Soho Square

Soho Square — Photograph: Jackie Hopfinger

And did those feet in ancient time

Walk upon Englands mountains green…

William Blake

They walked upon Soho Square too. Indeed, as a Soho resident for much of his life William Blake himself would have walked across the square once described as possessing “a very pleasing and somewhat rural appearance”. Thanks to the mock Tudor electricity sub-station at its centre and the diligence of the Westminster Council parks department staff, it still does.

We can imagine others who walked the square — the outsiders, the misfits, the radicals who lived and worked locally, together making Soho a unique creative crucible. There’s JMW Turner coming out of number 8, where he studied, selling his sky paintings on a stall outside for a shilling or two each. There were bargains to be had. And over there is Karl Marx with an armful of papers, hurrying from his Dean Street home to his daily appointment at the British Library. He strides purposefully past the bench where a laughing Amy Winehouse sits, sharing a joke with a friend before visiting her favourite bar just around the corner. Here comes David Bowie and Lindsay Kemp, arm in arm as lovers often are, returning as dawn breaks to their flat just off the square. Leaving from the front door of number 1, where she and her husband run their business, a woman scurries past St Patrick’s Church towards the tube station. Linda McCartney looks down at the rice by the church where a wedding has been. Lives in a dream.

The ghosts of Soho wait for us in the Square. If we dream hard enough.

To help us in our dreaming there are some reminders. On 12th August 2001 a plaque was unveiled on a memorial bench to commemorate Kirsty MacColl. The plaque includes the lyrics “One day I’ll be waiting there / No empty bench in Soho Square” taken from her song. As a post-punk musician, with a uniquely witty approach to songwriting, she was signed by Stiff Records in 1978 and had a hit with “There’s a Guy Works Down the Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis”. When Stiff went bankrupt in 1986, she could only record as herself if her contract was bought from the receiver. And nobody did.

As a result for many years she could only develop her career as a backing singer and arranger for others — Talking Heads, The Smiths, Simple Minds and, most notably, The Pogues — balancing her work with being a single mother. Virgin gave her a contract in 1989 which resulted in two albums. The first — Kite — is widely held as a beautiful and moving masterpiece. Despite the success of Kite, when Virgin was sold to EMI in 1992, MacColl was dropped. Titanic Days — the album that includes Soho Square — was recorded at her own expense and released as a one off by ZTT who declined to sign her.

She was considering leaving music altogether to become a teacher in South America when she was killed in Mexico while on holiday with her children. A benefit concert was held in her memory in support of her favourite charity The Music Fund for Cuba. Every year her fans gather at the Soho Square bench to celebrate her birthday. Kirsty MacColl is a tragic loss to British music. We recognise her voice, we know and love her songs despite — not because of — the music industry. She had to struggle for her voice to be heard.

Two centuries earlier, another single mother with remarkable talent and creative vision fought against adversity to bring her ambitions to life. In the 1760s Teresa Cornelys gave Soho and the world a rather wonderful invention — the nightclub. She turned down Mozart who asked to perform there, and she kicked out Casanova — the father of her child — who asked to stay. The magnificence of the design and interior decor was without equal, attracting Europe’s royals and wealthy. It was the Hacienda of its day.

Carlisle House was a large mansion built in 1685 where St Patrick’s Church currently stands. In April 1760 it was let to a Viennese opera singer (but she may have been Italian and some say she was from Rotterdam) and entertainer known as Teresa Cornelys (also known as Teresa Pompeati and sometimes as Madame de Trenty). The changing of names and the invention of more interesting back stories became common practice in Soho’s music scenes over the years. Arriving in London, the destitute thirty six year old with a young child in tow questioned why “the most extensive, most opulent, and most important City in Europe was the only one of note that had not a settled Entertainment for the select reception and amusement of the Nobility and Gentry”.

To begin with she opened Carlisle House for card playing and dancing, later moving into concerts of operatic greatest hits and masked balls. Attracting Georgian London’s rich and fashionable, the venture quickly outgrew the relatively modest confines of the house, so extensions were built to add a concert hall and other rooms. No expense was spared on the interior design with Rococo stucco-work, Doric columns and chandeliers. Josiah Wedgwood, whose new London showroom was around the corner, supplied the finest bone china while Thomas Chippendale crafted the furniture.

With these new rooms, Teresa Cornelys single handedly created the swinging sixties — the swinging seventeen sixties. Fanny Burney, diarist, playwright and later Keeper of the Robes to Queen Charlotte wrote: “The magnificence of the rooms, splendour of the illuminations and embellishments, and the brilliant appearance of the company exceeded anything I ever before saw. The apartments were so crowded we had scarce room to move, which was quite disagreeable, nevertheless, the flight of apartments both upstairs and on the ground floor seemed endless”.

