Survey of London: Volumes 33 and 34, St Anne Soho. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1966.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying and sponsored by English Heritage. All rights reserved.
Old Compton Street Area: Portland Estate
The streets described in this chapter are Old Compton Street, Moor Street, Romilly Street and King Street (north side only, now part of Shaftesbury Avenue). They are shown in fig. 2 on page 28.
Old Compton Street
This street was originally called Compton Street, and its whole length is so named on Rocque's map published in 1746. On Horwood's map of 1799 the part between Greek Street and Crown Street is called Little Compton Street and is so named in the parish ratebooks from the 1820's. From the same period the part west of Greek Street is given its present name in the ratebooks. (fn. 1) In 1896 this name was extended to the entire street.
Compton Street was one of the streets of Soho Fields where development proceeded more rapidly than in the three running from north to south. Newly built houses are mentioned in 1677 and 1678. (fn. 4) The street is included in the first available St. Martin in the Fields ratebook to name the streets in Soho Fields, in 1679, when there were fourteen ratepayers listed there. By 1681 the street was more than half built and appears fully built in the ratebook for 1683.
It seems clear that the street was named by Frith and his associates in compliment to Henry Compton, Bishop of London. Frith, Compton and the authorities of St. Martin's parish were involved together in 1677 in the exchange of properties by which the church of St. Anne was given the site south of Compton Street appropriated to it in 1678. At the Greek Church site Frith and the bishop were also mutually concerned at that time.
The plan appended to Joseph Girle's licence to build in Soho Fields in 1676 (fn. 5) shows a piece of ground about 220 feet long at the north-west end of the future line of the street separated off from the rest of Kemp's Field. It is inscribed 'patridges' (Plate 8b). Here Frith evidently had to take account of an existing tenancy. The lease of a site within this area in February 1677/8 was made to the building speculator Isaac Symball by Richard Partridge, brewer, and John Gazaigne, tailor, both of St. Martin in the Fields, for a term expiring in 1707. In July Frith confirmed the lease, and granted a further term to 1729. (fn. 6)
Hardly any of the first tradesmen directly responsible for building the street can be named. On the south side a building lessee from Frith and Pym c. 1678 was Richard Tyler, (fn. 7) the brickmaker who built elsewhere in St. Anne's and St. James's. Tyler also held by March 1678/9 the plot of ground on the north side of the street already referred to, by assignment from Symball. (fn. 6) A joiner, William Ellison of St. Anne's, had a building lease from Frith or Pym of a site on the north side, and appears as ratepayer c. 1680–5. Ellison became over-indebted to a mortgagee and about 1686 retired from Compton Street to the confines of the Fleet. (fn. 8) His experience was similar to that of another builder in this street and elsewhere, John Markham, a carpenter, who had leases from Frith of four or five houses in the street. One lease, dated in February 1677/8, of an unfinished house on the north side was for fifty years from Lady Day 1678 at a peppercorn rent. Markham appears as ratepayer in 1680–1. His troubles with Frith and with a victualler, by whom he was dispossessed, are described on page 34. (fn. 9)
Some of the premises are said in the recitals on which knowledge of these early leases depends, to include 'shops', and it is probable that in fact the street was from the beginning at least in part a shopping street. The ratepayers, however, occasionally included a lady of title until the early eighteenth century. Among the ratepayers' names were always some seemingly of French extraction, and by the first decade of the eighteenth century these constituted more than a quarter of the whole. Strype in 1720 said 'This Street is broad, and the Houses well built, but of no great Account for its Inhabitants, which are chiefly French': (fn. 10) among the ratepayers at that time, perhaps a third had French-seeming names.
In the 1720's and 1730's a partial rebuilding took place, mostly in anticipation of a Portland lease from 1734. Only some of the rebuilding, however, was controlled by a Portland building lease.
By the time that the Portland estate map was made c. 1792–3 (fn. 11) only seven or eight of the 78 houses seem to have been without shop fronts (some of these being taverns). The tenants' occupations are legibly marked on twenty-six out of the thirty-two house-sites on the north side between Wardour Street and Greek Street. They are baker, broker, cabinet-maker, carpenter, carver and gilder (two), 'chinam[erchan]t', 'clothm[erchan]t', coalmerchant, confectioner, goldbeater, goldsmith and jeweller, haberdasher, hairdresser, ironmonger, oilman, perfumer, pianofortemaker, publican (three), tallow- or waxchandler (two), tinman, upholsterer and whitesmith. Tallis's view of the street west of Greek Street in 1838–40 shows shop fronts to every house (fig. 49).
