Day 27 (part 1) – Leicester Square – Chinatown – Shaftesbury Avenue

Back again and into the heart of tourist London; running the gauntlet of the yellow properties on the Monopoly board – Leicester Square, Coventry Street and Piccadilly – along with the streets that make up the capital’s Chinatown.

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Starting point for today is Piccadilly Circus and as we head east along Coventry Street the first thing we pass is the massive London Trocadero complex, a site with a long and chequered history. In the 1820’s and 30’s there were various attempts to establish a theatre here but by the mid century it was being mainly used as an exhibition space. It was then leased to a wine merchant by the name of Robert Bignell, who reconstructed the existing buildings into Assembly Rooms called the Argyll Subscription Rooms. Thirty years later the place had degenerated into a haunt of prostitutes and their clients and in 1878 was raided and then closed down by the police. Despite losing his license, Bignell was not one to let go lightly and four years later he managed to re-open the building as the Trocadero Palace music hall. Bignell died in 1888, the music hall failed to flourish in his wake and seven years later his daughter sold the building on a 99-year lease to J. Lyons & Co. who converted it into the Trocadero Restaurant. This was decorated in an opulent baroque style with murals on Arthurian themes alongside the grand staircase and a Long Bar which catered to gentlemen only. During World War I, the Trocadero initiated the first “concert tea” served in the Empire Hall and accompanied by a full concert programme. The restaurant lasted right up until 1965 and after its demise the building played host variously to a dance hall, bowling alley and casino. Then in 1984, the Trocadero was redeveloped as a tourist-oriented entertainment, cinema and shopping complex; the largest in the UK at the time. Sadly for the owners, visitor numbers for attractions such as the Guinness World Records Exhibition and later the Segaworld arcade failed to match the scale of the ambition. By the mid-noughties the place was in a sorry state and, as you can see in the pictures below, most of it is now boarded up. In 2015 however the opening of a new Picturehouse cinema on the Shaftesbury Avenue side of the building at least provided signs of rejuvenation.

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Turn north up Rupert Street passing this elaborate roof-top embellishment about which I can find no information on whatsoever.

 

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Emerge on to Shaftesbury Avenue opposite the run of three theatres that we covered briefly in one of the Soho posts. First of these, moving west to east, is the Lyric which opened in 1888 but retained the façade of the house built in 1766 by  Dr William Hunter, an anatomist, partly as a home and partly as an anatomical theatre and museum. Amazingly, “Thriller Live”, the current production has been running since 2009 which means it could soon become the most successful show this theatre has ever hosted (takes all sorts I guess).

Bang next door is the Apollo which opened three years later with an exterior designed in the Renaissance style. The four figures on the top of the facade were created by Frederick Thomas, of Gloucester and Cheltenham, for the Theatre’s opening and represent Poetry, Music, Comedy and Dance.

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In 2013 part of the auditorium ceiling collapsed during a performance of ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ and nearly 80 people were injured. The Theatre was subsequently closed for investigation and repairs for over 3 months and by the time it reopened the National Theatre-spawned smash had moved to the Gielgud just a block down.

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The Gielgud started life as the Hicks Theatre in 1906 but within three years had been renamed the Globe. It was renamed again in 1994 after the eponymous theatrical knight; partly in celebration of the renowned thespian (who still had six years to live at the time) but also to avoid any confusion with the newly opened Shakespearean Globe Theatre on the south bank. (For this information and most of the rest on the history of London theatres I am greatly indebted to www.arthurlloyd.co.uk).

Next we cut through Rupert Court to the lower end Wardour Street which marks the western boundary of Chinatown,

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No 41-43 is the home of the Wong Kei restaurant, renowned back in the day for the “alleged” rudeness of its waiting staff. This was said to only increase the popularity of the restaurant which is generally full but that probably has more to do with the reasonableness of their prices. You can’t expect both value for money and over-politeness.

