A new £32 million shopping, leisure and office complex looks set to be built in Carnaby Street, the fashionable former focal point of 1960s swinging London.
Shaftesbury, the company that owns much of the celebrated West End high street, was given the green light for the project earlier this month.
With completion expected by 2021, it could dramatically change the character of Carnaby’s designer outlet-lined alleys that once lured flocks of mods and hippies.
This section of Soho exudes history, and there are perhaps few who are better acquainted with the area’s trivia than Antony Robbins.
The former Museum of London director now delivers 50 walking tours a year around the Soho. He has also just finished work with Shaftesbury for Soho Music Month.
Here, the Islington resident shares a few of his Carnaby Street tales.
Long before the West End was a touring stop for burgeoning rock bands and a hive of hedonism, its green pastures were a favourite hunting ground for King Henry VIII.
According to Mr Robbins’ research, Soho’s name derives from the hunting call “so-ho!” used by the King himself. And so it became known as Soho Fields from about 1650.
Carnaby Street was built during a rapid period of development, as the fields were parcelled up and leased to various landowners. By 1711 it was home to a population of about 8,000, with a diverse community including Greeks who fled the Ottoman Empire, and Huguenots protestants evading persecution in Catholic France.
The street itself was christened by Sir Edward Wardour – whom nearby Wardour Street is also named after. Sir Edward teamed up with bricklayer Richard Tyler to demolish a building named Karnaby House in the early 1700s. There they built Carnaby Street and its surrounding alleys.
Fast forward to the early 1900s and Carnaby Street was benefiting from an influx of Jewish businesses, particularly those specialising in textiles and tailoring. Some of these would become the vanguard of more flamboyant styles that defined the “mod” fashion of the late 50s and early 60s.
As Mr Robbins puts it: “Before the 60s it was a nondescript street and rather tatty street of bomb-damaged houses and workshops… Despite its central location, few Londoners could have pointed it out on the A to Z.
“Jewish firms including Lord John and Mr Fish were major players in the ‘peacock revolution’ of the 1960s, which put Chelsea, the West End and Carnaby Street at the epicentre of a global fashion movement.”
All of a sudden, Carnaby Street fashion houses were displaying clothes heavily influenced by Continental style, specifically Italian slimline suits, with their ‘bumfreezer’ short jackets, and the beatnik looks of the Parisian Left Bank.
By the 1950s, the general Soho area had developed a well-earned reputation as a red light district.
“Male and female prostitutes were a regular feature on the streets then. It was also during this time that gay artists flocked to Soho,” Mr Robbins said.
Portrait artist Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund Freud, once said of Soho: “The prostitutes were all over the streets, the streets were more fun, more amusing. The prostitutes gave a living sense to the streets.”
For infamy and scandal, there’s few better locations to tick off the tour guide than Murray’s Club, which inhabited 16-18 Beak Street at the south end of Carnaby. It’s where model and topless showgirl Christine Keeler met society pimp Stephen Ward, who introduced the 19-year-old to the disgraced Conservative war minister John Profumo in 1961. While 4 Kingley Court, at the bottom of Carnaby Street, is where the two hid their affair.
Carnaby Street’s affinity with pop music was preceeded in the 1930s by the opening of London’s first dedicated music venue, the Hickford Rooms in nearby Brewer Street.
Then came the Florence Mills Social Club, which opened in 1936 in 50 Carnaby Street (today a Ben Sherman clothes shop).
Named after African-American cabaret star Florence Mills, Mr Robbins said the venue “typified Soho’s diverse cultural and musical routes”. Its bare brick walls became the place for lovers of jazz and Afro-Carribbean calypso bands. Though it underwent a variety of monikers in the 40s and early 50s, the venue remained a hub for black British music and culture imported with the Windrush generation. From 1961, it was occupied by the Roaring Twenties nightclub, and welcomed the new wave of British bands such as The Who, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Georgie Fame.
Pete Townshend once said of Carnaby Street: “At night, big spliffs and Blue Beat. During the day Purple Hearts and pink shirts.”
Conveniently located just up the road, Great Marlborough Street was once home to Marlborough Street Magistrates’ Court, which saw trials of John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Mick Jagger and Brian Jones.
Venues such as The Swiss in Old Compton Street, The Flamingo in Wardour Street, and the Blue Gardenia in St Anne’s Court appeared elsewhere in Soho. The latter even hosted The Beatles’ first ever London performance, in 1961.
These pubs and clubs starred in the 1959 films Sapphire and Expresso Bongo, Expresso featuring Cliff Richard. “It’s surprisingly racy given when it was made …and Sir Cliff’s wholesome image today,” said Mr Robbins.
Before that, the 50s had heralded the emergence of skiffle music – perhaps best summed up as the bridge between blues and rock ‘n’ roll with a DIY sensibility, but performed by quiffed and suited young lads with acoustic guitars, washboards, double bases and drums. Music which heavily influenced the aforementioned rock legends.
The Marquee in Wardour Street was the setting of the Rolling Stones’ first ever gig in 1962. And a long list of rock royalty to have played there includes Elton John, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix and Joy Division.
Article by Owen Sheppard
Photograph credit to Shaftesbury