The Post Office directory in 1850 lists many ordinary retail shops in the street, but workers in wood and metal also appear. There were rather more eating-houses and public houses or hotels here than in the streets northward.
In the last third of the nineteenth century the street experienced a full share of the renewed influx of foreigners into Soho. Among the refugees from the suppression of the Commune were Verlaine and Rimbaud, and in the winter of 1872–3 one of their haunts was a bar at the eastern end of Old Compton Street. (fn. 12) By 1900 the names listed in the Post Office directory suggest that nearly half the occupants of premises in the street were foreign, and at about that time journalists could comment on the sale or publication of continental socialist and anarchist papers hereabouts. (fn. 13) In the early 1930's the foreign element seems to have been larger still, (fn. 14) and remains strong today. Compared with 1900 the modern street has fewer public houses, and considerably more restaurants and cafés; foreign provision shops have also noticeably increased in numbers since 1900, and these two categories now account for the use of about half the premises in the street, at ground-floor level.
The street is now in fact the main shopping street of Soho, noted for the wide range of foreign produce it offers. Architecturally it contains very little of interest. Four houses on the south side, Nos. 29, 31, 33 and 37, retain early eighteenthcentury interior finishings, but their exteriors have been greatly altered. Although a large number of other buildings of domestic type remain, none appears to be earlier than the late eighteenth century, and these are notable only for the absolute plainness of their brick fronts. None of the wide variety of shop fronts shown in Tallis's street-view of 1838–40 (fig. 49) remains, and only two stuccoed fronts of the mid nineteenth century have any claim to stylishness, No. 50 (also numbered 61 Dean Street, see page 136 and Plate 113c), and Nos. 40–42. Nevertheless, there has been very little building of large commercial blocks, apart from the Casino Cinema, to obliterate the original site-divisions of the street. The new buildings that have appeared in considerable numbers in recent years mostly preserve the narrow frontages and are finished unobtrusively in brick or metal and glass.
The rateable value of the houses in the street westward of Greek Street totalled some £1,780 in 1740, with an average for each house of about £30 10s. In 1792 the total assessment was about £1,870 and the average still about £31. In 1844 the total had risen to about £2,650 and the average to about £46, and in 1892 the total to about £4,630 and the average to about £93. The rise in the average assessment was partly accounted for by a fall, from sixty in 1792 to fifty in 1892, in the number of sites separately assessed.
Residents and lodgers in houses in Old Compton Street which are not described elsewhere have included: 'Savage Rivers' (possibly member of Savage family, Earls of Rivers), c. 1683–5; Pierre Bérault, theological author and teacher of languages, c. 1683–5; (fn. 15) Lady Cary, 1685; Dr. William Waldegrave, probably (Sir) William Waldegrave, sometime physician to Queen Mary of Modena, c. 1691–7; William Kidwell, possibly the sculptor, 1692; Thomas Coke, later vice-chamberlain to Queen Anne, c. 1696; (fn. 16) Lady Cartwright, 1697; Peter Harrache, junior, silversmith, c. 1698–1705; Lady Frances Shaen, c. 1700–6; (fn. 17) Lady Cook, c. 1703–8; Dr. Silvester, 1710–14; Dr. Cheny, perhaps George Cheyne, physician, 1715–16; John Galliard (Gillier), probably musical composer, 1732-9; Peter Gillier, probably violinist (see Frith Street), 1740–2; Matthew Liart, engraver, 1736–c. 1782; (fn. 18) Nicholas Sprimont, silversmith and proprietor of the Chelsea china manufactory, (fn. 19) 1742–70; Dr. Francis, 1766–7; Adam Beyer, piano-maker, 1768–1801; Francis Joseph Talma, tragedian, c. 1768–?75; (fn. 20) James Tassie, modeller, 1772–8; John Cleland, possibly the novelist, 1788; George Wombwell, founder of Wombwell's menageries, 1804–10; Richard Wagner, composer, August 1839. (fn. 21)
Some artists whose addresses are given as being in Old Compton Street in exhibition catalogues and elsewhere, but whose names do not appear in the ratebooks, are listed below, with the years in which they occur:
Edward Edwards, painter, 1760; (fn. 22) William Pether, mezzotint engraver and miniaturist, 1763–5; Jean Claude Chatelaine, engraver, 1771; (fn. 23) John Clayton, painter, 1778; Thomas Gaugain, painter and stipple-engraver, 1778– 82; John Jones, mezzotint and stipple-engraver, 1780; Julius Caesar Ibbetson, painter, 1785–6; Richard Dagley, subject painter and engraver, 1790; Elias Childe, landscape painter, 1798– 1801; J. W. Childe, miniature painter, 1798– 1801; Henry Perronet Briggs, subject and portrait painter, 1814–18; Edward Inwood, architect, 1827–32; William Essex, painter, 1845–51.
