Tuesday 28 March 2017

The History of Berwick Street, Soho

Once known as St Giles Field, Soho was an area without building, according to a plan dating back to 1585. Moving forward to 1682, the name “SO HO” appears on a map – it is claimed that the name was a hunting cry of the period. 

Berwick Street was built between 1687 and 1703. It was laid out by a catholic, James Follett and named after his patron, James FitzJames, the first Duke of Berwick who was the illegitimate son of James II and Arabella Churchill.

Several of the remaining buildings in Berwick Street date from the 1730s. The Green Man pub occupies a site that has been a tavern since 1738. Antique lighting shop W Sitch & Co is the oldest shop in Soho and has been located on Berwick Street since the 1870s. Their fittings have been used in blockbuster films including 'Titanic' and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. The second oldest shop in Soho is Borovick Fabrics at 32 Berwick Street.

Here, The Museum of Soho presents the detailed research they have done into Berwick Street’s history. The reports take in the sordid and unsavoury side of Soho’s past as well as the music heritage, the textile industry and the iconic Berwick Street Market.

The Berwick Street Rag Trade

Berwick Street is synonymous with the fashion and textile industry. In the early 20th century the shops and stalls were popular with young working girls shopping for silk stockings and affordable ready-to-wear fashion.

In 'An Indiscreet Guide to Soho' Standly Jackson relates, 'Many of the people one sees in this district during the day disappear at nightfall.   


Most of them are in the gown business, known as 'the rag trade'. Years ago Berwick Street was one long series of cheap dress shops, often referred to as guinea gown shops. On Saturdays people would come here from all parts of London and even the country to buy a snappy dress or two-piece suit in the latest style at half the price Oxford Street was asking.’

Borovick Fabrics on Berwick Street became famous in the 1970s, 80s and 90s for being the place to go for exotic fabrics such as furs, stretch satins, lames, sequins and lycra. Berwick Street became a destination for theatrical costume makers working in the West End at such diverse venues as the National Theatre, the Old Vic and Soho's Raymond Revue Bar. 

Hat making equipment could be acquired in the myriad tunnels under nearby D’Arblay Street, pervaded by the pungent aroma of felt tstiffener, and served by brown overalled gentlemen reminiscent of the old style school caretaker.

Chris Kerr and his father, the legendary Eddie Kerr, have been making bespoke suits in their Berwick Street shop since the 1960s. Look up whilst walking along Berwick Street and you will see many traditional tailors at work above the shops and restaurants.

Berwick Street retains its identity as a destination for textiles with several colourful fabric shops and haberdasheries on the street today including Misan Fabrics, Textiles and Brothers, Borovic Fabrics, The Cloth House, Berwick Street Cloth Shop, Kleins and The Silk Society.

Famous & Infamous Characters

Berwick Street has seen its fair share of quirky characters over the years, from actors to writers and gangsters to musicians. 
There is a blue plaque commemorating the English actress and dancer Jessie Matthews on the wall of The Blue Posts public house. She was born above a butchers' shop at 94 Berwick Street and was extremely popular in musical revues of the 1920s and musical films.

The plaque was unveiled by politician John Profumo, famed for his affair with Christine Keeler.

The notorious Chevalier d'Eon (1728 – 1810) lived at 38 Brewer Street (now No. 71) as a woman for thirty-three years. He was a diplomat, writer, spy, brilliant swordsman and elegant transvestite.

The bohemian writer Virginia Woolf regularly frequented Berwick Street Market to buy 'flawed slightly' silk stockings. Berwick Street featured in her writing and she described Soho as a space 'filled with fierce light' and 'raw' voices.

Former Berwick Street resident and market trader Raye du Val held the record for marathon non-stop drumming between 1959 and 1969. He achieved the title for drumming continuously for one hundred hours, one minute and fifteen seconds.


Raye du Val later wrote a book called 'Viper' about his experiences as a drug addict and dealer and was well known by the local police.

Famous residents of Berwick Street include columnist Jeffrey Bernard who lived on the 14th floor of Kemp House and who Peter O'Toole later brought to life once again in the his portrayal in Keith Waterhouse's play ‘Jeffrey Barnard is Unwell’.

More recently, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright wrote British horror comedy Shaun of the Dead from 77 Berwick Street.

The market


Berwick Street Market is one of the capital’s oldest markets. Street trading in Berwick Street probably started in the late 1770s when shopkeepers displayed their wares on the pavements, but it was not officially recognised as a market until 1892.

French Huguenots, Greeks and Italians populated the Berwick Street area, a cosmopolitan but modest district. By the 1890s many had opened eating-houses serving their native cuisines.

As the market traders attempted to supply the ingredients, Berwick Street Market earned a reputation for selling a bewildering variety of fruit and vegetables. In 1880 tomatoes first appeared in London at Berwick Street Market, grapefruit followed in 1890. 

In the 1950s when the only place to buy olive oil in England was a chemist - not for eating but for softening ear wax - famous TV cooks such as Fanny Cradock and food writers such as Elizabeth David bought exotic ingredients from Berwick Street Market. 

Walking down Berwick Street in the 1990s, you could expect to hear the Soho street traders' cry, 'Fill yer boots with bananas, 19p a pound.'

Berwick Street Market has recently become a foodie destination with concept traders in the market such as Savage Salads, Sub Cult, Freebird Burritos and Jerusalem Falafel. Find the market open Monday to Saturday from 8am until 6pm.



Berwick Street has strong connections with the music industry throughout history. 
In the 1980s, Berwick Street became a destination for vinyl record collectors when it was known as ‘The Golden Mile of Vinyl’.  This corner of Soho is still home to central London’s largest concentration of independent record shops; Reckless Records and Sister Ray on Berwick Street, Phonica on Poland Street as well as Sounds of the Universe around the corner on Broadwick Street.  

Berwick Street was the location for the cover shoot of the 1995 Oasis album ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory’. Ian Brown cycled backwards down Berwick Street in the music video for F.E.A.R. and T-Rex front man Marc Bolan worked on his mum’s stall on Berwick Street market in the 1960s.

On 14 April 1964, David Bowie’s first band, Dave Jones and The King Bees played The Jack of Clubs (later Madame JoJo’s) on Brewer Street. This is claimed to have been David Bowie's big break.

Former Berwick Street resident and market trader Raye du Val held the record for marathon non-stop drumming between 1959 and 1969.  He achieved the title for drumming continuously for one hundred hours, one minute and fifteen seconds. Raye du Val later wrote a book called 'Viper' about his experiences as a drug addict and dealer.

A friend of Raye du Val, Chas McDevitt, whose song 'Freight Train' went to No. 5 in the UK singles chart, ran a café called Freight Train at the junction of Berwick Street and Noel Street in the late 1950s.


Courtesy of British Pathé Ltd

Many thanks to The Museum of Soho who conducted history research on behalf of Berwick Street and provided the above information.

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