Soho: then and now

The times, they are a-changin', and nowhere is it more apparent than in the West End's lively grid of food, booze and vice

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No matter how long you've been living in London, at some point or another, you're bound to get lost in Soho.

Part of the problem is that the place just won't stop changing. There are a few constants, of course – the market traders on Berwick Street, the statue of King Charles II in Soho Square and the neon-rimmed clock outside Bar Italia, to name a few. Elsewhere, though, every stroll through the 100-acre district is like spinning the wheels of a gigantic fruit machine.

It's hardly surprising, though. When London's latest trends in food, fashion, entertainment and nightlife break, they invariably break in Soho, meaning its streets are being re-sketched at the same pace as the city's cultural zeitgeist. The result is a curious mismatch of legendary institutions and fly-by-night fads, stuck together with a cocktail of cultural influences that's more potent than almost anywhere else in London.

To illustrate just how dramatically the district has evolved over the decades, we dug through the archives to compare images of yesteryear with Soho today. Drag the little red sliders from side to side to compare old and new, and share your favourite Soho memories in the comments box below.

Old Compton Street, 1947

before
after

While London’s restaurant scene is currently in the midst of a French revolution (with Brasserie Chavot and Little Social leading the pack), it’s nothing compared to the Gallic influx that followed World War II. By the late '40s, you could barely move in the West End for cassoulet and bœuf bourguignon, with Restaurant des Alliés on Rupert Street, the still-standing L’Escargot on Greek Street and Old Compton Street’s Chez Auguste the places to be seen.

Broadwick Street, 1979

before
after

Though few Londoners have anything nice to say about Margaret Thatcher, it's worth remembering that she moved into number 10 at a particularly troublesome time. Ongoing rows between James Callaghan's government and industrial unions saw the city’s binmen (among others) stage a series of strikes during Maggie's first year in power. The consequences were particularly catastrophic in the busy, cramped streets of the West End, where piles of rotting waste took over.

Prince Edward Theatre, 1947

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after

The 1600-seater Prince Edward theatre has a past as colourful as any weathered thespian. Originally opened with its current moniker in April 1930, it’s seen stints as a dance and cabaret venue (the ‘London Casino’), a club for servicemen (‘Queensberry All Services Club’) and a two-decade spell as a cinema (‘Casino Cinerama Theatre’). In 1978, it was re-converted into a theatre and given back its original name; it reopened with the world premiere of Evita.

Dean Street, 1968

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after

Given the various film studios and media agencies based there, it’s not uncommon to stumble across a celebrity or two on Dean Street. It’s been that way for centuries, too: Karl Marx lived there, Mozart played there and Charles Dickens pursued a short-lived interest in acting at the Royalty Theatre before becoming a writer. More significantly still, Admiral Nelson stayed on Dean Street the night before the Battle of Trafalgar, where he drew up battle plans and chose the coffin he would later be buried in.

Carnaby Street, 1973

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after

Pictured above shortly after its (typically hip) pedestrianisation, Carnaby Street will forever be prefixed as ‘the epicentre of swinging London’, with mod and hippy clans a permanent fixture in the street’s various fashion boutiques throughout the 1960s. These days, indie outlets are outnumbered by big-brand flagships, with the bohemian vibe shifting to Newburgh Street, which runs parallel. Here's hoping the tourists don’t get the memo.

Great Windmill Street, 1973

before
after

After a spell as one of the UK’s first cinemas, Great Windmill Street’s best-known address began its rise to infamy in the 1930s, when manager Vivian van Damm had the bright idea of battling the Windmill’s mounting debts with naked flesh. It remained a stag night staple right up until its conversion into a cinema in 1964, and again after its purchase by porn impresario Paul Raymond ten years later.

Wardour Street, 1947

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after

While these days you can’t open a Moroccan café or a pan-Asian street food stall in Soho without prompting a mile-long queue of furiously tweeting gastro-hipsters, back in the 1940s, Londoners were still vaguely suspicious of grub from foreign climes. And though Chinese restaurants had been present in the city since the 1910s, Ley-On’s was one of the first in Soho, serving anglicised dishes in formal surrounds decked out in a now ubiquitous palette of red and gold.

Denmark Street, 1964

before
after

While the debate as to whether London’s tin-pan alley really counts as Soho rumbles on, this short stretch of guitar shops and cafés certainly isn’t short on hip heritage, laying claim to more rock 'n’ roll history than the rest of the West End put together. And while Margo and the Marvettes may never have amounted to much, the same decade saw The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix cut their first tracks at Regent Sounds Studios.

Frith Street, 1930s

before
after

As the blue plaque above the door proclaims, there's more to the history of 22 Frith Street than London's first cappuccinos. Decades before Bar Italia opened for business in 1949, the premises were home to a plucky young inventor by the name of John Logie Baird, who, in 1926, used his home for the first public demonstration of the television. The very same invention, in fact, that now turns Frith Street into a no-go zone whenever Italy are involved in a World Cup.

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Users say

34 comments
robert
robert

HOW DO YOU MAKE THESE SLIDERS, PLEASE TELL MEEEEEEE

James
James

Does anyone know if there Is any software available anywhere online so I can make my own 'then and now' slider photos like these?

Thomas
Thomas

It's clear from the pictures that London has become an ugly Americanised dump. Town planners should be lined up and shot. The stars are for the pictures, not for the place.

Marie Scott
Marie Scott

I think you will find that Logie Baird was a few doors up from Bar Italia, and the Blue Plaque, at what was Bianchi's Restaurant. I was there most lunch times, in the upstairs room where the cognoscenti went. Manager Eleanor, who occasionally still host lunches there, would often have to ask us to move our elbows as she laid up for dinner. My companions, John Taylor and Jack Elvin, would have run through their repertoire of showbiz impressions during the afternoon, helped by a steady supply of the house red served in Biachi's special long-necked carafes. Soho may not be as much fun as it was but its still better than anywhere else! Many thanks for reminding me.