The building is another designed in the baroque style (with added touches of Art Nouveau) and as the blue plaque attests was once owned by Willy Clarkson (1861 – 1934), theatrical costumier and perruquier (that’s wigmaker to you).

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Dansey Place is basically just a back alley that runs behind the restaurants on the north side of Gerrard Street and emerges into Macclesfield Street. Despite all the visits I’ve made to this area I’d never even noticed it before but it has a distinct dingy, unchanged for decades charm to it.

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Next we’re on to Gerrard Street itself which at mid-morning with a parade of white vans lined up making deliveries manages, if anything, to look slightly tackier than normal. Though I have to confess to a bit of a soft spot for its gaudy accoutrements.

The part of London originally known as Chinatown was down in Limehouse in the East End and consisted of businesses that catered to Chinese sailors visiting the docks. It wasn’t until the Seventies following an influx of immigrants from Hong Kong and a growing taste for oriental cuisine that Gerrard Street and the surrounding area began to assume the name.

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Those two carved Chinese lions in the one of the slides above were donated by the People’s Republic of China and were unveiled by the Duke of Gloucester in 1985 at a formal naming ceremony (which coincided with the quatercentenary of the City of Westminster). Appropriately, given the Chinese fondness for gambling, they are now backdroppped by a  Betfred bookmakers.

There are a couple of atypical commemorative plaques on Gerrard Street. At no.37 is one to John Dryden (1631 – 1700), England’s first Poet Laureate. The phrase “blaze of glory” is believed to have originated in Dryden’s 1686 poem The Hind and the Panther (which celebrated his conversion to Catholicism), in that it refers to the throne of God as a “blaze of glory that forbids the sight.”

(The portrait of Dryden above was taken in the National Portrait Gallery which will feature in the next post.)

The second plaque is at no.37 in honour of the Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729 – 1979). Burke, who was both a philosopher and politician, was supportive of American independence and Catholic emancipation but vehemently antipathetic to the French Revolution. Although a member of the Whigs he is widely touted as the “father of modern conservatism”.

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As noted in an earlier post, the original Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club was at no. 39.

If you nip up Gerrard Place, at the western end of the street, you hit Shaftesbury Avenue opposite the Curzon Cinema which, to my mind, is one of the best in London. Its existence is under threat from the proposed Crossrail 2 (Gawd help us) and though the building it occupies the basement of is nothing to write home about, the cinema would be sorely missed. (So go on – sign the petition).

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Next we go south down Newport Place and veer left down the alleyway that is Newport Court. This brings us out onto Charing Cross Road where we turn right almost immediately back up Little Newport Street. The building on the corner that is now a branch of Pizza Express is Grade II listed and was once an outlet of the costumiers, Morris Angel & Son.

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Pass round the back of the Hippodrome (more of that next time) and continue along Lisle Street which probably has a better selection of Chinese restaurants than its parallel neighbour.

At the end we’re back out on Wardour Street opposite what used to be the Chuen Cheng Ku restaurant which served the best Dim Sum in Chinatown in bamboo baskets wheeled round on trolleys. Not sure what it is now and the splendid Dragon Pole is gone, in its place a plaque commemorating the building as the site where the Magic Circle was founded in 1905. Bizarrely a website for the restaurant still lives on as a ghostly reminder so you can see what’s been lost here.

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A couple of doors down no. 9 was once the residence of Benjamin Smart, a goldsmith and dealer in bullion, who wasn’t shy of advertising the fact as you can see.

A left turn at the southern end of Wardour Street and Swiss Court takes you into Leicester Square and face-to-face with the Swiss Glockenspiel, a 10m high structure, with 27 bells, an automated musical clock with a procession of herdsmen and their animals ascending an alpine meadow. This rather charmless confection was only erected here in 2011 in an attempt to replace the far more impressive glockenspiel and clock which in 1985 was installed on the front of the Swiss Centre that occupied the north-west corner of the square, from 1966 until its demolition in 2008.

