London’s Soho has long been the home and workplace of artists, writers, scientists and visionaries, who pushed for progress and forever changed Britain and the world.
In fact, there are so many notable residents that many streets have more than one blue plaque. While you might be familiar with some of Soho’s most famous former residents like Mozart and Karl Marx, there are plenty of plaques to people whose contribution to our modern lives you might not realise.
To mark the 150th anniversary of the blue plaques scheme we used English Heritage’s new blue plaques app, which shows you plaques near you and includes a guided walk around London, to stop and take a look at some of the hidden stories of Soho residents.
1. Ordnance Survey maps were pioneered on Argyll Street
Nowadays we take accurate maps for granted. But when Major–General William Roy began working as a map-maker this was not the case. He began his ground-breaking survey of England which led to the creation of the Ordnance Survey while living in Soho, just a few metres from Oxford Circus station.
Maps have always been vitally important to the military to accurately plan campaigns, and Roy honed his skills in the army. In 1783 the President of the Royal Society commissioned Roy to determine the difference in longitude between Paris and London. Using the latest scientific methods, the survey was more precise than any other of its kind, and can widely be considered the root of the Ordnance Survey.
The first Ordnance Survey was set up the year after Roy died. Using his work as its foundation, the Board of Ordnance produced its first map of Kent in 1801, and covered the rest of Great Britain over the following sixty years.
You can find Major-General William Roy’s blue plaque at 10 Argyll Street, Soho, London W1F 7TQ, and keep an eye out for writer Washington Irving’s plaque just two doors down at number 8.
2. You could get a great view of Venice from Beak Street
Venice attracts millions of tourists each year, and in the 18th century it was a popular destination for English aristocrats taking a Grand Tour of Europe. Many of these visitors commissioned paintings of the places and cities they had seen, and Antonio Canal (known as Canaletto) was a Venetian artist who had considerable success selling beautiful paintings of his hometown.
However, the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–8) restricted travel to Venice, meaning fewer English patrons could visit the city, and in 1746 Canaletto swapped the canals of Venice for the River Thames and moved to London, where he stayed for about 9 years.
In order to increase his sales, he used his London address to exhibit his work, holding shows in 1749 and 1751. During his time in England, Canaletto painted about fifty views of the Thames and country houses such as Alnwick Castle in Northumberland.
Antonio Canal’s blue plaque is at 41 Beak Street, Soho, London W1F 9SB.
3. The destruction of capitalism and rise of socialism was predicted on Dean Street
Karl Marx’s political views and explosive writings left him unwelcome in Prussia, France and Belgium by the late 1840s. In 1849 he moved to London, where he stayed until he died – and is now buried at East Highgate cemetery in the north of the city.
Although Marx earned a small income working as London correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune, he often lived in considerable poverty. His wife Jenny described the room they rented at 28 Dean Street, where the plaque that commemorates him now hangs, as ‘the evil frightful rooms which encompassed all our joy and all our pain’. However, it was in these rooms that Marx wrote the first volume of his most famous work, Das Kapital (1867), in which analysed the capitalist process of production.
The first plaque to Marx was erected in 1935 at 41 Maitland Park Road, where he lived from 1875. However, the plaque was soon vandalised and the house was later demolished. In 1967 a new plaque was unveiled in 1967, but even this wasn’t welcomed by some. The then owner of the Quo Vadis restaurant on the ground floor of the building said:
“My clientele is the very best … rich people … nobility and royalty – and Marx was the person who wanted to get rid of them all!”
Karl Marx’s blue plaque is located at 28 Dean Street, Soho, London W1D 3RY.
4. TV was invented on Frith Street
John Logie Baird, one of Scotland’s finest inventors and engineers, gave the world’s first demonstration of a working television at 22 Frith Street in Soho in January 1926. Forever changing the way we communicate, the television would transform the modern world.
In 1922 Baird began to formulate ideas about how to transmit and receive pictures, in October 1925, working from his Frith Street laboratory, he managed to transmit the first television picture with tone gradation, making a formal demonstration of his ‘televisor’ in front of 40 members of the Royal Institution in January 1926.
In early 1927 the world’s first television sets were offered for sale in Selfridges and in 1928 Baird sent a television picture across the Atlantic and demonstrated colour television for the first time. By 1958 over 50% of households owned a television, and the number steadily increased as the TV became a coveted household item.
John Logie Baird’s blue plaque is located at 22 Frith Street, Soho, London W1D 4RP.
5. A heroine of the Crimean War lived at Soho Square
Just steps away from Soho Square, where tourists and office workers relax on the grass and benches, is the blue plaque commemorating Mary Seacole, a pioneering nurse and a heroine of the Crimean War.
Born in Jamaica, when the Crimean War broke out Mary Seacole travelled to England to work as a nurse. However, she was rejected by the team who worked under Florence Nightingale – largely because of her skin colour – and she set out for the Crimea on her own.
She opened the ‘British Hotel’ between Balaklava and Sevastopol, near the front line of the fighting, where she provided food and medicine for all, tended to the injured and raised the spirits of soldiers.
When the Crimean War ended, Seacole was left with outstanding stock and unpaid bills. Widely admired by the public, she was declared bankrupt in November 1856 year, which prompted campaigns by The Times and Punch to reimburse her for her losses.