Nos. 1–3 (odd) Old Compton Street And No. 99A Charing Cross Road
This building was erected in 1907 (fn. 24) to a design (dated 1904) of Charles H. Worley. (fn. 25) It is closely similar in style to No. 12 Moor Street, which is situated at the other end of the same block and which was also designed by Worley in 1904. This building, however, is four-storeyed, and the eccentric detail on its front is more closely packed. Its main feature is a square, five-storeyed angle tower looking on to Charing Cross Road. This has its second- and third-storey windows set in shallow, round-headed recesses, the archivolts of which are modillioned and elaborated with three elongated voussoirs. In the fourth storey the windows are flanked by pairs of rusticated columns, these supporting great, open, segmental pediments with the fifth-storey windows contained in their tympanums.
Nos. 13–21 (odd) Old Compton Street
No. 13 includes No. 40A Greek Street
On all these sites stood houses which were either damaged or destroyed by a fire, centred on the opposite, north-eastern corner of Old Compton Street and Greek Street, in June 1785. (fn. 26) No. 19 was destroyed, (fn. 27) and all the houses are described as 'down' in the ratebooks for the last quarter of 1785 and the first half of 1786. It is nevertheless uncertain whether they all now represent a complete rebuilding of that period; No. 15, at least, had not been wholly destroyed by the fire, (fn. 28) and it and No. 17 seem to show some features suggestive of a period earlier than 1786.
The medallist, George Mills, had his address at No. 15 in 1822, and the painter, Robert William Buss, at No. 17 in 1827. (fn. 29)
At No. 21 the painter, Henry Edridge, had his address in 1790. (fn. 29) From 1799 to 1810 the ratepayer was Samuel Freeman, perhaps the engraver.
Nos. 13, 15 and 17 are of uniform appearance, each containing a basement and four storeys, with a front three windows wide at No. 13 and two windows wide at Nos. 15 and 17. The fronts are completely cement-faced, but a blind halfwindow between Nos. 15 and 17 in each storey is suggestive of a late seventeenth- or early eighteenth-century date. The interiors have been completely altered, except for the staircase at No. 17 which has moulded closed strings and is probably early eighteenth-century. Nos. 19 and 21 are also of four storeys with fronts two windows wide. They appear to be entirely late eighteenth-century; No. 21 has been refaced, but No. 19 retains its original yellowish-brown brickwork. As in the adjoining houses, the interiors have been completely altered.
No. 27 Old Compton Street
No. 29 Old Compton Street
Despite the requirement to rebuild this house before 1862, inserted in a Portland lease of the site from 1769, this seems to be structurally the house built in 1728 (Plate 125a). The erection of that house was not carried out under a Portland building lease but under a sub-lease for less than forty-one years held by William Bignell, the Soho glazier who was associated with the rebuilding about that period of the houses to the west, Nos. 31–39 (odd). (fn. 31) A mortgagee of Bignell's in 1733 was John Wood of St. Anne's, joiner (fn. 32) (who at the same period was mortgagee of John Whetton, the bricklayer responsible for the building of the former Nos. 19–25). (fn. 33)
The house contains a basement and four storeys, and has a front three windows wide. This has been altered in the ground storey and painted in the storey above, but in the third storey the brickwork is pale yellow with red brick for the quoins and for the jambs and segmental gauged arches of the windows. The absence of bandcourses is unusual, particularly since the general proportions of the house and its internal finishings suggest a close similarity with Nos. 31 and 33 which adjoin it. Possibly this front was rebuilt in near replica at a later date. The back wall is of purple-red brick, except for the fourth storey, which is an addition or rebuild in yellow brick. The windows have rough segmental arches and contain flush frames, although the barred sashes are nineteenth-century.
