Over the last few years, I’ve been looking into the history of the Soho coffee bar – a fascinating phenomenon in its own right. This post is adapted from one that I’ve written for Soho Tree, and here I’ve combined stories from two circles of people who frequented Soho at that time – the aspiring musicians, including the renowned folk singer Peggy Seeger, who I interviewed earlier this year, and the ‘seekers’ who became members of a Cabbala group, studying the mystical Tree of Life.
Soho in the Fifties
While most of Britain struggled through the dreary post-war years in the 1950s, Soho was a fermenting cauldron, a pageant of unusual characters, exotic food stores and exciting new art and music.
‘The fifties were a time of austerity, of punitive conventions, of a grey uniformity….Soho was the only area in London where the rules didn’t apply,’ (George Melly, critic and musician).
The cafes of the 1950s helped to define Soho itself. Tucked into the very heart of London, Soho had already been a melting pot of nationalities and cultures for a hundred years or more. But the arrival of the espresso bars there in the 1950s opened up a whole new phase of possibilities for meeting up, making music, and finding soulmates and allies.
In keeping with various other Soho memoirs, I’m stretching the geographical boundaries a little. The café habitués of the time didn’t draw a hard line where Soho officially ended: people spilled across the Strand towards Charing Cross and up towards Covent Garden market when staking out their favourite haunts.
Music and Cabbala
Folksinger Peggy Seeger recalls fondly: ‘It was my playground. You could meet people there, get to know them in the street.’ In the 1950s, Peggy was a young woman who had recently arrived from America, a member of a prominent musical family – her brother was Pete Seeger – and was now in both a relationship and a performing duo with the Scottish folk singer Ewan McColl.
Peggy’s route through Soho took her mainly into the music clubs of the day, and the coffee bars which offered music. The Cabbala group, on the other hand, met primarily in cafes where you could focus on long discussions, while spinning out a cup of coffee. Although several members of this group were themselves musicians, and there was plenty of overlap between the two circles, you needed a somewhat quieter environment to tackle ‘the big questions’ of life. These were informal gatherings, the gateway to more intense, private group meetings for those who were interested in taking it further.
The Coffee revolution
Coffee was a prime mover in the Soho scene. Its influence began in the early ‘50s, when an Italian dentist came to the UK to sell revolutionary Gaggia coffee machines:
‘The coffee bar and espresso culture of the fifties…began in Soho, partly because of the large Italian community, and partly because Gaggia had their first British premises in Dean Street. Achille Gaggia invented the espresso machine…in Milan in 1946. Pino Riservato, an Italian dental technician, set up Riservato and Partners to import the machines to England, and in 1953 got Gina Lollobrigida to open the Moka Bar at 29 Frith Street, England’s first coffee bar, to show off his wares….’
Mr Gaggia’s shining machines transformed many traditional ‘caffs’ and Italian ‘greasy spoons’, which cut the grease and stodge from their menus and acquired a set of toughened glass cups and saucers (which not only looked modern, but also made sure that drinks soon got cold, discouraging those who wanted to linger all night over a single cup).
(Up West: Voices from the Streets of Post-War London, Pip Granger)
This was probably the first taste of decent real coffee that anyone had enjoyed in the UK
The Soho Crowd
For many, entering the Soho scene was primarily a chance to break free of stuffy rules and live on the wild side. Some had run away from home to be there, or it was their first taste of freedom after National Service, or an escape from a tedious job in a dull post-war town. It offered both the opportunity to seek out those who shared your interests, and also the chance to mix more widely with a fascinating variety of people, of all artistic, philosophical and sexual persuasions.
‘Soho was a wonderful mix of artists, writers, sculptors, many of whom had studios nearby,’ Peggy told me. ‘It was also sleazy – the prostitutes would stand in doorways, the phone booths were full of cards, which were often rather ‘poetic’ in their descriptions of what they offered. I would often go in and take the cards down!’ (Peggy was, and still is, a passionate feminist.)
Even when you had found your crowd, or your tribe, there was scope for making new friendships through a common interest in music; live rock and roll, skiffle, folk and blues were a key feature of many Soho coffee bars. Often a performing space was kept free for this, even though a band might have to squeeze in tightly!
The Coffee Bar Scene
To set the scene for the Soho coffee bars, here is an extract from an internet memoir by ‘Goosey Anne’, (real name unknown):
I was living and working in London in the early 1950s and most of my leisure time was spent in the newly-opened coffee houses in and around Soho. These were the haunt of the bohemians – artists, writers, resting actors, musicians and characters closely followed by students, nurses and people like me who had a good day job but enjoyed their company in the evenings. It was a mainly harmless pursuit – we would meet at one given coffee bar and during the course of the evening make our way onto a couple of others. The new Gaggia coffee machines were installed in most of the places – huge, glistening chrome affairs that hissed steam into the air to mingle with the cigarette smoke, for nearly everyone smoked and the atmosphere was pretty fetid. Coffee cost 9d (old pence) and usually we would all make one cup each last all evening.