Nick Hennegan
Nick Hennegan

I'm relatively new to the area, but I had the BEST time researching and writing the script for the London Literary Pub Crawl which travels from Fitzrovia and ends in Soho. The stories and characters are just fab!

Nick Hennegan
Nick Hennegan

I'm relatively new to the area, but I had the BEST time researching and writing the script for the London Literary Pub Crawl which travels from Fitzrovia and ends in Soho. The stories and characters are just fab!

David pusey
David pusey

Good times. The nearest thing there is to time travel. Have to agree with alanjc, though. If Nelson was In Dean Street the night before the battle of Trafalger I doubt he would have even made it to Gatwick to catch an Easyjet down to Andalusia in time. Are you sure that shouldn't read 'Lord Nelson spent the night in able seaman Dean Sreet.'?

karen hayward
karen hayward

My father in law bought casa & pepe which became I paparazzi. I am urgently looking photographs of it - he opened in 1975. If anyone has them please send! Will bring back some wonderful memories for his 80th birthday party!!! karen

Margo & Trevor Burns
Margo & Trevor Burns

Nearly died when we saw the photo of ourselves Margo & The Marvettes in Denmark Street,we were on our way to KPM music to record some demos for them by Bert Taylor we always hung out in the La Gioconda, we might not have made the big-time but we had a great time, in the sixties,made a few records for Shel Talmy,then moved up to Manchester to work the then Cabaret scene,plus touring Germany working with The Original Drifters,The Orlons,Clarence "Frogman" Henry, The Three Bells,etc; loved living in London then when it was the Real London,

Margo & Trevor Burns
Margo & Trevor Burns

Nearly died when we saw the photo of ourselves Margo & The Marvettes in Denmark Street,we were on our way to KPM music to record some demos for them by Bert Taylor we always hung out in the La Gioconda, we might not have made the big-time but we had a great time, in the sixties,made a few records for Shel Talmy,then moved up to Manchester to work the then Cabaret scene,plus touring Germany working with The Original Drifters,The Orlons,Clarence "Frogman" Henry, The Three Bells,etc; loved living in London then when it was the Real London,

Margo & Trevor Burns
Margo & Trevor Burns

Nearly died when we saw the photo of ourselves Margo & The Marvettes in Denmark Street,we were on our way to KPM music to record some demos for them by Bert Taylor we always hung out in the La Gioconda, we might not have made the big-time but we had a great time, in the sixties,made a few records for Shel Talmy,then moved up to Manchester to work the then Cabaret scene,plus touring Germany working with The Original Drifters,The Orlons,Clarence "Frogman" Henry, The Three Bells,etc; loved living in London then when it was the Real London,

don webb
don webb

I was in Soho in every one of the years shown!!!!

alanjc
alanjc

No way could Nelson have got from to the Battle of Trafalgar from Dean St. the night before unless it was the pub in Whitcomb St.

Steve King
Steve King

I worked in the Prince Edward in the erly 90s after the re furb. Beautiful theatre and VERY haunted! Also loved going to the Boy shop for outfits for nights in the Limelight and the Wag Club, happy days.....

JOR
JOR

then over now

PJ
PJ

Great photos, but I'm left wondering how Nelson got from London's Dean Street to the South West Spanish coast by 6am the following day, for the battle - back in 1805 !?

MA
MA

Not Clarkson, the old car in Dean Street is a FIAT 600, the 'bigger sister' of the 500.

Simon
Simon

This is exactly why I love London. Who's up for opening 'The Museum of Soho'?

Susan kilburn
Susan kilburn

Loved the photos. Couldn't find them on the app though. Heard about it on Jo Goode show on BBC RADIO LONDON

Mark Wardel
Mark Wardel

another time, another place. I've lived, worked, clubbed,eaten and hung out in Soho on and off since 1978 and it's really changed since even then. Still unique (despite some creeping chains) and long may it stay unique.

Rob
Rob

"Nice, but you could have given us the entire now and then shots instead of cropping each one down the middle... congokid" You can slide the red line, you know...

Not Clarkson
Not Clarkson

Dean St: Is that an old and new style Fiat 500 in both shots? I'm not a car fanatic - even if it's not the same model number they are similar designs on the surface! Interesting coincidence.

KW-L
KW-L

A great reflection on my most loved quarter of London and great use of digital technology. Thanks. Many more please.

Stephen Wells
Stephen Wells

I worked in Soho from 1975 until I retired last year. These photographs made me realise what a great place it was. Bit too cling film now though, glad I've left I saw the heyday.

Jitesh
Jitesh

A great feature and insight into Londons past, esp liked Carnaby St.

David
David

Great feature. Revealing photo's of other London areas would be great too!

Darren
Darren

I've worked in and around Soho for many years and this was just brilliant. Thank You! More of this please in other areas

congokid
congokid

Nice, but you could have given us the entire now and then shots instead of cropping each one down the middle...

Tony Foster
Tony Foster

Back in 1955.I can vividly remeber meeting Jack Spot in a barber's in Frith St. As I walked the the cair swiveled round and there he was!

Joanna
Joanna

love this, very clever.

Ian Mantgani
Ian Mantgani

This feature is brilliant. Sad to see how homogenised Soho is now. Wonderful to travel back in time. More like this, please!

Heidi  Von Braemer
Heidi Von Braemer

Loved the red sliding tool, made the photos come alive, and were able to take a more indepth look.