The interior is arranged on the common plan of a single front and back room, the staircase lying beside the latter on the east and a small closetwing projecting beyond it on the south. The wooden, dog-legged staircase has cut strings in the lower flights, these being decorated with carved step-ends. The turned balusters with square waist-blocks support a moulded handrail which is carried over a column-newel at each turn of the stair. The lower part of the compartment is lined with ovolo-moulded panelling in two heights, finished with a moulded dado-rail and a small cornice, or a box-cornice at the landings. Similar panelling remains on the east wall of the entrance hall, at the end of which, flanking the entrance to the stair compartment, is a pair of fluted Doric pilasters with short lengths of entablature above them. The rooms contain little original work. There is some ovolo-moulded panelling in the front room on the first floor, and plain sunk panelling in the back room and closet. This last room has a plain, early eighteenth-century chimneypiece, a flat wood surround with simple mouldings on the edges.
Nos. 31 And 33 Old Compton Street
These houses (Plate 125a) were built in 1724, no doubt by William Bignell, glazier, who had occupied a house on the site of No. 31 since 1709, and who continued in occupation of the new No. 31 until his death in 1741. (fn. 34) Bignell was the lessee of a number of sites on the Portland estate and among the houses for which he was probably responsible are Nos. 33–33A Dean Street, Nos. 27–28 St. Anne's Court and No. 86 Dean Street, and Nos. 16–18 (consec.) Frith Street (see pages 135, 142, 160). He served as an overseer of the poor but himself died insolvent. (fn. 35) After his death the rates for his dwelling house at No. 31 were assessed to his widow, who is called 'poor' by the collector. Bignell is not known to have had a building lease here: his only recorded liens on the site and on that of No. 33 are a short sub-lease from 1728 and a thirty-fiveyear Portland lease from 1734. (fn. 36)
The first occupant of No. 33 was an apothecary. (fn. 37) A later occupant, from 1803 to 1822, was Friedrich Christian Accum, the German chemist and pioneer in the use of gas lighting.
The two houses would appear to have formed a mirrored pair originally, although both have now been completely refaced with cement. Each contains a basement and four storeys, and has a front three windows wide. At No. 31—which until it was refaced in 1965 was the only house in the street to retain a recognizable early eighteenth-century front—the brickwork in the second and third storeys was latterly so heavily blackened that its colour was unrecognizable. The dressings, however, were of red brick, both for the jambs and segmental gauged arches of the windows, and for the moulded bandcourse above each storey. In the fourth storey the brickwork was a pinkish-yellow, and doubtless this was a later addition replacing a roof-garret. When part of the cement was removed from No. 33 during building works in 1963, it could be seen that the windows in the second storey had been of the same pattern as those at No. 31, and that there had originally been a bandcourse above them.
The interiors are arranged on the standard plan of a single front and back room, the latter with the staircase beside it and a closet-wing projecting beyond it on the south. The staircases are of wood, with dog-legged flights having in the first three storeys cut strings with unusually good step-ends carved in high relief. The turned balusters have square waist-blocks and upon them rests a moulded handrail which is carried over a fluted column-newel at each turn of the stair. The upper flights differ in having moulded closed strings and balusters of a simpler turning than those below. At No. 31 the stair compartment is lined with ovolo-moulded panelling as far as the half-space landing above the first floor, and this may also be the case at No. 33, under its present asbestos covering; above this level both compartments have plain sunk panelling. The entrance halls have been altered, but at No. 31 there remains a pair of fluted Doric pilasters with short lengths of entablature above them, flanking the entrance to the stair compartment. Very little original work has survived in the rooms. The first-floor back room of No. 31 has some plain sunk panelling finished with a moulded dado-rail and a box-cornice, and there is similar work in the first-floor front room of No. 33, except that here the panel-frames have ovolo mouldings.
