…Hear them down in Soho Square, dropping “h’s” everywhere, speaking English any way they like…
Like all of early London, this land was once open fields until it was transformed into a public space around 1680. With Caius Gabriel Cibber’s 1681 statue of King Charles II at it’s centre, the square was initially referred to as King’s Square.
The statue originally stood on a pedestal over a fountain, which was powered by a windmill across the street. The fountain’s streams of water represented the Thames, Severn, Tyne and Humber rivers. The somewhat grubby-faced monarch now stands landlocked and greets visitors from the north gate – the centre of the square now being taken up with something more prosaic, an Elizabethan-style garden shed.
Botanist Joseph Banks (portrait by Benjamin West) lived at No. 32 for about forty years, until his death in 1820. His residency here coincided with his long presidency of the Royal Society. Banks is best known for accompanying Captain James Cook on his 1768 – 1771 Endeavour voyage, and for producing the Florilegium - a set of botanical illustrations made from specimens collected on that trip. His Soho Square home operated as a museum and salon for scientists, artists and intellectuals of the day, and he very likely found time to play a part in the ongoing regeneration of Soho Square, including the addition of new plant species such as roses, cherry trees and honeysuckle.
Another historical figure associated with Soho Square is the wealthy, eccentric William Beckford (portrait by George Romney) who was born at No. 22 in 1760. Beckford is best known as a prolific art collector, Grand Tourist and author of the Gothic novel Vathek. He also commissioned the vast Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, built by James Wyatt and completed in 1807. The abbey stood for 18 years before collapsing under the weight of its ambitious, hastily-erected tower in 1825.
During WWII, the Soho Square was closed to the public – its iron railings were stripped for armament production, and large subterranean spaces were dug out for air-raid shelters. It was reopened after a revamp in 1954, with the missing railings replaced five years later.
Today Soho is a hub for the media and film industry, and the square is home to organisations including the British Board of Film Classification, Tiger Aspect Productions, Evolutions Television and SEE Tickets. Joseph Banks’ former home is now occupied by 20th Century Fox.