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A guest post by London Historians member, Simon Fowler.

Between the wars Soho had the reputation as being Britain’s criminal capital. But was the reputation justified?

Now unfortunately falling victim to the developers, the central London district of Soho has long had a racy reputation. Readers may remember that in the 1950s and 1970s this was the capital’s red-light district with sleezy bars, ‘French lessons’ and tatty shops selling pornography, and much worse besides.

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Market trader in Berwick Street.

A generation earlier Soho was regarded as being equally racy, but for different reasons. It was London’s – and Britain’s – largest, most easily accessible multicultural district. It was home to thousands of Italians, French and other nationalities who ran the area’s cafes and restaurants, attracting diners from all over London to enjoy Italian and Greek cuisine at reasonable prices. It was said that Soho was the place to come to in order to escape English cooking! Sydney Horler said that: ‘Mr Suburban takes his wife [there] when he feels like celebrating… He feels no end of a lad as he sips his 3s 6d bottle of wine because he fondly imagines that he is seeing “a bit of life”.

Soho’s cosmopolitan nature inevitably brought it to the attention of newspapers and writers, who shocked readers with stories about life there. In 1934, Horler, a popular thriller writer of the period, wrote a series of articles about London’s criminal underworld. Of Soho he wrote, that it ‘is the GHQ of London crime. It is in the mean, shabby streets of this foreign quarter that criminals of all types live and plan their plots.’

A salacious piece about the shocking events at a Soho or West End nightclub was a sure boost for circulation. The writer Stanley Jackson thought that: ‘A murder in Soho automatically grabs the headlines, but if someone is killed in Surbiton the victim must be content with a paltry ration of newsprint.’

Soho had atmospheric narrow streets where each building could hide a thieves’ kitchen in the basement and a gambling den in the attic. The cheap bedsitting rooms over shops were an ideal lair for prostitutes.

Very much in the public eye were the night clubs whose clientele comprised the ‘rich young things’, who in the imagination of the journalists, might engage in the most depraved activities. The journalist Sidney Felstead called them: ‘Idlers, all of them, typical specimens of that erratic world which is always willing to try something “new”.’ And in particular where dancers could easily be led astray. Stephen Graham felt that ‘Dance is the lure to night life. What is to warn the young girl of the moral danger, the cocaine danger, the gambling danger, when she steps across the threshold of the capital of pleasure.’

Soho was where foreigners with their strange habits and looks wandered the streets seemingly up to no good. Above all there were Italian and Greek cafes, where small groups of men without obvious means of support spent hours huddled together. Even Stanley Jackson, who took a generally sceptical position about Soho’s criminal reputation, said that: ‘There were dozens of small cafes where you can “smell” the underworld as soon as you poke your head around the door.’ Such exotic cafes were rarely found in the suburbs.

Much of what Felstead, Horler and other journalists wrote was nonsense, pandering to the prejudices of their readers. It was also a not so subtle reminder to readers that they should stick to the straight and narrow. Sidney Felstead warned that: ‘Vice, if you gild it lavishly enough, is always attractive…thoughts of the aftermath rarely intrude themselves on such occasions. ’

There were social problems of course. Housing in particular was very poor. The writer Stanley Jackson lived for a while in a house in D’Arblay Street: ‘It was a grimy three-storeyed house with a barber shop underneath. There was no bathroom and one lavatory served 18 people.’

On the surface there was little obvious criminal activity. The interwar annual reports of the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police mention Soho only once. And in the surviving records of the ‘Met’ at The National Archives are two files relating to the introduction of a one-way system for traffic in the area’s narrow streets.

But crime did exist, which for one reason or another Horler and his fellow hacks chose to gloss over or ignore, because it did not meet their expectations or those of their readers.

Most visibly was a certain amount of petty crime: pickpockets, for example, preyed on distracted tourists wandering through Soho or along Piccadilly and Shaftesbury Avenue. And prostitutes solicited on the streets. On their way back to the club rooms in Gerrard Street after their annual dinner, lady members of the Detection Club kept close to their male colleagues – the novelists Dorothy Sayers and Margaret Cole forming a formidable guard of honour, determined to protect the men from the patrolling prostitutes, whose favourite question was ‘Are you on your own, dear.’

More serious were the gangs who controlled prostitution and operated protection rackets. By the late 1930s the five Messina brothers, originally from Malta, had established a network of brothels in Soho and Mayfair. The rival Sabini and Cortesi were originally gangs who plagued race tracks after the First World War but soon turned to extorting protection money from Italian drinking clubs and restaurants. Stanley Jackson explained that: ‘It is simple enough to stage a quarrel in a little restaurant, overturn tables and use language that will make the ladies blush. Before the police can be brought in the men have gone, the place is a shambles, and respectable customers decide not to go there again.’ Restaurant and bar owners preferred to pay £10 a week rather than see their business destroyed.

