A personal view of Soho 1957-2012

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'A personal view of Soho 1957-2012' page


By George Skeggs

Arriving in Soho in 1957 for the first time, was like walking through the dock area of east London where I was born, with its wonderful smell of exotic herbs, and spices that came, from the many bonded warehouses in the area, but that's where the difference ended. Indeed, Soho was another world of its own, bright lights, flashing neon, edgy, full of colour, and a bit dangerous. This was 1957 when I was a 14yr old kid, and at the begining of the Skiffle, Trad Jazz and Rock & Roll boom, which was sweeping the nation. The previous year, a few friends and I, tried our luck at forming a skiffle group cum rock group. why not? anything seemed possible then, Tommy Steele had done it! However, we made a terrible din and soon packed it in, except for the clarinet played who really wanted to join a trad jazz band and had been having serious music lessions paid for by his parents. Anyway my future artistic abillities lay elswere in painting (merlintwo.com).

Although, skiffle, trad jazz, and the new rock & roll, had a big influence on us youngsters, the only place to get a real taste of it was in Soho, and some of its coffee bars. We were all looking for fresh excitement, away from the local caffs and amusement arcades in east London, and Soho was the place to be, its where I would meet my future wife. Before you arrived in Soho you could follow its aroma of pungent food and fresh ground coffee, along Charing Cross Road, from Tottenham Crt Road tube station to the corner of Old Compton St. It was on Old Compton St at no 59, near the corner of Wardour St, that was to become the birthplace of the British Rock & Roll scene. I and a few friends arrived outside one summers evening, after hanging around in the amusement arcade in Wardour St, wasting our money playing on the slot machines and listening to Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers on the jukebox. I thought I looked rather hip, wearing my black Ray- Ban shades (shades at night,what a poser!!) and a large yellow and black check shirt with dogtooth pattened drainpipe jeans. My shoes were black with 2 inch crepe soles, commonly called brothal creepers, and my hair was cut in a 'Tony Curtis ducks arse' a style copied by the Teddy Boys, of which I considered myself to be in 1957. We were breath of fresh air, but looked a bit to subversive, to the older generation of who wanted us to conform and, 'get our hair cut!! and have a boring short back and sides which,we were all expected have like our dads had. But we were, rebelling, and all riding high on the Elvis & Bill Hally gravy train, image wise, and gyrating to the new music coming from America. The most outrageous person, I saw around Old Compton St in the late 50s was would be, rock star, Wee Willie Harris a man with stars in his eyes,a singer and piano player who had a minor hit ' Rockin at The 2 Is.' He often wore a Zoot suit, and had his hair dyed bright orange (remember this was 1957) and also wearing a big spotted bow tie. Willie was the resident piano player at the 2Is Coffee bar. Anyhow, as we got closer to Camisa's Deli next door ( still in business today), we could hear the sound of music coming from the basement. A sign above the entrance read---  

2 Is-- between two symbols advertising Coke surounded by musical notes with-- Coffee Bar-- beneath all picked out in neon. This sign I believe was changed for a more boring untilty sign without the neon sometime in the 1960s. The coffee bar had a plate glass window, in a cromeum frame. Hanging on the door was a sign advertisng 7up lemonade. Inside, on the left was a Amercican Juke box, the place was buzzing with lots of people and it felt very hot indeed, that was just upstairs!  We ordered, froffy coffee (plenty of froth and not much coffee which was a common complaint reported in the newspapers and in the newsreels). The gaggia Coffee machine look like something out of a science fiction film not like the old tea urns!.We drank,its brew, from one of those rather small, pyrex cup and saucers. I thought it was quite expensive.But being a new, and exotic drink to us, which we had never tasted before, we simply had to try. It was very nice indeed, and it turned out to be a rather sofisticated tipple for us young East End urchins who were more used to drinking large mugs of tea from the local caff. I think, it cost 1 shilling and 6 pence.You could've had a cheaper drink, of sqoush, out of the tank, on the bar, which had one of those plastic oranges flouting about in it, and would have been a bit cooler, like the Coke and Pepsi which was also being sold, but no alcohol. The sign in the window, with a photo read- Home of the Stars- TO-NITE Terry Dene-- Dene looked like an Elvis clone, more so than 2 Is protege, Tommy Steele did, but all the same, a British one!.The best looking Elvis clone at the i's, was a guy named Vince Taylor. Taylor, and his band the Playboys, who later opened their own place below Sam Widges Coffee Bar on Berwick St called the Top Ten club. However, they never quite made it big in Britain, as Vince didn't have much of a voice, but he did look the business, mean, dressed all in black, and looking subversive, and edgy, for that time. Anyhow, they did find fame in France, where they became more successful, than they had been in the UK. It was Terry Dene's voice, we could hear coming from the cellar. As luck would have it (by then we didn't have the  entrance fee to go downstairs) the doors to the cellar, were opened onto the street outside for ventilation, and the small stage area, you could just see if you craned your neck.

