You may wonder what I am doing nosying around a Georgian property. The answer is twofold: first, in the Victoria era, this was the headquarters of the Metropolitan Board of Works until 1862. Hence, it was here that Joseph Bazalgette first laid out his plans for his new system of sewers and the Thames Embankment, amongst other things - and I got to see the room which was his office. Second, it is widely assumed that this was the model for Dr. Manette's house in A Tale of Two Cities. Here's the passage:
A quainter corner than the corner where the Doctor lived, was not to be found in London. There was no way through it, and the front windows of the Doctor's lodgings commanded a pleasant little vista of street that had a congenial air of retirement on it. There were few buildings then, north of the Oxford-road, and forest-trees flourished, and wild flowers grew, and the hawthorn blossomed, in the now vanished fields. As a consequence, country airs circulated in Soho with vigorous freedom, instead of languishing into the parish like stray paupers without a settlement; and there was many a good south wall, not far off, on which the peaches ripened in their season.
The summer light struck into the corner brilliantly in the earlier part of the day; but, when the streets grew hot, the corner was in shadow, though not in shadow so remote but that you could see beyond it into a glare of brightness. It was a cool spot, staid but cheerful, a wonderful place for echoes, and a very harbour from the raging streets.
Dickens was, of course, writing an historical novel and we don't have to assume he had just one house in mind; but certainly the garden of the house, together with its surviving plane trees is a good fit - there are few gardens of any kind in the area. Likewise, No.2 Rose Street used to have this old sign on its wall (the 'golden arm starting out of the wall' above), now replaced with a replica version. For this reason, Rose Street was renamed Manette Street, after Dickens's character, by London County Council in 1895 (nb. it is the road which runs alongside the Pillars of Hercules pub). This was the main reason for my visit: I am currently writing a walking guide to Dickens's London, so it was great to have a look round.
What happened after MBW left? In 1862 the house was bought by 'The House of Charity', established by Dr. Henry Monro, a doctor from Bethlem Hospital. He also campaigned vigorously for the improvement of the conditions of the insane, but the 'House of Charity' was essentially a shelter for the destitute 'deserving' poor, men who had lost their jobs and had no money to pay for lodgings for themselves or their dependents. It provided accommodation for entire families; and, as with most Victorian charities, preached the gospel at the same time, in this case Anglo-Catholic 'Tractarianism' (don't ask me to explain the differences between the Victorians' viciously sectarian religious affiliations; I have not a clue). For this purpose, a remarkable compact Romanesque chapel was built in the garden (and can be glimpsed from Manette Street).
The house has been owned by the Charity ever since 1862. Now the organisation focuses on getting the homeless into employment through a range of Life Skills Programmes. Can you get to see this remarkable building, with 250 years of Soho history trapped inside? There are no fixed tours, but it is available for hire - for corporate events, wedding receptions and parties. This is the charity's principal source of income, so if you're looking for somewhere exciting to entertain folk in Soho, there can't be many better ways of spending your money. Here's the charity's website, if you want to give them a ring.