Pages Navigation Menu

The Soho Connection – Genealogy South Africa

Posted in Articles

John Yeomans

Alexander Yeomans, my great great grandfather was born on the 26th September 1824 in Little Compton Street, Soho. Alexander grew up and lived int Soho until he joined the Army.

Soho the smells of dust, lust, cheap perfume, wine, beer, urine, ripe melons and rotting cabbage leaves. Soho might not always be pleasant, but it was never dull. Since its very beginnings Soho has been a place of gamblers, musicians, artists, kings, prostitutes and people, real people. As the saying goes, “When you are tired of London, you are tired of Life.” Soho is London it is the heart of the city. Soho is the heartbeat and the throbbing pulse of this cosmopolitan Metropolis. In the 19th century it was one of London’s worst slums. Horatio Nelson spent his last night in London in Dean Street, In the 18th century it was the home of two kings, the burial place of a third, and the centre of London’s aristocratic, intellectual and artistic life.

In the 1680’s large groups of Greek emigrants settled in Soho followed by even bigger settlements of French Huguenots. In 1717 it was announced that the Prince and Princess of Wales were to lease Leicester House. Not long after the move St. Anne’s church was informed that the Prince had shown interest in joining the local church. The Prince and Princess soon became regulars, and the children born to them in later years would be baptised in its font. Soho’s reputation as the home of the titled classes was fading, and most of the aristocrats who had leased their houses in the late 17th and early 18th centuries had already moved to Mayfair. The streets were far from clean or evenly laid. Walking was treacherous enough by day, and at night you would have to pay a torchbearer linkman to light a way through the puddles, holes and the muckheaps. Only the very wealthy could afford a sedan chair, which not only made the journey pleasant but also prevented the rich being robbed or mugged by highwaymen, the starving, the poor, and the thousands of gin drinkers who hung about the streets. It was estimated that about 1000,000 people in the metropolis were addicted to gin.

Sir Isaac Newton lived in Soho and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Charles Dickens lived in Golden Square, Franz List in Great Marlborough Street and Richard Wagner in Old Compton Street. Prostitutes were well known in Soho. One of its earliest residents had been a “lewd woman” named Anna Clerke who was a player and mistress to several persons and an Elizabeth Flint “generally a slut and drunkard; occasionally a whore and a thief. The licentious goings on at Carlisle House were legendary. By the late 1770’s the Old Spanish Embassy had become a high-class brothel known as the White House. Patrons like George, Prince of Wales, entered the building discreetly through a side door in Sutton Street. Each room was named and decorated differently. There was the Gold and Silver Room, The Grotto and The Skeleton Room where a mechanical skeleton leaped out of the closet. The mind boggles as to what went on in The Coal Hole.

Over the next three or four decades, thousands of poor semi-skilled or unskilled labourers moved into the cheap lodgings, tenements and hotels that now spread across the Soho streets like a fungus. With the onset of the Potato famine and the French Revolution, led to huge influxes of poor immigrants from overseas. Nearly two million people fled Ireland to seek a better life elsewhere. Within ten years the Irish population had nearly doubled in Soho to almost 178,000. The trip to England was cheaper and shorter and the best option. There were two main areas of the West End where the poor Irish congregated; around the slaughterhouses of the Newport Market District, and the nearby Rookery, a notorious slum on Soho’s doorstep, in the parish of St. Giles.

In 1861 a newspaper published an unforgettable picture of life in one of the crumbling mansions of Soho.

Every room is crowded with a different family, and four, if not more landlords were more interested in the rent than anything else. Dwellings that are originally sheltered eight or ten persons are now crowded with thirty, forty or fifty inmates. The carved wainscotings are now torn to pieces, or covered, an inch deep, with black grease. The old banisters are broken down. The stairs are rugged, dark, and uneven…one of the worst features of the district is a tendency to live in the kitchens and the cellars…. The dirt arises partly from long settled carelessness about domestic cleanliness, partly from the impossibility of keeping one room tidy when six or eight people have to live in it, and partly from the neglect of the landlords to whitewash, paint and paper the dwellings.

Seated Louis Yeomans nee Harris, left Hannah Woodland nee Yeomans, Violet Forbes nee Woodland + baby John Forbes

Seated Louis Yeomans nee Harris, left Hannah Woodland nee Yeomans, Violet Forbes nee Woodland + baby John Forbes

By the middle of the 1800’s, Soho had become an unsanitary place of cowsheds, animal droppings, slaughterhouses, grease boiling dens and primitive, decaying sewers. Underneath the floorboards of the overcrowded cellars lurked something even worse a foetid sea of cesspits as old as the houses, and many of which had never been drained.