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I don’t think I ever really understood the purpose of the Swiss Centre but its demise seems to be lamented by quite a few online commentators. In any event it was preferable to the building which has replaced it and incorporates yet another luxury hotel and M&M’s World which stretches to a mind-boggling four floors. About as necessary as another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.(For people of a certain age – M&Ms are like an American version of Smarties).

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Leicester Street runs north from the square to Lisle Street emerging opposite no.5 which was designed by Frank T. Verity in 1897 in the early Renaissance style of northern Europe. The building was first occupied in 1900 by the French Club and subsequently by Pathé of France and Pathéscope Limited, film-makers. From 1935 to 1989 it was the home of St. John’s Hospital for Diseases of the Skin. After that it became the aptly-named Crooked Surgeon pub until in 2007 it was (sigh) taken over by the owners of the ubiquitous Slug and Lettuce Chain.

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In the next block down on the square itself is the Empire Cinema and Casino. The current building is the third incarnation of the Empire Theatre to occupy this site. The first version opened in 1884 as a high-end variety theatre but within three years had repositioned itself as a popular music hall. That building was demolished in 1927 and the second Empire Theatre which opened a year later operated primarily as a cinema. After WW2 the theatre became known for its Cine-Variety programmes – a combination of film showings and live performances – and example of which you can see here. In 1959, the Empire installed 70mm projectors and a new screen in front of the proscenium to show Ben-Hur, which ran for 76 weeks. Following this, in 1961, the Empire was closed for extensive internal reconstruction to a design by Architect George Coles. It reopened in 1962 with a new 1,330 seat auditorium in place of the circle and a Mecca Ballroom where the stalls used to be. The latter is now the Casino. The cinema today comprises 9 screens, one of which is an IMAX.

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Next door to the Empire is Queen’s House which was built in 1897 and opened as the Queen’s Hotel in 1899. In 1920 the socialist MP Victor Grayson vanished mysteriously after telling friends that he had to pay a quick visit to hotel. It was rumoured that the MP, who had made a number of enemies in high places, was killed to stop him revealing details of government corruption.

In 1936 the building was remodelled to accommodate office space on the upper floors but today it is once again a hotel (wait for it) as part of the Premier Inn stable. It also plays host to yet another casino (Napoleon’s).

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On that note it’s time to bring things to a conclusion but we’ll be back with more of Leicester Square in the next post. Until then here’s a reminder of what it’s really all about – foreign tourists and half-baked street performers.

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Day 20 – Soho – Golden Square – Soho Square

Back for another trip round Soho this time. Something of a meandering route; largely dictated by my desire to avoid the records shops as this month’s vinyl budget has already been exhausted.

The name Soho is believed to derive from the cry “So-ho” which was heard around these parts back in the 17th century when it was a popular destination for the fox and hare hunting set. (A century earlier Henry VIII had turned the area into one of his royal parks). Its reputation as a slough of moral lassitude dates from the mid-19th century when it became a magnet for prostitution and purveyors of cheap entertainment. In the early part of the last century large numbers of new immigrants set up in business here and it evolved into a byword for a Bohemian mind-set as the exotic and the louche fused together.

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Today’s starting point is Piccadilly Tube Station exiting on the north side of Regent Street. From here we head along the partly-pedestrianized Glasshouse Street before taking a left into Air Street. Emerge onto Regent Street again with a view across to the colonnaded arch that looms over the continuation of Air Street; an arch which took centre stage during the recent Lumiere London festival.

Turning right up Regent Street we pass the Café Royal. This was established in 1865 by émigré French Wine Merchant, Daniel Nicholas Thévenon (who later anglicised his name to plain Daniel Nichols). At one time it was claimed to have the greatest wine cellar in the world and swiftly became a favoured haunt of London’s fashionable set. The rich and famous, royals and commoners, continued to flock here well into the latter part of the 20th century, Burton and Taylor, Princess Diana and Muhammad Ali among them. In 1973 David Bowie famously retired his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust with a star studded party here, dubbed ‘The Last Supper’. Unlike some of the other places to be name-checked later I have never been inside.

