Carry on Soho

On this week's virtual ramble, Diary tastes a European lager on Dean Street, takes a ride on a sedan, and follows in the footsteps of William Blake

Friday, 2nd October 2020


The fashion for sedan chair transport explains the name of a Dean Street pub, The Crown & Two Chairmen

WE parted company in Meard Street a week ago, and now we emerge in Dean Street and gaze thirstily at the Crown and Two Chairmen pub before continuing our virtual walk.

Dating from the 1730s – though the current building was put up in 1929 – it earned a reputation for the excellence of its drink. From 1895, German-born Theodore Hamberger ran the place and it became known for its European lagers – a change to the usual Kentish hoppy ales. Census records show he passed the licence on to a compatriot called Charles Heinlee. He too had emigrated to London from Germany – and the death certificates of both men are registered in the same Hackney parish.

The Mittel-Europe link didn’t end there: the Two Chairmen was then run by a Charles Schaufert, born in Frankfurt, who lived above the place with his wife Gertrude and children Beatrice, Louis and Harold.

When the First World War broke out, this popular West End boozer, which had been well cared for by three Anglo-German families, changed hands and transferred to a man with a more English-sounding surname. It suggests a sorry tale of how the war hit millions of people in millions of ways.

As we stand outside the Crown and Two Chairmen and consider the name’s link to the craze for sedan chairs in the 1600s, let us also note the number of rickshaws in Soho today. The leopard-skin-seated, disco-light-flashing, mini-sound-system Euro-pop playing trikes gather round the area as they wait to take people for a (let’s hope literal) ride.

London’s layers of historic development mean our streets are not laid out to make sharing space easy, and the rickshaws have attracted long-running complaints. Has it always been this way? Think of the Hackney coachmen, waiting for fares outside our Dean Street boozer.

Notorious for bad language and diddling passengers, they worked their nags hard – the term Hackneyed, to describe an expression that is worn or overused, comes from an allusion to a “weak, tired horse”.

The drivers’ approach was everyone for themselves: they’d fight with each other and, as Samuel Pepys noted, turned their powers of vituperation to “affront­ing the gentry”. The 700 who worked during the reign of William and Mary paid £59 for a 21-year permit, and then an annual tax of £4 – and, as it is today, when others started taking rides, they weren’t happy about it.

The interlopers are the two men that sit on the pub’s sign: chaps carrying another about in a sedan chair. First introduced in 1634 by Sir Saunders Duncombe, the name comes from the Latin “sedere” – to sit.

The sedan took off in the reign of Queen Anne when passengers were attracted by the shilling-a-mile charge and mobility in crowds. There were sedan chair ranks working day and night – though after midnight the fare doubled, and a boy would walk ahead waving a torch to light the way.

By 1711, 300 chairs were looking for fares and, like the Hackneys, did not have a polished reputation. The pole-men, who grasped the ends of 12ft shanks, are described as being “often drunk, often careless, and nearly always uncivil”.

William Blake and John Flaxman

Another complaint noted by Pepys was how Londoners did not like the idea of employing “freeborn Englishmen as beasts of burden”. It meant the majority were Irish, about whom Soho citizens did not have the same qualms.

Now we turn into Bateman Street, and halfway down, find ourselves at the entrance of Bateman’s Buildings.

Home once to John Snow of cholera fame – he lived there as a student from 1836-38 – it was described in the late 1800s by the French writer and San Marino diplomat William Tufnell Le Queux in his novel The Temptress.

Le Queux was an early aeroplane buff who helped organise the first-ever air meeting in the UK. He was also a radio fanatic, a pioneer of playing music over the airwaves and he ran a one-man broadcasting station at a time when radios had yet to be mass produced. He describes Bateman’s Buildings as being a “narrow and exceedingly uninviting passage between a marine-store dealers and the shop of a small vendor of vegetables and coals. Bateman’s Buildings [is] lined by grimy, squalid-looking houses, forming the playground of a hundred or so spirited juveniles of the unwashed class.”

William Le Queux

Let us scurry to the northern end, and here find a connection to one of Soho’s most-celebrated residents, William Blake. A quick recap: the artist and writer’s father was a haberdasher based in Broad Street. They had a house built on the plague pit we popped past two weeks ago in Pesthouse Yard (off Brewer Street) and in Blake’s youth there were complaints of the smell of corpses that had been buried too near to the surface.

Peter Ackroyd writes of Blake going into the “foul shambles of Carnaby Market”, known for its female butchers. Ackroyd points out that one of the plates for Blake’s Jerusalem depicts three women disembowelling some poor soul. He links Blake’s imagery to the carcasses he saw being hewn in two by cleaver-wielding women.

At the top end of Bateman’s Buildings, we spot the former studio of Josiah Wedgwood on the corner of Greek Street and Soho Square. It was here Blake’s friend and mentor John Flaxman worked. Flaxman’s father was a Covent Garden plaster cast maker and Flaxman grew up in a shop full of figurines that children came to gawp at.

Flaxman and Blake got on – no mean feat, considering William’s reputation for being difficult. Both were influenced by Gothic sensibility; they read the same novels, converting words into internal imagery and then sharing their visions through art.

Flaxman became one of the most influential English artists of his time – yet as Ackroyd points out, while Flaxman is barely known today, Blake – anony­mous while alive – rings out across the ages.

Cheerio for another week. Stay well, stay safe.

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