It was only a matter of time before this hidden festering time bomb exploded. It finally did in the summer of 1854. On August the 31st the outbreak of cholera occurred, and it was as violent as it was sudden. During the next few days over 120 people living in and around Broad Street died. Few families, rich or poor, were spared the loss of at least one family member. Within seven days three quarters of the residents has fled their homes, leaving their shops barred up, their houses locked and the streets deserted. Only those that could not afford to leave remained there. It was like the Great Plague all over again.

By September the number of fatalities had reached 500 and the death rate in various divisions of the parishes had risen to almost 13%. But thanks to Doctor John Snow a local physician who lived on the doorstep of the epidemic, who decided to prove his theory that the disease was spread by poison passed from victim to victim through sewerage tainted water, the cause of the epidemic was established. Dr. Snow patrolled the area interviewing families of victims, which led him to a water pump on the corner of Broad and Cambridge Street at the epicentre of the epidemic. Dr. Snow had ordered The Guardians of St. James’s Parish to have the pump handle removed. When they did this, the spread of cholera stopped dramatically.

A year later there were still houses which had deep cellars; undrained cesspools and overcrowding appeared to be on the increase. It was recommended that the immediate abandonment and clearing away of all cesspools be of utmost importance but nothing was done about it. Soho was to remain a dangerous place for some time to come.

Karl Marx, that famous of revolutionaries arrived in England in August 1849 after being expelled from his own country. Karl and his family moved into a small room in Leicester Square where their sickly son Heinrich was born amidst the uproar of Guy Fawkes Night. Before long Soho was catering for Italian and German refugees who sought political asylum. When the Marxes left Soho it was still a festering sore of overcrowding, petty crime and prostitution. Soon missionary organisations including soup kitchens, shelters for homeless men and woman were started up by do-gooders to try some upliftment of the disillusioned inhabitants.

Despite the work of a few upper class philanthropists, the social conditions of Soho did not improve during the rest of the century. In the early 1880’s the parish was still, in the words of one report, “a reeking home of filthy vice” The houses, from their unsanitary condition he added, “Are horribly disgusting, and can only be fitly designated as well prepared propagating grounds for every kind of contagious and loathsome disease. The grossest immorality flourishes unabashed from every age downward to mere children.”

It was undoubtedly Soho’s darkest hour.

In the early 1830’s a local food manufacturer called Crosse and Blackwell opened their doors in King Street (now Shaftesbury Avenue) and by the late part of the century they had moved to Soho Square where they were to stay until the 1920’s.

Soho Bazaar was also a thriving business. There was to be no haggling over prices, only British made goods to be sold no, one “meanly” or “dirtily dressed” patrons allowed in. It was a respectable bazaar with no vulgarity or discount allowed. Soon practically every industry and retail business had a foothold in Soho, from food producers, billiard-table makers, silversmiths, clockmakers, saddlers, tailors, book publishers and fake antiques.

Soho has been renowned for its musicians, actors, actresses and entertainers since its earliest days. In December 1726 an anatomist Nathaniel St. André brought an illiterate farmer worker called Mary Tofts to appear at 27 Leicester Fields where she performed an act of giving birth to rabbits paws, which amused the highbrow thrill-seekers of the day.

The theatres were to make a great impression on this city, with the opening of Shakespeare’s Globe in Drury Lane were Charles Kemble, father of the fabled Fanny Kemble performed. The famous Sarah Siddons also made her debut here as Lady MacBeth.

In the modern era, as early as 1958 unheard stars such as Hank Marvin, The Everley Brothers, Cliff Richard, Adam Faith, Billy Fury and Tommy Steele where just a few who started off their careers in Old Compton Street. Once the British teenage rock bands heard of Soho they flocked there in large numbers. A new club called the Marquee soon opened in Wardour streets where it became the legendary rock music venue for Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds.

Even in1891 the respectable middle class English seldom lingered in Soho for long. It was after all, still reputed to be one of the most notorious red light districts in London. The resort of Bullies and the perfect paradise of pimps. The streets were lined with gambling dens, brothels masquerading as restaurants, and bogus massage parlours where innocent country girls were seduced into becoming ‘nurses; and performing acts of mercy that would have made Florence Nightingale leap from her bed. The residents of Soho do not consider prostitutes to be a problem. For anyone born or brought up in the neighbourhood they are simply a way of life.

Behind the façade of Brothels and Restaurants and theatres the local Minister Reverend Cardwell discovered a side of Soho that party goers out for a good time did not take the time to see Despite certain improvements that had been made since the cholera outbreak, living conditions at the end of the 19th century were still appalling. Overcrowding was so much a part of Soho life that it was common to see a sign in a window advertising ‘ part of room to let. In fact, in 1896, houses in St. Anne’s Parish were found to be, on the average, twice as overcrowded as those elsewhere in London.

This is where Louisa lived for the early part of her life and where her and her mother Hannah Yeomans found their great love of theatre that led them both into amateur dramatics.

There amateur dramatics was part of their life in India where Alexander spent eleven years in the 8th Foot Regiment as a Sergeant

Read More