We would sit and talk and talk and talk – putting the world to rights. No drugs ever came my way and indeed had that happened I would have refused. I only knew two of the circle who took drugs – we actually felt sorry for them. Most evenings someone would bring a guitar along and another person bongo drums and a sing-song of mainly Folk Songs would begin. One particular coffee bar – The Gyre & Gimble had a resident guitarist – Dorian – who would play softly in the background and compose witty ditties about the customers which he would almost speak in his educated drawl as he played. In one place – Bunjies – one of our group composed a song which went something like this:
‘Sitting in Bunjies my heart began to throb – for one cappuccino would set me back a bob. And for a sandwich I’d have to sell my soul – for six weeks I’ve saved up to buy
The owner didn`t like that tune much and would threaten to throw us out. But it was mainly Folk Music with the odd Rugby song thrown in if the University students were about.’
Why Coffee Bars?
One of the great advantages which coffee bars had over pubs – apart from serving good coffee! – is that they could stay open later, as they weren’t subject to licensing laws. And anyone could go into a café, whereas there was a minimum age of 18 for drinking in pubs, and women often felt intimidated going into male-dominated pubs at the time. It also chimed in with the birth of the teenager, the time when this age group began to have opinions, fashions and music of its own. ‘The colourful informality of trattorias and the all-important coffee bars made Soho the Mecca of the newly discovered teenager.’ (Pip Granger)
The ‘50s coffee bars were not just a teenage haunt, however – members of the Cabbala Group were mostly in their mid to late twenties, for instance – and they appealed to a very wide cross-section of clientele, from shoppers and beatniks, to office workers and film crew. Cinematographer Walter Lassally, for instance, whose story you can read here, found his way into this circle because he had to be in Soho on film business – most of the film companies had offices there.
No doubt the vices of Soho were feared by parents of teenage children, and by those who never dared to set foot in such a disreputable area. But, as Goosey-Anne says, drugs were not often on the agenda, and those who preferred strong drink chose the pubs instead. In fact, according to the film ‘Beat Girl’, the message among the teens themselves was that ‘drinking is for squares!’ (Beat Girl starred Adam Faith, the soon-to-be pop star, and its cinematographer was Walter Lassally.) The clip below features the theme tune by John Barry and shows the opening sequence, with a very young Oliver Reed jiving in a plaid shirt.
‘Nothing was really policed in Soho though – it wasn’t at all dangerous. And the prostitutes were cheerful – I had a lot of respect for them,’ Peggy told me. Keith Barnes, a ‘Group’ member, recollects that two of the ‘ladies of the streets’ once bought him a meal when he had no money to eat.
Opening a Coffee Bar
Property was cheap to rent in Soho in the post-war period, so opening a coffee bar was a great little start-up business. In 1956, the humorous magazine Punch declared: ‘We have reached the stage where virtually the entire population of these islands goes in hourly danger of opening a coffee-bar.’
Tony Hancock, one of Britain’s best-loved comedians, took this further. In one of his sketches, he and his mate cast around for a scheme which will make them a bit of money:
Hancocks Halfhour – The Espresso Bar (1956)
Tony: ‘When actors are not working, where do they hang around?…We are going to provide them with such a place! We are going to open an Espresso Coffee Bar!‘
Mate: ‘Oh no! We’re not the type’
Tony: ‘No, but we can soon remedy that. Buy a couple of duffle coats, a pair of corduroys, rope sandals, grow our hair long – we’ll be a sensation!’
Mate: ‘You don’t only get the layabouts in, you know. You get the youngsters, and the intellectual bohemians.’
Tony: ‘Intellectual bohemians – I’ve watched ‘em. They’re all broke. They don’t buy anything.’
Mate: ‘No, but the people who come in to look at them do!’
So the coffee bar crowd not only drew the beatniks and the intellectuals, but also generated its own kind of tourist trade. Hancock goes on to envisage how the Guards officers would bring their debutante girlfriends to gawp and giggle, on a racy night out on the town!
Choosing the Image
Creating the right image for your coffee bar was of prime importance. A funky name went down well – perhaps something Italian or Spanish like Il Toro, or arty like The Picasso, or musical like Freight Train, or melodramatic like Heaven and Hell. (All these were successful Soho cafes.) Décor was important, but could be done cheaply. Popular finishes were murals (plenty of young hopeful artists to paint them for next to nothing), brick-patterned wallpaper– or just the real thing, bare bricks. Bamboo furniture and plastic tables were inexpensive, and imaginative recycled lighting helped to create atmosphere. Some cafes went further. As one blog comment put it: ‘At Le Macabre you could have your coffee on a coffin in a cobweb festooned house of horrors, wearing sunglasses at night whilst having earnest discussions about the difference between Jean Paul Sartre and Dizzy Gillespie.’
