The rogue’s gallery of Soho’s faces tells us that in the Thirties, a small group of Maltese ran the vice rackets in the West end. The brothel-keeping Messina brothers first arrived in Soho from Egypt in 1943. They brought with them women recruited from the continent. Their management skills were honed in Cairo, Suez and Port Said. They moved fast and bought up all available property in Soho. By the end of 1945 their earnings were estimated at £1,000 per week. “We do what we like,” Achillio Messina told a reporter. On 3rd September 1950 a journalist investigating the Messinas published his account of their trade in women. Braver yet, he revealed the connivance of local police.

After the publication of his exposé, Duncan Webb put an advertisement in the Times offering thanks to St Jude, patron saint of lost causes. Whether the irony was intentional is not clear. Having exposed the Messinas’ connections to the police Webb took the nation’s readers on a histrionic tour of Soho, a “sort of clearing house for foreign prostitutes”. He wrote that he was “solicited by a French woman in Soho” and then followed her to her “gaff” where he hung around with “extortionists, blackmailers”, and “homosexuals”.

Duncan Webb was not the first Christian on a mission to clean up Soho. His predecessors arrived in the winter of 1894. They were two debutantes who preferred the banner of St Francis of Assisi to strands of pearls.

Emmeline Pethick later became a leading suffragist and League of Nations campaigner; Mary Neal, a pioneer folklorist and children’s magistrate. As the “Sisters of the People,” they brought a campaign of women’s liberation to the streets of Soho. Like performance artists or a feminist protest group, the Sisters knew how to provoke a reaction. By night, they roved the alleys and cul-de-sacs encircling Old Compton Street with an orchestra and Chinese lantern procession. They were promoting the teachings of a medieval mystic and dispensing buns and cups of tea. As their movement grew, the “Sisters” evolved into deaconess-like volunteers, dressed in black serge gowns and grey veils. A performance like this would not be seen again until the female post-punk movement, the Neo-Naturists, paraded around Soho in the early Eighties.

And Webb did not get rid of the Malts, or the Epsom Salts, as the Cockneys called them. Neither did the 1959 Sexual Offences Act. This criminalized any house or flat “resorted to or used by more than one woman for the purposes of prostitution”. The laws on living off immoral earnings and street-walking were also tightened up. Soho’s Salts hit on a solution. Instead of patrolling the streets, women took single rooms or “walk-ups” in a complicated network of rooms in Soho’s houses. They advertised their services with cards posted on the doorway, just as Roman prostitutes had done two millennia earlier.

The journalist Duncan Webb’s map of vice followed the familiar contours of Victorian cartographers. But his catalogue of crime also documented the appearance of a new social type, a highly organized “class of Chicago-like” gangsters who had “dug themselves” into London’s caves and basements and initiated a ‘minor reign of terror’.

“I used to go to the Premier club,” said gangland historian James Morton. It was the summer of 2017, and we were sitting in the café of Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road. 

“The landlord was called Dave and he always wore carpet slippers. His sister ran the club with him.” The most generous of authors, James browses through his memory like a database and injects mood and pathos with lip-smacking relish. He almost goes back there – the places and the people. Even now, in his eighties, he does not tire of recalling these strange and fabulous creatures who simply don’t exist anymore.

“A most engaging man took me to the Premier the first time, a solicitor; he was the most cultured man you could wish to meet. We were sitting at the bar – I was enjoying my friend’s talk, and a rather dirty, ragged woman kept pawing at me. I turned round. She was asking if I would buy her a drink. I was a snobbish young man and said no. I asked my friend who she was. ‘She’s Susan Shaw,’ he said. Shaw was involved in a lot of British films. It Always Rains on Sundays is the one that comes to mind. A good-looking blonde, she always played a good-time girl. London Belongs to Me was another. She fell in love with an actor-cum-comedian called Bonar Colleano. They were in Pool of London together. Colleano was killed in a car crash. From that moment on she never recovered. She ended up begging for drinks in Soho clubs.”

