Carnaby Histories

These tidbits were originally published in the 2008 issues of The Carnaby Newspaper

  • Mod band “The Small Faces”, dubbed ‘the East End fab four’, and Impresario Don Ardon ran their offices from Carnaby Street for a period in the late 60s.  As a result, they became a huge part of the late 60s Carnaby cultural scene, as homaged in the Austin Powers films.  A green plaque tribute (representing more recent cultural footnotes of the city) was erected on the 4th September 2007 at  numbers 52-54 following an online fan-led campaign.
  • Golden Square, which lies to the south of Carnaby Street, has been featured in several pieces of literature, including Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World, and Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby. The latter gives a rather bohemian description of the area, where “Sounds of gruff voices practising vocal music invade the evening’s silence; and the fumes of choice tobacco scent the air”.  Today, it is a popular lunching spot for local office workers.
  • Image by nic0 on flickr

    • Celebrated poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake was born into a lower middle class family in the now disappeared 8 Marshall Street, which runs parallel to Carnaby Street.  His parents ran a hosiery shop in Broad Street and, homeschooled, he would go on to produce wonderfully imaginative creations that influenced the likes of Wordsworth and Yates (and, arguably, set a precursor for the cultural tone of his birthplace).  The dedicated William Blake House on Marshall Street remains a centre of cultural activity, housing several events in the poet’s name and a massive celebration in 2007 to commemorate his 250th birthday.
    • Did you know…that Carnaby Street used to be spelt Karnaby Street?  It takes its name from a building erected in 1683 by bricklayer Richard Tyler, called Karnaby House.  The origins of this name is unknown.
    • Carnaby on Film: Several well-known films have used the Carnaby area for dramatic effect.  Boris Karloff’s 1967 film The Sorcerers features a search for prey among the young hipsters in the area.  Micheal Winterbottom’s exploration of alienation in Wonderland features a striking scene on Old Compton Street, making use of hidden cameras for an authenticity.
    • The London Palladium had a varied history before being transformed into one of London’s most loved theatres.  The grade II listed building that stands today was erected in 1910, but the facade dates back to the 19th century, when it was a bazzar set up to attract the custom of what is now Marks and Spencers on Oxford Street.  It has since been a circus, an ice skating rink, and a cinema, before becoming the home of variety. The royal seal of approval came in 1914, and the London part wasn’t added until 1934!  Interesting addendum: this building was designed by the same architect who created the London Coliseum.
    • The cover of Oasis album What’s the Story, Morning Glory? was shot on Berwick Street, a location famous for its record stores, quirky shops, and proximity to Walker’s Court.  According to the photographer, the shot is intended to symbolise the meeting of the north and south of England, though Noel Gallagher disputes this.

    • The Profumo Affair was a scandal in 1963  concerning then-Secretary State of War John Profumo, who lied about an illicit affair in the House of Commons.  He later confessed, resigning from his post.  Several years after the scandal, Profumo reportedly confessed to his son that he had met Catherine Keeler, the showgirl in question, at the Pinstripe Club, an upmarket nightspot frequented by the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Oliver Reed.  The story made such a splash that a controversial film based on this story was made in 1989 starring John Hurt and Joanne Whalley.  The club itself has since been reopened as the Kingly Club, on the street of the same name, priding itself on its intimate atmosphere and original cocktail list, and a place to which celebrity starlets still flock.
    • Despite the far-reaching history of the area, there is one street in the Carnaby area that is just over a century old.  Ganton Street began life in 1886, when Cross Street, Cross Court and South Row, streets dating back to the 17th Century, were mereged together.
    • Long-term lovebirds Linda and Paul McCartney first met on the 15th May 1967 on Kingly Street at the Bag O’Nails club while watching Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames perform.  Linda later commented on the meeting as “like a cartoon”.  A famous meeting point for musicians at the time, this hotspot was frequented by Jimi Hendrix, Lulu and Brain Jones to name but a few, and served as The Beatles’ wind-down club after a day’s recording.
    • It was at Public House in Broadwick Street that “greatest doctor of all time” John Snow uncovered a cholera outbreak in London.  He realised that infected water was coming out of the water mains in 1854, supporting his theory that the disease was not airbourne, but entered the body through the mouth.  He had the handle of the offending pump removed, and cases of the epidemic reportedly began to diminish.
    • Great Marlborough Street has had several famous residents in its time.  Marlboro cigarettes are so named because their original factory was located here.  Romantic poet Percy Bysse Shelley and Frank Litz, both resided at number 18 in the 19th Century.  Today, “Le Pain Quotidien” restaurant and fashion store “Uth” can be found on the ground floor of this building.  More temporary residents of Great Marlborough Street include Oscar Wilde, Francis Bacon and Johnny Rotten, who were both tried at the Magistrate’s Court at Nos 19-21

    Great Marlborough Street today by flierfly on flickr

    • Have you visited the Soho swimming pool?  The Marshall Street Baths were built in 1931 to promote the health and wellbeing of the people, with two sets of swimming pools – one each for the upper and lower classes.  Situated between Carnaby Street and Poland Street, the baths were drained and closed ten years ago, but in late 2005, a collective from the Corridor Theatre produced a site-specific work that led visitors through the empty baths, and asked them to imagine “fragments of memories of past Soho and The Marshall Street Baths in the newly revealed mahogany walled clinic”.  Plans for a facelift have been proposed.
    • We are all aware of the Carnaby Street as Fashion, and Carnaby Street as a representation of Englishness.  Perhaps the most (stereotypically) English builiding on the street is number 43, which currently houses a branch of the Whittard Tea Shops.  In the 1960s, miniskirt pioneer Mary Quant ran her studio from a room on the first floor of this building – and Carnaby has not looked back since.
    • Reflecting the influence of Carnaby Street and Soho on music and pop culture in the Sixties, several songs have been written about the area.  Most notably “Carnaby Street” by The Jam, “Seedy Films” by Soft Cell, “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” by The Kinks”, and the John Willet translation of  Bertolt Brecht’s “Mack the Knife”.
    • The shop deemed responsible for kick-starting the “Swinging Sixties” fashion era was not located on Carnaby Street, but Beak Street, where John Stephens, a grocer’s son from Glasgow, opened “His Clothes” in 1957
    • Carnaby Street used to have bright orange tarmac.

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