Horler does not mention the Sabinis or Cortesis. Indeed, he may not have known of their existence, as unlike their post-war successors they kept out of the public eye as much as possible. Instead he, Felstead and other writers who claimed to have visited London’s underworld describe a range of sub-Dickensian villains like Sailor Bill and Adelaide Harry who led a gang of ‘very well dressed pickpockets whose speciality is stealing wallets from hotel (or public) lavatories…and the removal of stolen goods in fast motor cars.’

The reality was very different. Gang members were thugs and bullies of deep unpleasantness. Brian Macdonald, who grew up in ‘gangland’ in the 1950s remembered being told that: ‘Darby Sabini’s strength was in his organisation and his ability to attract hard men to support him and stay with him.’

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Darby Sabini, London Gangster in retirement.

To become mixed up in their activities was a real threat to life and limb. There were a series of unsolved murders of French prostitutes who worked in Soho during the mid-1930s. In 1936, Jeanette Cotton was found strangled with her silk scarf in her flat in Lexington Street. Scotland Yard connected her death with that of Josephine Martin – ‘French Fifi’ – strangled a few months earlier. Sir Bernard Spilsbury told the coroner’s court that she ‘had been forced down upon her bed and was strangled by the right hand of an assailant.’ A month after Jeanette Cotton a third girl, Leah Hines, ‘Dutch Leah’ or ‘Stilts’ from her very high heels, was found in her Old Compton Street room, copper wire tightly twisted around her throat. The killer was never identified, but the murders may have been committed by the Parisian gang who controlled the women.

Soho was a victim of its own success. Most of the residents resented the reputation the area and just wanted to get on with their lives. This was picked up by one of the more reputable writers about the district, Stephen Graham: ‘Soho, in fact, is strongly opposed to the night clubs and would gladly see them moved outside London altogether. The Rolls-Royces, axle-deep in decaying cabbage leaves and litter, obstruct Berwick Street market after hours.’

And where were the police in all this? Generally, they kept a low profile, concentrating on the easy meat of pickpockets and prostitutes and, unless pressured by the politicians, tolerating street betting (off-course betting was illegal), homosexuality and crime within the immigrant communities. There was also the occasional whiff of corruption. Detective Sergeant George Goddard of the Vice Squad was tried in 1929 for taking bribes from Kate Meyrick, who owned the famous 43 Club in Gerrard Street, as well as extorting money from restaurant owners in Bloomsbury and Soho. At his trial he was alleged to have had £18,000 savings, a luxury car and a large house in Streatham, all on a police salary of £6 15s a week.

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Kate Meyrick, owner of infamous 43 Club, Gerard Street.

When caught, petty criminals would appear at the local police (magistrates) courts in Vine Street and Great Marlborough Street. Sidney Felstead said of the court in Great Marlborough Street that it ‘takes in all the night hawks and passes sentences on them with a speed that only come from long practice.’ For it many have been a regular appearance. The murdered prostitute Josephine Martin had appeared before the courts 74 times for soliciting and related offences. Perhaps Miss Martin was one of the ‘giggling young women’ who appeared before the bench when Felsted visited, she was fined ‘Forty shillings or seven days’ and paid the fine ‘as though she had purchased a new hat and was quite ready and willing to pay for it.’

Because it was so different from the rest of Britain in the 1920s and 1930s Soho was a magnet to the press, which could almost always find a colourful story on its streets. Here were found exotic characters from around the world, atmospheric streets, and a large range of bars, cafes and restaurants, each with their own clientele. It was easy for writers to add a brush stroke of criminality to the portraits they drew of the area. But although there was crime here it was not the crime that outsiders wrote about. For the most part it was desperate, petty and vicious and really not the sort that Horler, Felstead and the others described.


Sources/Further Reading
Sydney Horler, London’s Underworld: the record of a month’s sojourn in the crime centres of the Metropolis (Tauchnitz, 1935)
Stanley Jackson, An Indiscreet Guide: Soho (Muse, [1946])
Sidney T Felstead, The Underworld of London (John Murray, 1923)
Stephen Graham, London Nights: studies and sketches of London at Night (Doran, 1926)
Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (HarperCollins, 2016)
Peter Speiser, Soho: the heart of Bohemian London (British Library, 2017)
Brian Macdonald, Elephant Boys: tales of London and Los Angeles underworlds (Mainstream, 2000)
Donald Thomas, An Underworld at War (John Murray, 2003),


Simon Fowler is a long-standing member of London Historians and is now researching a book on crime between the wars.

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