So we spent the next half hour outside in Old Compton St in the cool pungent night air mesmerizde, istening to the music coming from the basement.This was heady stuff, the aroma of exotic cooking everywhere, and right next door was Camisa's Deli which I still use today, and the sounds. We drank it all in, we were young empty vessals. Not wanting to go home, but, reluctantly we had to leave. We were now hooked, and would soon be back for more, to see what other delights, Soho had on offer. Returning, we soon, discovered similar place's around the Soho area. Next door to the 2 Is was the HEAVEN & HELL coffee lounge, but more fascinating was the LE MACARBE coffee bar in Meard St, just around the corner. It appears thinly disguised in Julien Temple's 1986 film 'Absolute Beginers' based on the book of the same name by Sohoite, Colin MacInnes. This was more of a beatnik joint. At first, it felt strange going in there dressed as a young teddy boy, with a Tony Curtis haircut, and crepe soled brothal creapers, as most of the beatniks down there seemed to be dressed in black, well at least, the hip ones did. Some looked very unhip, indeed, a bit old fogey, and more like the cultrual tourists you get in trendy Brick Lane on Sunday mornings. The scene down there, was more folksy than rock & roll and not like the 2 Is, but I still enjoyed it just the same, as it felt just as subversive. Anyway, within a year or so, I was wearing a black polo neck with matching drainpipe trousers, and green handemade crocodile skin winklepickers, and by 1960  riding a Paggio Vespa 150 GS scooter. Across the board there was tension between the different groups,Teds, Beats, and the Mods. The tension, was picked up by Colin McInnes in his book, 'Absoloute Beginers' and portrayed in the Julien Temple Film of the same name. However, by late 1959/60, I considered myself a Modernist and more into style. Anyhow, one character down LE MACARBE was a guy we all

called bohemian Johnny. Johnny was a younger version of Iron foot Jack, who had one leg shorter than the other which was supported in a iron frame to give support. Jack was a local character, one of many, who hung out in the Star cafe in Old Compton St. But Johnny was different, clean cut, he looked like someone out of a Hammer horror film, with his long golden hair, and black cape which was fastened with a silver pin around his neck. Along with Johnny,what fascinated us was the decor of Le Macarbe. Decending into the basement you were confronted by a dark space lit by candles, placed inside skulls on top of coffin shaped tables ( some coffee bars and restuarants at that time, were using Chianti bootles for candle holders). Every thing was painted with black paint, including, the tables and chairs, and also the walls. Some of the beats would read out their poetry, some acompanying their words on guitar. You just did not see this kind of stuff going on where I lived the in East London, well not to my knowlege anyway. Indeed, this was a new world!! In retrospect it was a world full of youthful idealism, aspiring rock stars, beatnik dreamers, and 'Kerouac' syncophants, most being influenced by thoughts of Jean Paul Satre. We would often go onto the 100 club on Oxford St to dance to The Humphrey Lyttelton Band. It was alway packed with beatniks and jazz fans. Holding your partners hand, you would do a kinda skip & shuffle dance to the beat of the music. Most of the girls danced barefooted, and wore long white night shirts, which was quite outrageous at the time. On some weekend we would go by train from Victoria Stn to Chislehurst caves for the Jazz and skiffle sessions. 

