Monday afternoon took me to the new Bill’s on Brewer St, which takes over the site that used to be inhabitated by Zilli Fish. Just as Zilli Fish represented the marble-topped finesse and credit card-charged dining of the 1990s in Soho, Bill’s represents the Soho that has tumbled down from the dandy, French-inspired distressed awnings of Soho in the late noughties. When it was Zilli Fish, Freddie Mercury once set fire to the kitchen when he tried to cook chips at 4am without using chip oil. Zilli also accidentally locked Prince Edward inside its loos. Unfortunately, Prince Edward got out, but you can’t imagine anyone getting locked in the vast cavern of Bill’s. We have shabbily-chic round teapots in primary colours with just a bit of scuff and tin showing through, we have a cod-Parisienne waitress with obligatory New Wave-ish short lunatic fringe and we have no varnish on the tables or the patron’s nails. Bill’s is half storage room, half brasserie. Great globules of garlic hang from the ceiling in a purple haze and there are six sorts of tea.
Brewer Street has always been a stubborn little darling. Whilst the western side of Soho launched itself into fine dining splendour about twenty years ago and left sun dried tomatoes and discs of goat’s cheese spiked through with cocktail sticks onto European bread, Brewer Street stuck to it’s sticky sex-riddled guns. It has a decidedly filthy bookshop. It has several of those circuses of sluttery, where thin strips of silver tinsel cover the doors and DVDs within contain ominous acts involving sports accessories. It has the brazen swimming trunk tomfoolery of “Prowler” and – until very recently – it had the left-handed shop, full of a riot of household products that were as queer as some of the bazaars in the rest of the street, with its scissors a mirror image of what we were used to, of left-handed cutlery, telephones and stationery. It is a street that refuses to reinvent itself, possibly because it’s foundations and so very very unsavoury and so very very deep.
It is so unsavoury that, prior to the early sixteenth century, most of Soho was probably owned by The Provost and College of Eton, which is when its assocation with gay love and spanking truly began. As so many things were in England in the 1530s, this patch of Soho that contained Brewer Street was surrendered to the Crown. The Crown at this time was that bovine lover of decapitation and thrilling badminton player, Henry VIII, who probably brandished a roast chicken leg high in the air, marched down Wardour Street and demanded Soho surrender – and be sharpish about it. Then he popped into Linas for a swift cappucino and some pasta with salsa verde for that night’s supper before departing for monastery-smashing and much merry making. In the 1570s, part of this land was leased by Thomas Poultney, who took the rent of the area one morning on his way back from Ronnie Scotts. In the late 17th century, the canny and wry Pulteney family were granted reversionary leases of what is now more than half of Brewer Street, naming a road after themselves on the way (Great Pulteney Street) in the centre of this land. Before the 18th century breweries moved in and gave the street its name, the area was known for homing bricklayers and kilns, and a massive rubbish damp of shit. The massive rubbish dump of shit was in a patch of land known as Laystall Piece, in Knaves Acre, which was eventually incorporated into Brewer Street. At some point in the late seventeenth century they cleared away the massive rubbish dump, as full of dust and forgotten London detritus as Mr Boffin’s dust mounds in Our Mutual Friend, and started building houses over it.
By the 1690s there were 130 small houses built on Windmill Fields, but these were mainly inhabitated by poor people and those who dealt in glass bottles, so the whole area was only yielding £67 a year in rent. (Modern Day Soho Currency Converter : 4 DVDs, some poppers and a hand job. Or, one rabbit, pearl barley and wild garlic orzotto, two grilled kid goat’s liver skewers and a decent bottle of red wine in La Bocca di Lupo). In 1691 Sir William Poulteney dropped dead and the tenants danced on his grave and had lemonade and crisps. Alas, the glass bottle keepers of Glasshouse Street or the victuallers setting up home on the corner weren’t a la festa for too long, because shortly afterwards the trustees of the land sold the leasehold interest of the land to a Yeoman of the Guard, and the freehold passed to the naughty, dark, merciless crown again.
A whole rash of leases were granted in around 1720 for Great Pulteney Street, all of which were supposed to adhere to the rebuilding of the City Act in 1667 which instructed how to build houses that wouldn’t burn down like they did in the Great Fire. This included having gutters that were not made of straw and trying not to set fire to your own feet. The majority of these leases were in fact not taken by brewers but by carpenters. In 1721 Pulteney hit the jackpot, when the Crown granted him the Freehold of the Estate and he celebrated by an evening in Raymond’s RevueBar which the eldest ladies of the world’s oldest profession still remember with fondness.
If prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, we cannot imagine that beer brewing was very far behind it. By 1700 Brewer Street’s two main brewery houses (now demolished) were in business; Ayres’s Brewery and Davis’s. But the most interesting building in the street at the time was undoubtedly Hickford’s Rooms (which stands on the modern site of The Crown pub). Hickford’s fame was at its height in the mid-1700s, when it was, astonishingly, the only concert room of any note in the West End. The high water mark of it’s cultural and musical history was in May 1765, when a 9 year old Mozart gave a recital with his sister, which Hickford’s advertised at five-shillings a ticket:
‘For the Benefit of Miss MOZART of Thirteen, and Master MOZART of Eight [sic] Years of Age, Prodigies of Nature. HICKFORD’S Great Room in Brewer Street, Monday, May 13 will be A CONCERT of MUSIC With all the OVERTURES of this little Boy’s own Composition’.
But alas, some cow called Mrs Cornely opened her own concert rooms in Soho Square, and it was the beginning of a decline in Hickford’s popularity. Success in showbusiness is only assured if you can claim you’re the only person in your field of speciality playing the halls in your district. Once Mrs Cornely entered the picture with her violin-playing ladies, spinning plates, folding dogs and performing dwarfs, the kid Mozart didn’t stand a chance. Hickford’s tried operatics, pantomime, lectures, poetry readings and miniature theatre but eventually the landlord ran away and did a bunk in 1791. He was last seen in Bar Italia, raging about the 1780 window tax bill after three espressos. The concert hall was turned into a school for a short period in the 19th century but then, in a move that angered architectural historians, it was mown down to be incorporated into the Regent Palace Hotel in 1934.
The history of Brewer Street in the nineteenth and twentieth century reads like a hymn to the marriage of commercialism and filth. At some point the brewers and the glass and brickmakers were usurped by specialist cinemas, open doors leading to linoleum covered stairs and goodness knows what pleasures at the top of them, cheap barbers and possibly London’s worst ever Italian restaurant (La Perla). But Brewer Street has had a backwards glance to its fertile history. Mrs Kibble’s Olde Fashioned Sweete Shoppe with it’s propensity of unnecessary “e”s in the title, acts as a prim, Georgian fantasy of an ancient London confectioners, all curved, ancient windowpanes and gummy sweets in large glass jars. The delightful Lina Stores erupts like a 1950s dream of Italiana in eau-de-nil tiles and baskets overflowing with panettone. Randall & Aubin is a burst of Edwardiana, a riot of oysters, belle epoque half light and post-theatre champagne bubbles. The DVD shops remain, despite DVDs becoming more or less obsolete. The devastating twinkle of the lightbulbs into Green’s Court herald a deeper, darker sort of Soho lechery and perhaps, behind the purple velvet drapes and the Lithuanian door dolly, a sideways glance offers Sir William Pulteney himself, walking graciously towards Wardour Street, winking at the models whose eyes pore through the window of ‘Prowler’ and marvelling on what a man can do with one lonely 16th century farm and a massive rubbish dump.
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every other Thursday, so our next update will be 14th March.