Country lanes, princes, gold and Chinatown | The story behind No.9 Wardour Street
Have you spotted the old lettering reading ‘Exchange and Bullion Office’ on this Georgian terrace?
Without a doubt, Wardour Street is one of the busiest roads in the West End. Stretching the length of Soho and bordered by Chinatown, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Street, it means the street attracts a lot of traffic – both vehicle and pedestrian. Most Londoners and tourists will have passed down Wardour Street at some point in their commute to work, sightsee or socialise. However, with the road so busy, how often do you have time to stop and look up at the buildings around you?
Wardour Street is home to a wide range of architecture from the 1700s to present day – such as the W Hotel. The road itself has been named various things over the centuries and has been visible on maps since the Elizabethan times. In the late 16th century, it was named Colmanhedge Lane, which was then a popular route across the fields of the Burton Saint Lazar lands. The lane linked the Charing Cross area to the main road we now know as Oxford Street, which was simply described as ‘the Way from Vxbridge to London’. Old maps of what is now known as Soho shows the lane follows the current Wardour Street nearly exactly, including the slight bends at Old Compton Street and Brewer Street.
Following the Restoration in 1660, the land at the southern end of Wardour Street was leased by Queen Henrietta Maria (1609-1699) to Henry Jermyn, Earl of St. Albans (1605-1684). By 1676, her son King Charles II (1630-1685) granted the freehold of the three and half acre plot to the Earl, who swiftly disposed of the land to builders, who erected buildings by 1681-2. On a 1682 map, what we now know as Wardour Street were actually three different roads – So Ho in the north, Whitcomb Street in the middle and the abbreviated Hedge Lane had remained for the southern end. However, within three years, the portion of the road between Coventry Street and Brewer Street was renamed again as Princes Street after Prince Rupert (1619-1682), while the upper part near Oxford Street was renamed Wardour Street after the landowner at the time Sir Edward Wardour (d.1694). It was during the 17th century that Soho was really transformed from fields into a residential and business district. By 1687, the properties on Princes St were owned by Sir Anthony Deane, who sold them to Richard Bourne. By the 1720s and 1730s, many of the buildings on Princes Street were of poor quality and were torn down and rebuilt by Bourne’s family.
This is where we come to the history of one particular building which caught my eye when visiting the W Hotel bar. Directly across the road is No.9 Wardour Street, a three-storey Georgian terrace with distinctive period signage on the façade. On 10 November 1725, George Bourne of Enfield (some relation to Richard Bourne we can assume) leased the site of No. 59-61 Princes Street (now No.7-11 Wardour Street) to watchmaker Henry Parsons for 42 1/2 years. In 1726, the two houses on the site were demolished and were replaced with three new ones in 1727. No.7 and 9 are identical terraces made of brown and red brick with slate dormered mansard roofs and sash windows. No.9 features a stone panel between the 1st and 2nd floor with ‘Exchange and Bullion Office’ in raised letters. Situated between the windows on the 1st and 2nd floor respectively are ‘1798’ and ‘No.9’ in white lettering. However, as the building was known as No.60 Prince Street until the late 19th century, it isn’t clear how old the No.9 lettering is.
The first person to live at No.9 was a Richard Mulford. However, it wasn’t until a few decades later that the signage we see today was placed there by Benjamin Smart (1755/6-1833), a goldsmith and dealer in bullion – the wholesale trading of gold and silver. In the 17th and 18th century, gold replaced silver as the main circulation for coins and England became the centre of the world marketplace for gold. Smart is mentioned in the May 1811 issue of the Quarterly Review, Vol 5 after writing to the House Of Commons, demanding politicians pay urgent attention to the state of British coinage. He requested that ‘a new, prompt and efficacious remedy is proposed for its defects’. His address at the time was marked as 65 Princes Street. When Smart died aged 77 on 18 June 1833, his obituary was published in The Gentleman’s Magazine. He was survived by three children, with his youngest son taking over the family business. In the 1861 census, a Edmund H Smart, aged 37, was living at the address with his profession listed as a gold refiner who was employing two men. By 1871, he was joined by a wife Fanny and three children.
By 1878, the name Princes Street was abolished and the whole 0.4 mile road between Oxford and Coventry Streets became known as Wardour Street, with the houses renumbered to what you see today. In 19th century, the road was renowned for its furniture and art supply stores and antique dealers. Famously, acclaimed furniture designer Thomas Sheraton (1751-1806) lived and worked in Soho, with a blue plaque on his former home at 163 Wardour Street. The road appears briefly in Chapter 4 of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel The Picture Of Dorian Gray, when Dorian’s hedonistic aristocrat friend Henry Wotton blames his tardiness on haggling for a brocade at a tailors on Wardour Street. By 1881, the Smart family appear to have moved on and James (b.1845) and Kate Walden lived at No.9. James’ profession is listed as Assistant to a Bullion Dealer.
When social reformer Charles Booth (1840-1916) studied the area for his poverty map in 1898, the section covering No.9 Wardour Street was described as ‘fairly comfortable, good ordinary earnings’. He remarked on the south side near Leicester St were many tailors and ironmongers. Further north up the road, deeper into Soho, the houses were ‘mixed – some comfortable, some poor’. He noted the area was populated by ‘many foreigners’ and ‘French chefs and jewellery men’. The 1911 census shows Wardour Street was home to many immigrants, including Russian, Italian and Swiss. Two such immigrants were American Wilbert Howard and his wife Minnie, who lived at No.9 in 1911. Wilbert’s career is listed as ‘Private Entertainer’. By the 1920s, the Chaffeurs’ Service Bureau were operating out of the building.
Today, Soho’s residential population has decreased significantly from the 18th and 19th century, with a majority of the buildings used by businesses. It looks like No.9 sustained some damage during World War II, as an image taken in 1945 shows the facade’s brick work exposed with plaster and the first floor windows missing. No.9 and its adjacent twin No.7 were Grade II listed by Historic England in 1974 when the shop was home to ‘Harry Wilson Turf Accountants’. (click here to see an image of No.9 that same year). Around the same time, Chinatown began to spring up in the area – having previously been in East London – and began taking over premises on Wardour Street. Throughout the 20th century, No.9 has been home to various businesses, including the Salt-Beer Eater café, the Nippon and Korea Centre. It is currently a Pan-Asian bakery, Bake, while No.7 is a Chinese medicine store.
- 9 Wardour Street, Soho, W1D 6PF. Nearest station: Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square.
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