Affirming your identity
Choosing your coffee bars went along with choosing your circle and affirming your identity. Keith Barnes, a core member of the early Cabbala Group, recalled that there were different circles in Soho. He was, as he put it, at the bottom in the beat circle, wearing his duffle coat and a sweater, and sporting a dirty beard. The musicians, he said, were a rung higher up the ladder as they were paid for what they did.
The Musicians of Soho
Keith himself played in the musicians’ cafes, and a number of his friends in the Cabbala Group did likewise – group leader Alan Bain busked with his piano accordion, and another group member called Fritz Felstone was in demand for his banjo playing, for instance. Because Soho overlapped with the theatres and cinemas of the Leicester Square area, there were plenty of queues outside these for the musicians to serenade. And the Musician’s Union had its offices nearby, where jobbing musicians could pick up work, perhaps in nightclubs or for session recordings. Soho was the nucleus of the music industry at the time, giving birth to British skiffle and rock and roll, and so it’s perhaps no coincidence that one of the prime musicians’ cafes was called the Nucleus, generally known as ‘the Nuke’. ‘The 2 Gs’, in John Adam Street was another, and a favourite of the Group. Its full name was the Gyre and Gimble, but according to Keith, ‘only the tourists called it that’.
Goosey Anne recounts: ‘Of course this music played in the coffee houses was the beginning of the Skiffle and later Rock `n Roll era which I just missed. Apparently Tommy Steele used to come into the Gyre & Gimble and play his guitar rather tunelessly and people would ask him to stop! ‘
She is not the only one to refer to Tommy Steele’s first and rather awful efforts – one account witnesses somebody hitting Tommy to try and shut him up. But, like Tommy Steele (born Thomas Hicks – recently knighted as Sir Thomas Hicks!) a number of other musicians began their rise to fame from these early sessions in the clubs and cafes of the Soho area – Seeger and McColl, Diz Disley, Red Sullivan and Wiz Jones, for instance, along with members of the future Incredible String Band. A couple of years ago, when Rod Thorn (my co-author of Soho Tree) and I visited the Mexican basement café which once housed the 2 Gs, the waiter we encountered was astonished to learn that it had once been a famous café, where Tommy Steele had played!
Peggy Seeger’s musical relationship with Soho evolved too, and in the 1960s she and Ewan were principle members of The Ballad and Blues Club, near Soho Square. No doubt today’s Health and Safety would have clamped down: ‘It was an absolute fire trap,’ she told me. ‘The room was on the third floor with stairs so narrow that they had to have ‘going up’ times and ‘going down’ times. It was like climbing to the top of Notre Dame! And the room was only very small, and always crowded. The stage was next to the one tiny toilet.’
The name you were known by
Nicknames were de rigeur, especially for musicians. Keith Barnes was known primarily as ‘Peanuts’, and Fritz was really called Brian. Alan Bain’s brother, Bob Bain, adds: ‘I recall Mum (desiring to speak with her “Bohemian” son) taking me to where he might be found which was probably Gyre and Gimble but when asking for Alan Bain there was seemingly a look of ‘Who?” followed by “Oh, you mean Max!“’
Did this habit have its roots in the jazz culture? A Wikipedia article takes it very seriously: ‘Nicknames are common among jazz musicians…Some of the most notable nicknames and stage names are listed here.’ There follows a list of well over one hundred names, including 16 musicians who chose to call themselves ‘Red’.
The gatherings of the Cabbala Group took place chiefly near Charing Cross, in the ‘2 Gs’ (Gyre and Gimble) in John Adam Street, the Cross, and the Florence in nearby Villiers St, with Lyons Corner House on the Strand playing a part too. It was possible to eat cheaply in some of them as well – getting a filling bowl of stew or pasta was essential. Few members were earning much, if anything. As member Lionel Bowen writes: ‘I spent a lot of time in the ‘Gyre and Gimble’ coffee house on John Adam Street close to Trafalgar Square. We drank espresso, played bad guitar and sang (poorly) folk songs. The elder members of the Group hung out there, I think, on the lookout for likely recruits.’
A couple of members even lived on the premises – although rents were cheap at the time, it wasn’t always easy finding affordable accommodation, so keeping body and soul together took ingenuity. Group leader Alan Bain, who sold books, and member Norman Martin, a jeweller, rented an ‘office’ upstairs in the same building as the 2 Gs. However, they also used to sleep there; by day, the bedding was rolled away to hide the evidence of their overnight stays. But, Norman said, the landlord eventually twigged what was going on, and threw them out!
