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Greek Street, Then and Now

Greek Street, Soho

I’ve always found Greek Street in Soho to be a bit of an oasis, if a slightly shabby one when compared to some of it’s more garish neighbours. With the relative tranquillity at its northern end of Soho Square it’s always struck me as a street that’s a bit more laid back, perhaps not as functional (in the entertainment sense) as Frith Street and definitely free of all the vices Old Compton street has to offer.

There is a little debate about the name of the Street. There is one train of thought that it might be a corruption of Grigg, but who or what Grigg was I’ve been unable to find out.

I go with the other theory that it takes its name from the small Greek Church which stood on Hog Lane, now buried under Charing Cross Road, roughly where the Montague Pyke pub now stands.

Looking at early maps the 1658 Fairthorn and Newcourt map shows the location as a rectangular field, which I think was owned by the Crown and made up a parcel of land known as Soho Fields, which was steadily sold off to developers.

In the 1660s, ownership of the area passed to Henry Jermyn, the 1st Earl of St Albans, who leased out the land to Joseph Girle. He was granted permission to develop and subsequently passed the lease for development to builder Richard Frith. Work started on Greek Street in 1680.

It is difficult to really know what the 17th century Greek Street looked like, however, there are a few clues available.

William Morgans Map of 1682 above, shows Greek street with 17 plots on its Eastern side and 12 on the Western side. The street being bisected by Queens Street (Batemen Street today) roughly in the middle. As there were no trade or street directories available until around the 1730’s it’s difficult to see if the street was residential, trade or a mixture of both.

In the 18th century William Hogarth produced a set of four paintings one of which was called Noon This shows a scene outside the Greek (but by then French) Church which is thought the street takes its name from. If you transpose the picture to the map the spire in the background is that of St Anne, Soho.

Noon by William Hogarth

The earliest record I can find regarding a resident is for 1731 from The Gentleman’s Magazine which announces the death of Adolphus Farey Esq. The same publication in 1737 mentions the Wright household, the Gentleman of which was the optician to the King (George II), which gives an idea of upper-class residence. There is an entry for a Peter Tondu, a Vintner who is declared Bankrupt, so not everything was a rosy as could be imagined.

This is borne out when you search the records of The Old Bailey. In 1761 Lettice Fleming was indicted for stealing a number of items of Linen worth 9 shillings from the home of Margaret Nicholson, found guilty and was sentenced for Transportation.

In 1783 Gerrard William Groote was travelling home in his coach with his wife, after visiting friends in Soho Square. They had gone but a few yards into Greek Street when they were stopped by a Highwayman who relieved them of goods worth £1.11.10d at the point of a pistol. The following day Charles Jealous, a Bow Street Runner on hearing the description of the assailant recognised him as George Morley, and proceeded to his lodgings in Dury Lane. Here were found the items taken from Groote. Morley was arrested, tried and found guilty resulting in his execution by hanging at Newgate prison later that year.

Between 1774-1795 No. 12 was the pottery warehouse and showroom for Josiah Wedgewood

Fast forward 50 years or so and a picture of the trades found in the street start to emerge.

Millard & Son at No.3 Painters & Glaziers

G.Ward at No.9 Grocer & Oilman

Henry Flint at No.14 Cabinetmaker

C. B. Fisher at No.39 Gunmaker

An interesting event took place at No. 17 at the premises of Wholesale Perfumer Samuel Berry. Searching Old Bailey records I found the trial of Timothy Keene an employee of Mr Berry, who was charged with stealing 30lbs of fat from his employer in 1808 and selling it to a tallow chandler. It seems that employees were allowed to take home the fat scrapings left on the animal skins and any spoilt or discoloured fat which could not be used in the making of Pomatum (Pomade). His accuser, Thomas Raine was a servant to Mr Berry and reading between the lines it seems that Raines probably tried to “Fit up” Keene who was acquitted.

With the advent of Trade Directories, we now get to see the street as a whole, so in 1832

Millard & Sons at No.3 had been replaced by Thomas Fielder, Bookbinder who is still there ten years later.

G. Ward at No.9 has disappeared and seems to be incorporated into No,8 which was then three plots long. In 1842 the Toroude family seem to be conducting several businesses from there.

Henry Flint at No.14 is replaced in 1842 by the auctioneers E. Foster & Son.

The Gunsmiths at No.39 is long gone in 1842, now replaced by Sarah Stanton, Tobacconists.

Looking at Charles Booth’s maps documenting the state of London’s living conditions, the street contains a mixture of Middle class, well to do and Fairly comfortable. Good ordinary earnings.

Booth’s survey and findings in the late 19th century are at odds with a reference that I found dating to a few years later in 1906. During the latter part of that year, a Royal Commission was set up to investigate allegations of corruption within the police force with regard to prostitution, gambling and the general mistreatment of foreigners. Inspector Mckay of the Met’s C Division vilified Greek Street, calling it “The worst street in the West End of London“…….”I will go further and say that some of the vilest reptiles in London live there or frequent it“. This caused a press frenzy with headlines in many papers quick to back Mackay version of the street, but a defender was found in the Rev J H Cardwell of St Anne, Soho, who countered with quite an outlandish claim of his own “I will say that there is not a single disreputable character in Greek Street. I will even go so far as to say that there is scarcely one in the whole of Soho

During the Blitz, Greek Streets northern end escaped relatively lightly but in October 1940 a stick of 3 bombs fell around the southern end, causing most damage on the corner with Old Compton Street. Bomb maps show that the buildings were damaged beyond repair. These would be No.22-24 now replaced with a rather ugly run down looking wedge shaped building. Also what is now the Prince Edward Theatre, but was then the London Casino on the west side of the street was substantially damaged.

As you can imagine in the intervening years businesses have come and gone, but there are actually a few constants.

At No.7 stands The Pillars of Hercules Public House. This name came about when the pub was re-built in 1935, but the plot itself has had a pub on it from 1733. The earliest record I can find is in Holdens Directory for 1805 when it was known as Hercules Pillars and the Landlord was James Harris. The alleyway that stands next to the pub is known as Manette Street, after Dr Manette, one of the characters from Dickens A Tale Of Two Cities, who is described in the book as living near Soho Square.

Another pub has a long history in the street, The Coach & Horses first licensed in 1724, although redeveloped in 1889. In the 20th century, the landlord for over 60 years was Norman Balon, who developed a persona as “London’s rudest landlord”. He began to work at the pub in 1943 and retired in 2006.

Next door to the pub is Maison Bertaux. The patisserie was established in 1871 by a French Communard from Paris named Monsieur Francis Bertaux, it is the oldest pâtisserie shop in London.

One business that shows up in the Trade Directories from 1832 -1940 was Hopkin & Purvis. A supplier of paint, oils and pigments. The Museum of London has a small sample bottle of their Blue paint on display which dates from around 1850. I can’t find the exact date that they ceased trading in Greek Street, but the picture was taken sometime in the 1970’s. However, the name still lives on as there is a paint and hardware store, Gould Hopkins & Purvis at 12 D’arblay Street.

Whilst writing this I referred to many of the Trade Directories for the street, which I have collated into a timeline which can be found below (they’re easier to view if you download them). When you read across the years, you can’t help thinking that Greek Street was a much more vibrant and thriving community than it appears today. Soho, in general, has a really good community feel about it, but Greek Street seems set apart from this and being on the fringes seems somewhat aloof

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