie for her book 'UP WEST' which was published in 2009 by Corgi Books she should have some contact info--also a younger sister Brenda (73rys) still lives in Duval Crt Befordbury ( Peabody Trust ) I don't know her number--so try Peabody! Good luck George

  4. Brilliant piece, thank you for sharing your memories.

  5. juanitodelacruz11 June 2018 at 17:54

    Ah yes, ye gods, I was 26 . . . But fancy not mentioning the Gyre and Gimble in John Adam Street.


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