DURING the property boom of the early 1970s, Soho was earmarked for destruction. Only Greek Street, Dean Street, Frith Street, Old Compton Street and Soho Square were protected conservation areas; the rest was considered fair game for developers.
Soho could very easily have been developed out of existence. Landlords were eager to sell as big money was up for grabs, and planning applications were being filed with Westminster City Council thick and fast.
In 1972, Thelma Seear hired a meeting room at Kettners in Romilly Street, where residents, traders and craftsmen came to air their views.
The room was big enough for 30 people – 150 turned up, and so the Soho Society was born.
Its official purpose was to make representations to the council, the GLC and the Ministry of the Environment to maintain the cosmopolitan character of the area.
But its founders had an almost impossible job.
It was not just big, powerful landlords who objected to the idea of residents and traders making the decisions on planning and tenancy.
Criminal gangs dealing in sexploitation, drugs and gambling would make it extremely difficult for the society to effectively carry out its mandate.
There has always been a certain seediness to Soho and never more so than during the 1970s and 1980s.
Soho was a depressing place at this time. Houses were falling apart, rubbish filled the streets, sex shops, gambling and drug dealing tore through the area. It was largely a no-go area for the police.
But the Soho Society won victory after victory, and the size of the Soho Conservation Area was expanded until it covered a square mile.
They saved many historic houses, street networks and interlinking alleyways from demolition. They set up the Soho Housing Association, which is still going strong today. They guaranteed housing to the poorest people in the area.
The Society also did good work combating crime. In the 1970s it recruited “an army of old ladies” to gather evidence against notorious criminals, which culminated in a case being brought against unlicensed sex shops by the council’s solicitor.
Leslie Hardcastle OBE, the Soho Society’s president, describes the approach as “reminiscent of an Ealing comedy”.
Many of the sex shops were fronts for criminal enterprises.
Mr Hardcastle explains: “Because old ladies often lived above shops and had time to spare, they would see
Mr X or Mr Y and would make notes of their movements, which they would report to us.
“In those days there were 140 unlicensed sex shops in Soho.
“People always get the wrong idea and say that we are prudes, but we have no problem with sex shops and that side of Soho.
“Our point was that they should be licensed, just as if you are running a cinema or a pub, you get a licence for it.”
In 1979, the Society helped rebuild part of St Anne’s Church, which had received a direct hit during the Blitz. A picture from the Soho Society’s quarterly publication, The Clarion, shows local people celebrating amid the rubble at the at an earlier Soho festival.
The Soho Society has been an integral part of this most charming part of the West End for almost 40 years. Its residents, businesses and visitors have a lot to thank it for.
PUBLISHED: 08 July 2011
by JOSH LOEB and TOM BOULTER