Another popular café was ‘Micks’ on Fleet Street. Although this wasn’t so much of a meeting place for the group, it was a welcome resource for all-night cheap eats, and was often frequented by Keith Barnes and Glyn Davies, another of the group’s leaders, after they’d put in long hours on menial jobs, such as washing up in hotels, in order to pay the rent. They weren’t the only ones earning a pound or two where they could. ‘You would often see quite famous musicians bombing along there in Ford vans driving at 70mph delivering newspapers – they took on these jobs because they couldn’t earn enough from their music.’
A former police officer, interviewed for ‘Spitalfields Life’, remembers it well from slightly later, in 1972:
‘Micks Cafe in Fleet St never had an apostrophe on the sign or acute accent on the ‘e.’ It was a cramped greasy spoon that opened twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. During the night and early morning it served print-workers, drunks returning from the West End and the occasional vagrant. Generally, we police did not use it. We might have been unwelcome because we would have stood out like a sore thumb. But I did observation in there in plain clothes sometimes. Micks Cafe was a place where virtually anything could be sourced, especially at night when nowhere else was open.’
Recollections of the café also pop up in Fleet Street memoirs:
‘Working through the night was thirsty work and John recalled how the ink-stained printers would rub shoulders with the ‘toffs’ on their way back from London nightlife, in a “Mick’s Café”, as part of the Fleet Street tradition.‘
And for messenger boys, a special task awaited them at Micks: ‘First job at 8.00am was to go to Westminster Press and collect the day’s national papers, these were then checked for previous day’s publications, then came the most important job of the day, this was taking a large silver teapot down to Micks Cafe in Fleet Street and getting it filled with tea and also ordering toast for the Darkroom and Bench staff.‘ A Day In The Life Of A Fleet Street Photo Press Agency -1960’s
Micks, though not strictly speaking part of the Soho scene, had the same mix of working people, musicians, eccentrics and high society. It also has a very special claim to fame as the all-night café featured in ‘The Streets of London’, by Ralph McTell. (This YouTube version has a fine set of photos and street scenes accompanying the song.)
Other circles with esoteric interests met in the Soho coffee bars. As well as the Cabbala group I’ve come across mentions of a Mithraic order, Druids, and magical groups, and there was also a widespread interest in astrology. ‘Sun sign’ newspaper columns had appeared since the 1930s, and people were keen to know more about their horoscopes. Ernest Page, a homeless, eccentric and very accomplished astrologer, was usually to be found somewhere in Soho, where he read horoscopes for a modest sum, as well as generously instructing those who wanted to learn the art of astrology for themselves. He is recalled by various other Soho seekers of the era, as in this discussion forum:
‘I well remember Ernest, the elderly astrologer (well, I was early 20s) giving me a reading for the price of a coffee or two!‘
‘The astrologer was named Ernie Page an ex postman. Long grey hair, hunched shoulders and carrying a small suitcase with his astrology charts. He used to prefer Sam Widges’ Coffee bar to the 2Gs. He often kept company with a ladyboy prostitute called Angel.‘
Angel is featured in Pip Granger’s book Up West, as a transexual who braved the general intolerance of the times: ‘We were easygoing. We were an odd society of people, and when you say we were bohemians, in a way we were, and we were very broad-minded, so…Angel came down to my coffee bar a lot.’ (Interview with Soho dweller ‘Gary’.)
In the photo below, extracted from a short video on Soho Coffee Bars, Ernest discusses astrology with other key Cabbala group teachers Glyn Davies and Tony Potter. Their colleague Alan Bain acknowledges what an excellent teacher he was.
By the mid-1960s, the Soho café culture was waning. I was keen to visit it as a teenager, however, on the rare occasions I was allowed to stay in London for a few days, as somehow its reputation had trickled through to Birmingham where I was at school. I remember seeking out ‘Les Cousins’, a famous café and music club. I was a keen folk singer and had brought my guitar, and sang a few songs to a very small cluster of people. Indeed, I wondered where the action was – but was quite glad there wasn’t more of an audience, as I forgot the words to one of my songs!
Soho in the 50s is a world I relish reading and hearing about – perhaps because it was the party that I just missed.
The London Coffee Bar of the 1950s – Teenage occupation of an amateur space?, Dr Matthew Partington, (conference paper 2009, available to read or download on line)
Soho in the Fifties – Daniel Farson (Michael Joseph, 1987)
Up West: Voices from the Streets of Post-War London– Pip Granger (Corgi, 2009)
The Surrender of Silence – The Memoirs of Ironfoot Jack, ed. Colin Stanley (Strange Attractor Press, 2018)
A complete and remastered version of ‘Beat Girl‘ (starring Adam Faith, filmed by Walter Lassally) can be found on Prime Video