The 'Caves' had been used as air raid shelters during World War Two, but a great venue for live music, plus it was all in candle light,and felt very subversive indeed, being in the bows of the earth! The place was always full of the beats from Soho, who we would often see at Ken Colyers Studio 51 club Newport St. Later on the 'Caves' were dicovered by the 'Greasers' and it became a rendevous for them and their moterbikes which finally drove us Beats out. It soon got to heavy with punch ups and stuff, which ruined the atmophere as we soon discovered, when we all went back there as a 'Modernist's' on our scooters in 1961 all sporting college boy haircuts. However, by now the 'Greasers' to us Mods, excuse the pun, were 'cavemen' and by then the Caves were not hip anymore. Carnaby St in Soho was the new scene, and Kings Road Chelsea, places which were not natural reservations for the Greasers, who were now renamed 'Rockers'. They would find a new home in North London on the A1 at the old transport 'Ace Cafe'. We as 'Modernist's, would spends as much time as possible cruising Soho on our scooters, and posing down the Kings Road in our new gear. Using our own designs, some of our clothes and shoes were handmade.Fred Perry shirts were a fashion item which we bought from their first shop which was in Carnaby St. I also wore a green snakeskin shoes with Cuban heels, and short Italian box style jackets, with cloth buttons, which were nicknamed bum freezers, due to their short length, and later on, two tone suits in mohair. Packa Macs were also a Mod item of clothing, it kept you dry if it rained, and could be easely stored in the panier of your scooter. Some of the boys wore Parkas or ex army surplus Ponchos and Karki desert hats, some prefered the Pork Pie hat as I did.Talking about Mod styling by 1960, and a few items which never seem to get mentioned by commontators of the period were two items of footwear, of which one was the 'Moccasin' which were made from soft leather. They were bought from a departmental store called 'Gamges' since gone, in High Holborn and came in kit form which you had to make up yourself using simple instructions. Another favorite, were buff coloured desert boots ankle lengh with crepe soles which I bought in Charing Cross Rd close to tin pan alley (Denmark St), and where I had previously purchased my first pair of brothal creepers. In the winter I would wear a Prince of Wales check overcoat which I bought at Lord John's Boutique in Carnaby St, but kept the Packa Mac to keep it dry in bad weather. We were also keen on French casual styling as well, and to look really cool you smoked Gauloises, or Citanes cigarettes, when hanging out in the old Wimpey Bars on Shaftsbury Ave or, down the Kings Road Chelsea on Saturday or Sundays afternoons. To impress the girls, and to be super cool you smoked Sobranie, or Russian black gold tips, and watched French films, the titles,of which have since eluded me.My best mate often wore a black beret, with a blue and white striped matelot shirt, a kinda uniform, hip in most Soho coffee bars, which could be purchased in Soho or Chelsea. He looked the business posing on his Lambretta, and me on my Vespa, well we all did!, that was the scene. We were in hipsville, cool cats!, and it impressed the girls as well! Words we started to use like 'hipsville' had been infuenced by the lyrics of some of the American Do Wop Groups THE RAYS' were one such group, and included such phrases and words like, squaresville, dig the joint, daddy cool, and cool for cats. Another club, The TOP TEN club, was below Sam Widges House of Coffee on Berwick Street where we became members for a small fee. As I said earlier, it was opened by Vince Taylor, and his group the Playboys. One guy, who would often play in the club was Raye DuVal. He called himself Britains Ace Drummer, and claimed the recold for non stop drumming, how long I can't remember.We often saw him playing down in the Caves. He Lived in a flat on D'arblay St, that faced the old Freight Train Coffee Bar which was on the corner of Berwick St. It was opened on the strengh of the hit skiffle record 'Freight Train' made by Chas McDevett with Scots lass Nancy Whiskey on vocals. Chas lived on the corner of Old Compton St and Charing Cross Rd, part of the building was used by the street girls (prostitutes) which was quite common in the area and still is today. In 1961 I meet my future wife a local Covent Garden girl, in The Farm Coffee Bar a beatnik hang out on Monmouth St, Seven Dials a real arty place which was run by Brian and Susan Robins. It reminded me of Le Macarbe coffee bar in Meard St, without the skulls and coffins, but filled with ethnic stuff. Opposite the Farm was the Nucleus Coffee Bar which had previously been run by Gary Winkler. Its clientele,included Hank Marvin, and Bruce Welch soon to be part of Cliff Richard's backing Group the Drifters, all 2Is coffee bar proteges, and were amonst many others on the fringe of the music scene at the time. After Gary had left, it became a place which attracted all kinds, from prositutes, drug dealers, and low lifes to artists and poets. After a few visits,we got friendly with a young prositute, who I later, discovered, after reading the 'News of The World, ended up with her throat cut at her flat in Finsbury Park, murdered by one of her clients she had picked up on a Soho street. Next door to the Nucleus was a shop, Manns the picture framers. When I got married in 1963, we had our recepton in Milo's drinking club in Drury Lane opposite the Old Winter Garden Theatre and became neighbours of the Mann family, and still are today. Their shop had become the scene of a shootout between drug dealers, and the shop window got blasted with shot gun pellets. In 2011, a plaque was unveiled on a building two doors down from the Nucleus, denoting that it