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One final building on Regent Street to highlight is Westmoreland House on the west side dating from 1925. The statue in the bottom half of the picture of a girl, seated cross-legged, and holding a spinneret and threads is The Spinner, by the sculptor William Reid Dick and was commissioned by the Scottish clothing company of R. W. Forsyth.

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Turn back onto Glasshouse Street then head north up Warwick Street. Here we find the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory (two for the price of one). The original chapel on this site belonged first to the Portuguese Embassy and then the Bavarian Embassy before being destroyed in the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780. The current building was opened ten years later.

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At the end of Warwick Street we turn right briefly on to Beak Street and then right again down Upper John Street which feeds into Golden Square. The square was created at the end of the seventeenth century and, as alluded to earlier, was in its early years the address of a number of foreign embassies. There seems to be some debate as to whether the statue (no not that one) depicts George II or Charles II. It is attributed to Flemish sculptor John Van Nost who was around at the same time as George II but nobody seemed much inclined to commemorate that particular monarch (this would be one of only two statues of him in London) whereas Charlie the Second is represented all over the place.

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These days Golden Square is known for being a bit of a media hub – Sony Pictures and Clear Channel both have offices here as do M & C Saatchi and the owners of Absolute Radio.

We exit the square via Lower John Street turn left onto Brewer Street and then right down Sherwood Street.

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Before we end up back at Piccadilly Circus we veer left down Denman Street which ends at the junction of Shaftesbury Avenue and Great Windmill Street. The latter is of course renowned as the home of the Windmill Theatre. This opened as a small playhouse in 1931 but its notoriety was formed upon the introduction of the continuously running  Revudeville shows a year later. The USP of these performances was of course the nude tableaux featuring the Windmill Girls who because of licensing restrictions had to remain absolutely still for the entire time they were on stage. The merest twitch could have resulted in the theatre being shut down. Famously, shows continued right throughout WWII inspiring the strapline “We Never Closed” which was inevitably satirised as “We Never Clothed”. All this was the brainchild of the owner, Laura Henderson, and was celebrated in the 2005 Stephen Frears’ film Mrs Henderson Presents which has now been turned into a West End Musical. That isn’t of course playing at the Windmill Theatre itself which was reincarnated in the Seventies as the Paul Raymond Revue Bar and is now the Windmill International Table Dancing Club. (Just to be clear – this isn’t one of the places I’ve been to that I referred to earlier.)

Always amuses me that these establishments call themselves Gentlemen’s Clubs. Gawping at young ladies in the altogether isn’t the most obvious of gentlemanly pursuits. But we digress.

Somewhat incongruously there is a primary school at no.23. This dates back to the 1870’s and was originally associated with St Peter’s Church which was demolished in the 1950’s. The façade of the school building still features a bust of the 14th Earl of Derby who was a generous benefactor of the church.

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After stopping off at Ham Yard and Smithy’s Court we’re back on Brewer Street and a left then sharp right up Lower James Street brings us back to the eastern side of Golden Square. This leads inevitably into Upper James Street which ends at Beak Street opposite no.41 which was once the residence of the venetian painter Canaletto (1696 – 1768) whose work was featured way back in the Day 3 post. A few doors further along is the Old Coffee House pub, somewhere I did frequent back in the eighties so pleased to see it still there (ironically one of the few places that hasn’t been turned into an actual coffee house yet).

Next up, still continuing north, is Marshall Street which once boasted William Blake as a resident. No doubt he’d be delighted with what they’ve done to the place.

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Loop round Newburgh Street and Foubert’s Place where the shops are certainly more interesting than anything found on Carnaby Street which is literally yards away.