No. 37 Old Compton Street
This house was built in 1728. The builder was no doubt the Soho glazier, William Bignell, who appears to have had only short sub-leases to 1734 and a thirty-five-year Portland lease (not a building lease) from that date. (fn. 38) The first occupant, until 1738, was a Thomas Walker. (fn. 3) Later, in 1761, when the house was occupied by a tobacconist, the celebrated violoncellist, Giacobbe Cervetto, advertised his compositions for sale from this address. (fn. 39)
The house contains a basement and four storeys, and has a cement-rendered front three windows wide. It would not be recognizable as an early eighteenth-century house, were it not for the recessed box-frames in the windows. The back wall, however, is of purple-red brick with rough segmental arches to the windows.
Internally the house has the same standard layout as Nos. 29, 31 and 33. The staircase is also of a similar pattern, with fluted newels, although the first two flights have been replaced by a single modern one which leads straight up from the front door. The compartment retains fragments of ovolo-moulded panelling, and there is also some in the first-floor front room.
No. 53 Old Compton Street: The Swiss Hotel
This was built in 1890 to the plans of the architects W. A. Williams and Hopton, who exhibited their design in that year at the Royal Academy. (fn. 40)
The building now presents a sorry appearance compared with the illustration of it in The Builder of 25 October 1890. The ground storey has been completely altered, and the steep mansard roof, an important feature of the original design, removed. Its three-storeyed façade is of red brick with buff terra-cotta dressings in a vaguely Early Renaissance style, the upper storeys each having a single centre window flanked by a pair of canted bays. The centre window in the second storey is tall with a round arch containing a figure of Pan in low relief. At either side of it are octagonal shafts running the full height of the façade and beyond them the canted bays having bands of cartouches and grotesques between the storeys, the bays being surmounted by ogee semidomes. The ground storey, according to The Builder, had an elaborate order of twisted columns 'entirely of glazed faïence ware in five tints'. In the roof were ornate, scroll-buttressed dormer gables, the eastern gable being an especially grand one of two storeys.
No. 63 Old Compton Street
This much altered building was originally erected in c. 1732 at about the same time as other houses on this side of the street westward of No. 45 to the corner of Wardour Street. The builder was no doubt Owen Sainsbury of St. Marylebone, carpenter, who had a lien on the six sites from No. 55 westward: he had short subleases to 1734 and a thirty-five-year Portland lease (not a building lease) from that date. Nos. 55 and 57 he sub-let to Nymphas Osborne of Church (now Romilly) Street, bricklayer, who seems to have been responsible for the rebuilding of those houses. (fn. 41) In about 1760 No. 63 was a music shop. (fn. 42) In 1771 the painter, James Barralet, exhibited from this house when it was occupied by a silversmith and art collector, Panton Betew. (fn. 43) From 1809 to 1832 the house was occupied by a John Swaine, perhaps the engraver. (fn. 24)
Nos. 2–6 (even) Old Compton Street
These are probably in carcase the houses that were rebuilt or reconstructed about 1734 (together with the present No. 101 Charing Cross Road, see page 310), under a sixty-five-year Portland building lease held by John Price of St. Anne's, bricklayer. (fn. 44) They contain three storeys and a garret, except for No. 4 which has a fourth storey, probably a later addition. The fronts are all two windows wide and have been stuccoed or otherwise altered so that little remains of their original character. Nos. 2 and 6 have sill-bands in the second storey, and No. 6 also has a raised bandcourse above the third storey and recessed box-frames in the windows.
The interiors have been drastically altered, but until recently No. 4 contained a dog-legged staircase of the early eighteenth century, with moulded closed strings, turned balusters and column-newels with tall square heads.
