I won’t lie, I’m not feeling at my most festive. And I know I’m not alone.
These are NOT ‘normal’ times - by any stretch of the imagination.
We are living through era of extreme violence, a genocide is unfolding on our social media feeds, whilst we are being lied to and gaslit – non-stop! Increasingly we are also losing our rights – including our hard won right to strike - and the fascism is on the rise – pretty much everywhere.
This is not a time to be silent. Nor is it a time to lose hope.
‘London Feminista’ might not be the most appropriate platform for a discussion about the horrors of war, genocide, and displacement in Palestine - or anywhere for that matter, not least in Armenia, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Sudan - but as Desmond Tutu, who lived through South Africa’s Apartheid regime, once said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”.
It is therefore vital that as an intersectional feminist blog, opposed to colonial violence and oppression, pro-actively working towards the liberation of all marginalised people, and as a proponent of international solidarity, London Feminista recognises that Palestine is a feminist, vocally supports calls for an immediate, permanent ceasefire and emphasises that support for a Free Palestine is not antisemitic. There are numerous voices within the Jewish community who speak out for peace and against the far-right Zionist project of Israel’s current political leadership.
Back to all things feminist in London.
Time to summon some much-needed joy – just don’t expect the business as usual glitter ball fest, because no amount of sparkle can mask our collective trauma.
If you happen to be in central London these coming days, here’s an alternative to shopping till you drop: check out Soho’s feminist landmarks, bring a friend with you and treat yourself to a cheeky cocktail!
Good news – if you make it during the festive season, you can enjoy the lovely soho-kids light project, which returns to the streets of Soho for the third year running. But if you don’t, the content of this blog can be enjoyed any time of the year.
Once upon a time, Soho’s reputation as a hotspot for ‘sex and sleaze’ was unshakable. The ‘naughty’ district, frowned upon, and probably desired in equal measures, by prudish Brits, boasted some of the most exciting and outlandish bars, clubs and cabaret. Every street had sex shops and red lights galore. Today, the handful of sex shops dotted around look more like dusty museum pieces; as for the red lights, the only ones still shining bright are at the Windmill. It first opened its doors in 1931 and is now a fully refurbished, all singing and dancing restaurant-cum bar with cabaret.
As well as a place of fun and ‘debauchery’, Soho was the home to theatres and a thriving film industry – most of which used to headquarter in Wardour Street. Both were sizeable employers of women.
It was also one of the only relative safe spaces for sex workers and the queer community. The queer history of Soho is well documented, through research and first-person accounts like Quentin Crisp’s Naked Civil Servant. From the early 20th Century, queer tolerant venues sprung up, like the ethnically and sexually diverse Shim Sham Club. Opened in the 1930’s, it attracted a host of talent from the US, queer Black artists and musicians turned the club into a buzzing jazz hub.
Popular African-American and Indigenous singer, Elizabeth Welch (1904 - 2003), also made her way to Soho from New York to pursue a dazzling career. - with hits such as 'Stormy Weather' and 'Love for Sale'. When a blue plaque was unveiled to her name in 2012, at Ovington Court, London SW15 1LB, she was only the second Black woman to be honoured.
In those earlier days, queer pubs and clubs were easy targets for police raids, and that didn’t change much until 1970’s – after the decriminalisation of ‘homosexuality’ in 1967 and the advent of the Gay Liberation Front. Things continued to shift and evolve, new venues came onto the scene, not least the iconic Madame Jojo’s, which played a major part in upholding Soho’s rowdy tradition. Its forced closure in 2014, confirmed concerns that developers were digging in their heels.
Around the same time, sex workers were being evicted from their Soho ‘walk-ups’. Walk-up flats appeared in Soho after the liberalisation of ‘prostitution’ laws in 1959. Sex workers used them for work and sometimes shelter - they provided cheap rent and safety within the local community. Some flats, owned by property developers were sold, but sex workers – many of them migrants or mothers living in poverty - stood up for their rights, and with the support of the English Collective of Prostitutes, managed to hold on to some of the flats, including on Peter Street and Walker’s Court.
Greedy developers have been ripping the soul out of so many London neighbourhoods – following the same pattern of evicting the very communities whose sub- cultures made the area cool in the first place, then building expensive flats, bars and restaurants. The sanitised version of Soho doesn’t quite cut the mustard, but there is still a certain buzz around … so let’s enjoy it while it last.
Spirit of Soho
The beautiful mural, on the corner of Broadwick Street and Carnaby Street, is a good introduction. Created in 1991 as a community project, the mural shows a map of Soho with some key local landmarks and crafts designed into Saint Anne’s patchwork dress. Below it, you will see a host of famous faces – mostly men! – who lived in the area over time, including, Karl Marx, Mozart, Newton, Teresa Cornelys and Casanova – who had a daughter together. Look up around Soho to see the blue plaques.