Back on Marshall Street is the Marshall Street Leisure Centre which opened in 2010 following a 13 year (?) refurbishment of the Grade II listed building which was the site of the Westminster Public Baths from 1850 to 1997. Back in 1850 the charges were 6d for a first class warm bath, 2d for a second class warm bath and half these prices for a cold bath. I’ll you to speculate as to the difference between a first and second class bath.

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Turning eastward on Broadwick Street we pass the John Snow pub named after the eponymous “father of epidemiology” (1813 – 58) whose findings in relation to the source of Soho cholera outbreak of 1854 saved the lives of countless Londoners in the second half of the 19th century. (Whether he was also the inspiration for the Game of Thrones character of the same name or that was either the Channel 4 newsreader or the former England and Sussex fast bowler we may never know).

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Head north again up Poland Street then duck in and out of Oxford Street via Berwick Street, Noel Street, Wardour Street, Hollen Street and Upper Chapel Street. Then back south down Dean Street, skirting more Crossrail disruption, as far as the Pizza Express Jazz Club (visited once).

Here we turn down Carlisle Street to reach Soho Square.  This dates back to 1681 when it was originally known as Kings Square on account of the statue of Charles II (what did I say earlier).  In 1875 the statue was removed during alterations by T. Blackwell, of Crosse and Blackwell fame who gave it for safekeeping to his friend, artist , Frederick Goodall. Goodall’s estate was subsequently purchase by the dramatist W.S Gilbert and it was in accordance with the will of Lady Gilbert that the statue was restored to Soho Square in 1938. The miniature Tudor-style house that sits in the centre of the Square was erected in 1925 as it was necessary to have a doorway above ground leading down to an electricity sub-station constructed under the gardens. It is now used as a gardener’s hut.

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In the north-western corner of the square stands the French Protestant Church of London. The church as institution was founded by charter of King Edward VI in 1550 but this building dates from the 1890’s. The yellow piece of paper pinned to the sign in the picture below reads “Adam and Eve – the first people not to read the Apple terms and conditions”. (Bit of ecclesiastical humour for you there).

A bit further round is a blue plaque commemorating the Jamaican-born nurse Mary Seacole (1805 -81) renowned for her work during the Crimean War.

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On the eastern side of the square is the Roman Catholic St Patrick’s Church. St Patrick’s was built on the site of Carlisle House, a mansion bought by Casanova’s mistress Teresa Cornelys, who went bankrupt running a music hall and allegedly a brothel there. The present Italianate building dates, like its Protestant counterpart across the square, from the 1890’s. A £3.5m restoration project was completed in 2011.

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On the Greek Street corner of the square is the House of St Barnabas, a charity founded in 1846 to aid the homeless and destitute. This Grade II listed building and chapel served as a hostel for the homeless into the 21st century but is now a private members’ club whose profits continue to serve the original charitable aims (have also been here once).

These coloured pigeons are the remains of a 2015 installation by artist Patrick Murphy.

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Like Golden Square, Soho Square has been a magnet for media companies. The British Board of Film Classification has offices here and the UK head office of Twentieth Century Fox occupies the south-western corner. Incidentally there is a separate Twenty First Century Fox corporation which was spun out of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in 2013. The website is http://www.21cf.com as the seemingly apocryphal story about http://www.21stcenturyfox.com being acquired by some clever dick in the 1990s who has refused to sell (or Murdoch has refused to pay out) appears to be true. Try it and see

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Leave the square finally via Batemans Buildings then back up Greek Street before heading beneath the Pillars of Hercules pub into Manette Street which is named after one of the characters in A Tale of Two Cities.

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On the right just beyond the archway is Goldbeaters House, presumably named after a trade carried on in these parts and on the left is Orange Yard, home to the spit and sawdust music venue, The Borderline. (And yes you’ve guessed it – I’ve been here just the once as well).

And that concludes today’s instalment.