A Coach and Horses public house has existed at the site of No. 2 since at least 1731. (fn. 45)
The Casino Theatre, Old Compton Street
Formerly the London Casino, previously the Prince Edward Theatre
The Prince Edward Theatre was erected, on the site of the former Nos. 41–46 (consec.) Greek Street and Nos. 22–28 (even) Old Compton Street. The architect was Edward A. Stone, the general contractors being Griggs and Son. The whole of the interior was decorated by Marc-Henri and Laverdet. The theatre opened on 3 April 1930 with a musical comedy, Rio Rita. (fn. 46)
In 1936 the theatre was converted into a restaurant with provision for cabaret, dancing and cinematographic entertainment, and reopened on 2 April as the London Casino. During the latter part of the war the building was used as a services club, but in 1946 it became a theatre again, now called the Casino Theatre, musical comedy, revue, ballet and pantomime providing the main fare. On 30 September 1954 Cinerama on a very large screen was presented here, and the theatre is still being used for this form of entertainment. (fn. 47)
The London Casino occupies an almost oblong site fronting 81 feet south to Old Compton Street, and 152 feet east to Greek Street. The plan is arranged on a north-south axis, with the entrance and foyers at the south end and the 37-feet-deep stage at the north. In the front to Old Compton Street are five arched doorways, giving direct access to a large circular entrance hall, with staircases on each side descending to an oval foyer serving the basement-level stalls, and ascending to the dress circle. A doorway at either end of the front gives access to a staircase rising to the upper circle. As originally completed, the auditorium seated 814 in twenty-five rows of stalls, 338 in the ten rows of the dress circle, behind which was a range of seven boxes, and 392 in the eleven rows of the upper circle. Full provision was made for the building to be used as a theatre or a cinema, with a large and well-equipped stage, a capacious orchestra pit, an organ chamber over the proscenium, and a projection room at the back of the upper circle. Ample dressing-room accommodation was provided in a wing occupying the site of No. 20 Frith Street.
The exterior, designed in a monumental and rather sombre Italianate style, is of narrow mauvered bricks laid with raked joints. The arcaded ground storey of the Old Compton Street front supports an upper part of two storeys where end pavilions, one window wide, flank a loggia of five bays, screened by Doric square-shafted columns, their brickwork standing out strongly against the yellow stucco wall inside. The long front to Greek Street is more simply treated, with end pavilions flanking a series of seven bays, divided by paired Doric pilasters. Above the entablature of moulded brick is a low attic storey, with windows set in a face of yellow stucco, finished with a flat eaves of bold projection below a tiled roof of concave profile.
The auditorium was originally decorated by Marc-Henri and Laverdet in the style introduced by the Paris Exhibition of 1925. A plain rectangular proscenium and arch-headed stage boxes were flanked by paired pilasters and set in a concave elliptical face, beneath a series of three lighting coves, forming a semi-dome finishing against a wide arch. The colour scheme was dominated by fuchsia and gold, and an effective use was made of René Lalique's glass in the lighting of the coves and the pseudo-fountains on each side of the proscenium.
When the theatre became the London Casino, large kitchens were installed in the stage basement, a semi-circular dance floor was built up from the stage, and staircases were formed to link the dress circle with the stalls. Later changes have been the formation of four front loges on either side of the dress circle, and the installation of a cyclorama-type screen for Cinerama projections.
Nos. 38–42 (even) Old Compton Street
In 1827 Nos. 40 and 42 were taken by Messrs. Sewell and Cross, linen drapers (later Sewell, Evans, Hubbard and Bacon, silk mercers), (fn. 14) who in 1829 also acquired Nos. 46 and 47 Frith Street. Tallis's view of Old Compton Street in c. 1838–40 (fig. 49) suggests that the shop front to this street (then numbered 45 and 44) had at that time an architectural character similar to the 1832 Papworth shop front in Frith Street (see page 162). In 1846 the firm's premises were extended eastward to take in No. 38; (fn. 24) the alterations then made by the architect, David Mocatta, probably gave the upper part of the building substantially its present appearance. (fn. 47)
The ground storey has been completely altered in modern times, and so much of the stuccowork stripped away from the upper storeys of No. 38 that its relationship to Nos. 40 and 42 is barely discernible. The upper storeys of the latter, however, are well preserved and form one of the few stylish façades in the street. A slight ungainliness in the design is perhaps the result of remodelling an earlier building.
The front is four storeys in height, with six windows in each upper storey arranged in groups of three. The second storey forms as it were a basement with broad panelled pilasters between the windows supporting an entablature. In the third and fourth storeys the windows have moulded architraves, the former surmounted by friezes decorated with wreaths on a bed of scrolls, and by triangular pediments. The fourth storey is defined by a moulded sill-band, and above it is the dentilled crowning cornice with a large pedestal in the centre of the blocking-course.
No. 50 Old Compton Street
See No. 61 Dean Street.