Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The House of St. Barnabas, Soho - A Visit

I had the pleasure today of a personal tour round the House of St. Barnabas, Soho, a large Georgian house on the corner of Greek Street. The house dates to the 1740s, with its interior, replete with extravagant Rococo plasterwork, completed in 1754, built for highly prosperous slave-owners, the Beckford family. It has Grade 1 listing, which means, apparently, that even the noticeboard outside cannot be amended with a new telephone number, without the approval of Westminster City Council. It is, I suspect, rather hard work to run a Grade 1 listed building. On top of that, those of you familiar with Soho will know that the square is immediately adjacent to the Crossrail station being built at Tottenham Court Road. 'Is the actual station directly below the house?' I asked, foolishly. 'Yes,' said Peter Bignell, who showed me around, 'it's the size of four football pitches'. Consequently, a theodolite is carefully placed, a couple of storeys up, on the other side of Soho Square, trained on the building. If the house moves during the night - as old buildings often do, even without the excuse of a railway station appearing directly beneath them - the good people at Crossrail will get to hear about it.
    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.
     There ought to have been a tranquil bark in such an anchorage, and there was. The Doctor occupied two floors of a large stiff house, where several callings purported to be pursued by day, but whereof little was audible any day, and which was shunned by all of them at night. In a building at the back, attainable by a courtyard where a plane-tree rustled its green leaves, church-organs claimed to be made, and silver to be chased, and likewise gold to be beaten by some mysterious giant who had a golden arm starting out of the wall of the front hall—as if he had beaten himself precious, and menaced a similar conversion of all visitors. Very little of these trades, or of a lonely lodger rumoured to live up-stairs, or of a dim coach-trimming maker asserted to have a counting-house below, was ever heard or seen. Occasionally, a stray workman putting his coat on, traversed the hall, or a stranger peered about there, or a distant clink was heard across the courtyard, or a thump from the golden giant. These, however, were only the exceptions required to prove the rule that the sparrows in the plane-tree behind the house, and the echoes in the corner before it, had their own way from Sunday morning unto Saturday night.


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.


  1. Isn't it open for Open House weekend? I seem to remember going along a few years ago, but it had closed early because of lack of supervisors.

  2. Yes, pretty sure they do Open House, true. But they are keen to get the word out about hiring the house - it's the homeless charity's main source of income.

  3. The chapel is lovely. I went to a play readthrough in there - special and atmospheric.

  4. I worked there about 20 years ago. It was then a hostel for homeless women, don't know if it still is. But undoubtedly a magnificent building, despite some modifications.

  5. Not a hostel any longer, as I think it was decided the accommodation wasn't suitable. The same charity still runs the house, however, and uses it to fund work trying to get homeless people back into employment.

  6. Just stumbled across this article purely by chance. I was also lucky enough to spend a couple of days working in this building a year or so ago so I thought I'd give it a read. It really is a fantastic building and chapel, and contains some great artwork too. Had no idea about the Bazalgette connection though, that's made it a bit more special, thanks!

  7. My Nan used to be the manager of the hostel and as kids we had some brilliant holidays there! Probably not as much fun for the residents, listening to us running up and down the stairs at top speed!!