Soho lies on the west side of central London in an area commonly known as The West End. It's unofficial boundaries are Oxford Street to the north, Regent Street to the east, Charing Cross Road to the west and Chinatown to the south. Several famous London landmarks such as Piccadilly Circus lie very close.
For years Soho was synonymous with the red light district. Today though the district only covers a tiny area around Brewer Street, Walker's Court, Tisbury Court,Green's Court, Peter Street and Rupert Street. The rest of Soho is now a trendy fashionable mix of upmarket restaurants, theatres, hotels
, bars, clubs, cafés and music venues. This page takes a look at the red light district and a brief look at the rest of Soho.
Soho was grazing farmland until 1536 when it became parkland for the Palace of WhiteHall. The name Soho reportedly comes from a hunting cry. In the late 17th century permission was granted to build on it and it became inhabited mainly by French immigrants. Over the next hundred years or so anyone with wealth gradually moved out because of neglect and lack of development. Neighbouring areas like Mayfair became far more attractive and trendy places to live. During the mid 19th century there were small theatres, music halls and working girls were every where. It finally became fashionable in the early 20th century and was popular for artists and writers who would use the pubs and cheap eateries. In the 50s working girls packed the streets of Soho and sort clients on the street corners. In 1959 though the Street Offences Act was passed and it was now illegal to loiter or solicit for purposes of prostitution. Although the act itself remains legal to this day, in the UK it was pushed underground since the girls could no longer openly offer their services to potential clients. To get around this walk ups emerged, a few of which still exist today. The girls also started to work in clubs and massage parlours which are often just covers for what is reallly going on.
The hidden nature of the working girls and hardcore entertainment (also very restricted under UK law) in Soho made it easy for unscrupulous owners to rip people off and clip joints
sprung up in the sixties. Promises of girls or daring entertainment would lure men inside. In reality the places are all about conning people and offered little or no entertainment at all.
In the mid 70s adult shops grew to around 60. Strict UK laws on adult material meant certain items were only available under the counter or in secret back rooms. In the 80s though an inevitable clamp down came and many of these places were closed. In recent years free internet adult material has had a huge effect on magazine and DVD sales. Instead many shops are turning to love aids and lingerie and more respectable shops like Ann Summers are opening.
In the map below, Soho is marked in purple with the ever shrinking red light district marked in red.
Further changes to Soho are likely in the coming years. Soho Estates has submitted plans to redevelop Walker's Court and the surrounding area. They want to "improve" the small street and reduce the number of adult related businesses (45% decrease in terms of floor space). They plan to convert adult shops at 6-9 Walker's Court to restaurant use and give a face lift to the whole street. This will include a new arcade structure and
glazed roof. Round the corner in Brewer Street they intend on demolishing no. 6 and giving the neighbouring buildings a face lift as well.
Having visited every red light district on this website Soho sits the uneasiest with me. There is the pretence that working girls don't exist and scribbled signs stuck to doors saying "model upstairs" seem almost comical. I think the UK can learn a huge amount from places like Amsterdam where things are more open and honest. Surely it's easier to protect the women if they are clearly visible to the public and authourities?
If you are thinking of visiting Soho just for the red light district then you will certainly be disappointed. If you are in the area though give it a look. It will take about two minutes. Watch out for scammers
and pickpockets and make sure you check out the fantastic Wok To Walk at 2 Brewer Street.