Words Laurence Glynne
Illustrations Alexandria Coe
It is 12:00 midday, I have just left a meeting and all I can think is that I must go to Soho. I have to buy my fruit and vegetables for a special dinner party. My wife is fairly OCD when it comes to entertaining and I am OTT when it comes to food being the chef chez nous, and quality of grub is a priority when I am cooking! So I am racing along Wells Street, Fitzrovia, to cross over Oxford Street into Berwick Street, but wait a moment! This street has a history and is lined with Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian and Deco buildings to admire (though admittedly some not so admirable) on our way along this “micro gem” of a street. Surrounded also by warehouse buildings, office blocks making architectural statements, many with delicious façades, others not so appealing to the eye, but hey that’s what gives the area it’s ‘Sohemian’ vibe, and I don’t use this term loosely because there is definitely a vibe in this precious West End spot.
Now I have reached my destination at the southern end, on the corner of Peter Street and Berwick Street, have also passed Noel, D’arblay, Broadwick to mention a few. “Hi Dennis, what is Darren on?” I say. “Oh matey he never stops, been doing it for years, bursting my ears.”
I am laden with fruit and vegetable goodies from his stall before I head back to my office. I leave Berwick Street market still loud, bustling, manic, alive and vibrant which is the norm, particularly as it is lunchtime. With No. 56 almost kissing the corner of Oxford Street on the north-side leading all the way to Peter Street; this is where the Berwick story begins.
Records show that, in 1585, there was no Soho, let alone any streets. And all that could be heard was the haunting cry “Soho” for the best part of the century. Darren, John & Ross were all shouting three hundred and five years later in the late 1980s, offering their flowers, fruit and veg, “Fill yer boots with banana-lana at 19p a pound.”
Berwick Street is not just about the market, far from it. This patchwork quilted thoroughfare, built in 1687 to 1703, was named thus after James Fitzjames, the first Duke of Berwick, illegitimate son of James II and Arabella Churchill. Booze, fashion and music all contributed to this remarkable Soho pitch, surprisingly rich historic treasure. The Green Man site has been occupied by a tavern dating back as early as 1738 and the antique lighting shop, W. Sitch & Co are still trading since the 1870s – today it is the oldest surviving shop. They supplied lighting for films such as Titanic and the Pirates of the Caribbean series, and numerous other notable films.
Rags to riches has been the theme for years and still continues, known as ‘the guinea gown shops’ competing with Oxford Street, trading often at half the price, is only half of the picture. Legendary tailor Eddie Kerr made his name in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and his son continues dressing his clients to this day. Gaze up at the pattern of tailors above the shops plying their trade. The Silk Society, Mison Fabrics, The Cloth House, Berwick St Cloth Shop and menswear boutique Oliver Spencer ensure the fashion scene (thank goodness) remains.
“The golden mile of vinyl” in the 1980s brings music echoing along the street, supported by independent renowned stores, Reckless Records, The Music and Video Exchange and Sister Ray play their sounds in the immediate vicinity. Soho and music go together like love and marriage, fish and chips, sex and rock n’ roll. It’s still cutting a groove!
The infamous John Profumo unveiled a famous blue plaque in memory of the Jessie Matthews (a famous actress and dancer in the 1920s) on the wall of the blue post public house, whilst columnist Jeffery Bernard viewed the street from Kemp House, overlooking the market from his flat on the 14th floor. Marc Bolan (the late and infamous founder of T. Rex) evidently worked on his mums stall in the market in the ‘60s. The street was later to become the location for the cover art of the legendary Oasis album (What’s the story?) Morning Glory.
This brings me back to our flower man John who works with Ronnie of Ronnie’s Flowers opposite Kemp House which, at the moment, has not yet been pedestrianised, as has part of the street from Broadwick Street. Originally, he worked roman market where Alan Sugar (Amstrad) and Mr. Cohen (Tesco) began trading. Now, 20 years later, John is still selling a bunch or two to regulars who prefer the fresh market vibe than going to a multiple, but this is sadly an exception to the rule. He chats with his neighbour’s son on the stalls and in the cafés opposite who have also been there for many years but will soon be gone as the site is being redeveloped, they are unlikely to be offered alternative units and cannot afford the replacements.
Will the street talk continue on as the norm on Berwick Street? “Morning luvvie, how yer doin’? Family alright? How’s bizz, not ‘arf cold innit” will not be communal much longer only to see retail units raising the commercial bar, sanitising the street which I would like to still call a Soho gem. This is progression but let us endeavour to savour our memories and rejoice that some of the history in the street remains. Berwick Street cries out loud.