St Anne is a familiar figure in Soho with a church on Dean Street - and gardens, with an entrance at the southern end of Wardour Street. The former churchyard was paved over and landscaped by Fanny Wilkinson, the first professional female landscape designer in Britain. It is an unusually tranquil space amidst the hustle and bustle of central London.
Head to Berwick Street, which once featured one of London’s oldest street markets, dating back to 1778. Today, however, only one token fruit ‘n’ veg seller remains – the rest are all street food stalls.
Jessie Matthews (1907 – 1981), the actress, dancer, and singer, was born at #94, above a butcher’s shop – the sixth of 11 children. Her older sister quickly worked out that Jessie had talent and took her to dancing lessons at #22. She was on stage by the end of 12 and at 16, she embarked for New York. On board, she met rich Argentine socialite, Jorge Ferrara, who became obsessed with her and sexually assaulted her. She became pregnant as a result, and returned to London, where she had a backstreet abortion.
‘The Dancing Divinity’, as she became known, nevertheless, had a long, successful career. Her personal life is often described as tumultuous – a label no doubt dictated by bygone patriarchal morals that disapproved of women having extra-marital affairs.
From here walk towards Soho Square and take time, on the way, to explore some of Soho surviving institutions – it won’t take you long! Sadly, many have closed their doors to be replaced by unaffordable flats and shops.
At #47 Frith Street you will find the legendary jazz venue, Ronnie Scott’s, and a few doors down at #22, Bar Italia, famed for its bohemian atmosphere and being open 24/7. On Old Compton Street, the Algerian Coffee Stores #52, which first opened its doors in 1887, is still roasting beans and offering a wide choice of blends. Right next door, is one of London’s oldest gay pub, the Admiral Duncan #54, which was tragically bombed by a neo-nazi extremist in 1999. Step into The French House at #49 Dean Street for one of Soho’s most iconic pubs. But if cake’s your thing, Maison Bertaux at #28, Greek Street, established in 1871 and London’s oldest pâtisserie, is the place for you.
Ever wondered about Soho's French influence? Go back to the 1680s onwards, when the Huguenots fled France and settled in London … this was an era when London was a refuge for those fleeing persecution. How things have changed!
At #14, you will see a blue plaque to one of my favourite Londoners: Mary Seacole (1805 – 1881). She arrived to the UK from Jamaica, equipped with traditional medical knowledge, learnt from her mother, and wanted to join Florence Nightingale’s Crimean mission, but the lady with the lamp declined. Mary Seacole went anyway. She set up a ‘hotel’ and store, providing food, drink, and other essentials, as well as nursing injured soldiers. When she returned in 1857, she settled in Soho Square to write her autobiography, the Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands - the first Black woman to write and publish an autobiography in Britain.
On the corner of Greek Street and Soho Square, the House of St Barnabas – aka as House of Charity, still has an ‘alms’ box still attached to the gate. These days, it runs as a private club and homeless charity. Until 2006, it also served as a women’s hostel.
Further down, at #59 Greek Street, you’ll find another former charitable organisation, the Soho Club and Home for Working Girls, set up by Girls’ Club pioneer, Maude Stanley, in the 1880’s when Soho was a slum. But here’s the catch. Maude Stanley was also a landlady, renting out poor quality housing for substantial amounts of money … or a reminder why ‘charity’ and philanthropy should never replace public funded services!
‘One day I’ll be waiting There.
No Empty Bench in Soho Square’
Back on the square, at #30 was the site of Hospital for Women. Founded in 1843 in Red Lion Square, it moved to Soho in 1852 and ‘was the first Institution established in this or any other country exclusively for the treatment of those maladies which neither rank, wealth, nor character can avert from the female sex.' It closed during WWII and merged in 1988 with the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital. It now operates as an NHS practice.
Take a moment to pause by Kirsty MacColl’s memorial bench, the legendary folk singer who died on 18 December 2000, in a tragic boating accident. And frankly, there couldn’t be a better time to sit here in Soho Square, humming the unforgettable Fairy tale in New York – possibly one of the best xmas songs ever written. Her unique performance at the 1987 Top of the Pops, with The Pogues’ Shane McGowan, who passed away only a few weeks ago, has become a festive institution in Ireland and the UK. There was, of course, more to Kirsty MacColl than that one track. She was an opinionated, feisty, talented singer, song writer who didn’t take any shit from the music industry – and that of course didn’t help her career prospects. But such was her talent, she found ways to shine through her many collaborations, delighting with her unique voice. The bench is at the southern end of the square with the Hospital for Women directly behind it.
With many of the old renowned pubs still around and a plethora of new establishments, there is of course no shortage of places to grab some food or a drink – should you fancy it … but if you fancy somewhere a little quieter, just on the other side of TCR, try the super cute Bloomsbury Club and it’s delightful cocktail menu. Cheers!