Another young man who placed himself at the centre of the universe was Ron Gould. Now based in Hove, Sussex, Ron once worked at 22 Brewer Street. In what was once a brewery, number 22 is now home to SimplyRelax Spa ("Truely [sic] Relaxing"). When Ron worked there, it was Ralph David’s radio shop.

We had a record counter as well. So we sold jazz, blues, and folk music which I was in charge of. But mostly we sold radios, televisions, vacuum cleaners, and we did small repairs for locals. Me and Ted, the main engineer, would have to go and fix vacuum cleaners for old French ladies, prostitutes, anybody local. Ordinary people didn’t want to go to Soho because it had a reputation for being dangerous. But it wasn’t. It was like a village. There was a butcher’s, a Welsh dairy, pubs, fruit and veg shops, continental delis and a bombsite.

The bombsite was next to the Admiral Duncan pub. During the war it was turned into a static water tank. During the very first Soho Village Fete in 1956 Ron and his friends climbed over the fence with their instruments and prepared to busk in the hollow provided by the tank.

My instrument was a tea-chest bass. The police couldn’t do anything about it because we weren’t on a public highway. The war department owned the space and they didn’t care if we played there. It was like a reservoir and we would play on the edge of it then send a hat round the crowd. People had never heard live music like that.

Soho’s skifflers mounted the teenager in opposition to their elders and betters who “knew their place”. Now it was the teenagers who knew their place. It was in Soho, and teenagers knew what was best.

He sits in the crowded room

And his song cries

Out of an American city,

But mourning has no geography and neither

Has the storm he rides …[1]

The cellar had hardly any ventilation and faces were coming to a woman’s eyes through the ever-thickening waves of tobacco smoke. These were the eyes of a moonstruck poet.

Iris Orton [a Soho poet of the Fifties] was convinced that the millennium had burst upon us, was sure that the great revolution of youth would break out at any moment. ...

In her wild cloak she went from cellar to cellar reading apocalyptical verse to the new crop of restless kids who had been spawned in war.  … For the old-timers of Soho things got desperate. Some tried to fit into the new coffee-bar society, became characters, dispensing old anti-social tales to the newly lost. They held court, were lionized but remained pathetic. Most of them died alone somewhere, at night in a lousy room, and they were forgotten within days.

Bernard Kops[2]

Not Iris. Notebook in hand, she was on her travels, more precisely round the corner to The Roundhouse pub in Wardour Street. Visiting American blacks dropped in late at night to blow off steam. It was these impromptu sessions that made the club so important to the English blues scene. One night it was Muddy Waters, the next it was Champion Jack Dupree, a pianist from New Orleans with rings on his fingers and in his ears. British blues men like Long John Baldry sat in, teaching younger guitarists chord progressions. Everyone, Cliff Richards most visibly, had a chance to make it big in Soho.

It was money or music or both or neither.

“As a boy, I did scams with Ironfoot Jack [see pic],” said Ron Gould.

We’d go outside the Molly Moggs pub next to the French café on Old Compton Street. I was 15 years old – and Jack would suddenly have a fit. A great crowd would gather around him, and he would say, ‘Can anyone do anything’ He would be in a terrible state, and say, ‘What I need you can only get in the chemist at Piccadilly Circus. Oils of Pony (that’s Cockney rhyming slang – pony and trap = crap) … Oils of Pony or Moody Powders.’

Ironfoot Jack was Professor of anything, a hawker of cheap jewellery, lucky charms, and yogic perfumes. Once he had inveigled young Ron to play along with the scam, he lay prone on the pavement and persuaded an alarmed passer-by to give him a ten bob note. He then said, ‘Can anyone go to the chemist …’

“Yes,” Ron would say, stepping up to his mark. “I know where it is. I’ll be quick.”

From his Sussex semi in the back streets of Hove, Ron takes up the story.

So I’d take the money, bugger off round the corner and into the back of the French [legendary Soho cafe] to wait for Jack. You could hide in the back of the French. Jack would recover after five minutes and say, ‘That little bastard has run off with your money, guv’nor’.

 

[1] A Man is Singing, Iris Orton. Oxford University Press, 1962

[2]  The World is a Wedding, Bernard Kops. MacGibbon & Kee, 1963