was once the first London office of Brian Epstein,the Beatles manager and was unveild by Cilla Black.We spent many an hour in the dingy basement of the Nucleus, planning trips to Brighton on the milk train from Victoria. We'd suggested to the young prositute, to come with us for the weekend to Brighton, to get her away from her pimp, who had broken her arm, which was in a sling when we had first meet her, and also away Soho for a break. Anyhow, a bit later in 1960 I had got myself a Vespa GS scooter like most of my mates we either had Vespas or Lambrettas. As I have previously said, by then, the 'Modernist' thing was happening all over London and Carnaby St. Soho was its epicentre, and also Kings Rd Chelsea great for posing. Our influences were mainly French casual, and Italian styling. A great place to buy made to measure shoes, was Anello & David (now closed) at their shop in Drury Lane opposite the Old Winter Garden Theatre (now The New London). Anello's also had another shop on Oxford St and another on the corner of New Compton St, not that far from Gamba shoes ( now closed), on the corner of Dean St and  Old Compton St. Both shops also provided ballet shoes for the West End trade, Anello's being a big supplier to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and the ballet school. Buy 1961/2, my wife to be, was working for Anello's and the boss Mr Rico in their shop in Drury lane, taking shoe fittings for customers, who were mainly rock groups of the day ordering Chelsea boots, very trendy and made exclusively by Anello's, which were ankle length with elasticated sides, and had Cuban heels. She had fitted out Bob Dylan, Manfred Mann Band, Mersey Beats, the Animals and many other bands. But after the Beatles had  purchased a pair they were renamed ' Beatles' Boots, after which every aspiring rock group,had to have a pair. As Beatle Mania swepted the nation, the Drury Lane outlet was swamped, with kids from all over the country, quening all the way up Drury Lane to buy this latest fashion item for their wardrobe. Having lived in Covent Garden, since 1963, Soho and the surrounding West End had become my manor. In the 1960s new clubs were opening in Soho catering for the teen boom. Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames appeared at the basement club The Flamingo, (also known as the mingo). Later the Whiskey A Go Go opened on the floor above the mingo. The club, was situated in south Wardour St and faced Gerrard St, now called China town. I think the ground floor and next door were shoe shops.Today,the Whiskey A Go GO is now an O'Neill restuarant, and the Flamingo is now a Ladbrokes betting shop!. Another place next door to the London Bullion Exchange in a basement, was The Log Cabin, which was not far from The Flamingo but much closer to Coventry St. It had the reputation, for being a haunt, used by the (Faces)or the (Chaps) of which the criminal fraternity liked to call themselfs. They also used, the Harmony Cafe in Archer St, close to the stage door of the Windmill Theatre, and opposite the Musicians Union. Some of shops and clubs have long since gone, such as The French bakers (wonderful smell)  'The Boulangerie' which was situated next to L'Escargot in Greek St, opposite Peter Cooks 'Establiishment Club' (closed) at no 18. Also gone ' Pugh's Welsh diary in Frith St, Where I would often pop in, for my cheese and milk, on the way back from the Marshall St clinic and baths, with my to young daughters, after health checks and vaccinations. Also gone is the wet fish shops I used in the 60s. I did have a choice though, living on the edge of Soho, in Covent Garden.It was either 'Richards fish shop' in Drury Lane on the corner of Macklin St, which had a brothal above the store, or, their sister shop in Brewer St. The one in Brewer St, was opposite 'Lina Stores' at no 18. Lina Stores are still in business today. Another Store in Old Compton St which needs a mention, 'The Algerian Coffee Store' which then gave, and still does, that wonderful prevailing smell of fresh roasted coffee. Today, I still pop into Camisa's deli for my cheese and pama ham. Now retired, I still spend time drinking cappuccinos, or having tea, at Patisserie Valerie and watch the changing scene in, and around, the Soho area and often reminisce when walking pass Bar Italia and seeing another generation of scooter enthusiasts!. I remember several years ago, going into Maison Berteux in Greek St, and forgeting where I was, and asking Michele for a cappuccino? the  polite response I got was, 'This is a French establishment, not Italian'. Such is the ethnic mix of Soho which is much the same, as it has always been, but now includes many new nationalities, who have arrived on these shores and who have put their own stamp on Soho, adding to its reputation for being eclectic,and different, and also added a bit to its rich history be it good, or bad. 

George Skeggs 2011

This page was added by George Skeggs on 12/03/2014.
Comments about this page

The Nucleus Club was definitely in the basement.. I spent whole Christmas Day there, once in the early sixties... There was also the Nbr 9 club on the 1st floor, where we would go around 6am on Sunday's mornings, straight after the La Discotet closed in Wardour street.. We would dance their for an hour or 2 then go down Petticoat lane.. Until the afternoon session started. At the Mingo...... Brilliant days

By Ray Nadler
On 23/01/2016

George, we probably sat next to one another in either the Macabre, the Nucleus (wasn't it in a basement?) or stood and grooved in the Flamingo.....and Kerouac and Sartre and "208 on the MW ....."....and then Ronan O'Railly came along....and Christine and Mandy lived at 100 Queensway

By Helmut
On 12/04/2014

If you're already a registered user of this site, please login using the form on the left-hand side of this page.