Writing in 1878, Walter Thornbury describes the appearance of some of those attending: “It was at one of Mrs. Cornelys’ masquerades that the beautiful daughter of a peer wore the costume of an Indian princess, three black girls bearing her train, a canopy held over her head by two negro boys, and her dress covered with jewels worth £100,000. It was at another that Adam, in fleshcoloured tights and an apron of fig-leaves, was to be seen in company with the Duchess of Bolton as Diana.”

The poor and destitute of Soho and St Giles would stand and watch the rich of London and Europe, in their jewels and fig leaves, as carriages deposited them outside Carlisle House. Along with her affluent patrons, were Europe’s most celebrated musicians whom she engaged to perform.

We have no direct evidence that Ignatius Sancho attended evenings at Carlisle House. But we do know that throughout this period Sancho was a man-about-town, popular with the rich and royal, whose portrait had been painted by Gainsborough. Among his many talents, he was a notable letter-writer and author, writer of two plays and composer of chamber music, country dances and popular songs. He latterly ran an exclusive grocery shop in Mayfair. He was a lover of music, card playing and socialising — so we can reasonably assume that he will have made his way across the Square towards an evening of pleasure at Carlisle House.

Ignatius Sancho is another ghost waiting for us on the Square.

Sancho was born on a ship crossing the Atlantic in around 1729. It was a slave ship; his parents were slaves. Shortly after arriving in what is now Colombia, his parents died and the young orphan was shipped by his owner to London. Taken eventually under the wing of the Duke of Montagu, he was tutored in music and literature and became a valet to Montagu.

As well as being the pinnacle of Carlisle House’s fortunes, the 1760s was when the debate around the abolition of the slave trade was at its height and Sancho became a crucial member of the abolitionist movement. He was by no means the only black Londoner at that time. Britain had become the leading slave trader nation and enslaved servants were seen as a status symbol in Georgian London, often forced to wear a metal collar on which was engraved the name of their owner. A few — like Sancho — managed to rise from servitude, usually requiring the support of their liberal minded masters. Others escaped and disappeared into the poorer overcrowded communities of the city — the blackbirds of St Giles, as a few of them were known. And of course there were other black Londoners whose lineage went back to the days when London was a Roman city.

Sancho is a hugely significant Londoner for many reasons. For our story, he is the first black Briton to compose music in the European style. As a campaigner and writer, he is one of the very first to give black people in Britain a political voice. And we know for a fact that, as a property owning man, he was the first black person to vote in an election.

While the music, cards and company will have all attracted Sancho to Teresa Cornely’s Soho nights, the abolitionist cause together with a new young family to which he was devoted, took him away. But he leaves an extraordinary legacy — black music in London and Britain starts with Ignatius Sancho.

Even at the height of her success, problems were building for Teresa Cornelys. Where she led, others followed, and so competition steadily built in London’s ‘entertainment industry’. Also, she was spending way beyond her means, with her creditors becoming increasingly impatient with her. On top of all this, operatic performances required a special royal licence which she didn’t possess.

It was her rivals who first started court proceedings against her in 1771, which included performing opera without a licence and keeping a ‘disorderly house’. Despite her best efforts to keep going, her creditors joined the fray, and in November 1772 she was declared bankrupt, resulting in Carlisle House being seized and its contents auctioned off. But this was not the end of Ms Cornelys by any means.

Released from prison, she moved to Southampton where she ran a hotel for a short time. Returning to London, she held a Venetian regatta on the Thames, and somehow got herself back to Carlisle House, where she worked as a manager, organising two seasons of masked balls.

Bankruptcy took her back into King’s Bench prison in 1779, but she escaped the following year when the prison was torched in the Gordon Riots. She was on the run for two months until her recapture. Fifteen years later she was known as Mrs Smith and sold milk around the affluent houses on Knightbridge. Eventually in 1797 she died of breast cancer as a pauper in the Fleet Debtors’ Prison.

One day I’ll be waiting there

No empty bench in Soho Square…

Kirsty MacColl

_______________________________________________

Songs

Minuet 11th in G Minor — Ignatius Sancho

Soho Square — Kirsty MacColl

_______________________________________________

Sources

Teresa Cornelys quote: Gillian Russell (2007) Women, Sociability and Theatre in Georgian London, Cambridge University Press

Fanny Burney quote: Simon Murphy (2014) The Empress of Pleasure: https://limelightmagazine.com.au/the-empress-of-pleasure/

Walter Thornbury quote: Soho Square and its neighbourhood, British History Online: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol3/pp184-196

Paterson Joseph has done more than anyone else to highlight the significance of Ignatius Sancho. There is a forthcoming book by Patterson Joseph: The Secret Diaries of Charles Ignatius Sancho.

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