LONDON HAS BECOME such a diverse and cosmopolitan city that it’s hard to believe just fifty years ago if you wanted a decent cup of coffee in a bohemian setting you would have found it quite difficult unless you ended up in Soho. For that was perhaps the only area in London where, according to the free-spirited jazz singer, George Melly, the rules didn’t apply; Soho was an urban sanctuary where tolerance was the password and bad behaviour redefined.
Bounded by the busy thoroughfares of Regent Street, Charing Cross and Oxford Street, a little island in the midst of metropolitan madness less than a square mile in size, Soho had long been a centre of London’s creative life. William Blake lived there in the 1780s, Karl Marx in the 1850s and Rimbaud wreaked havoc there with the besotted Verlaine in the early 1870s. Just to the east, in St. Martin’s Lane, Hogarth once held court at Old Slaughter’s Coffeehouse, and to the west on Regent Street, the Café Royal gave refuge to thirsty Communards drinking cheap brew from leftover grinds while on the floor above, displaced gentry drank their coffee laced with cream.
It’s little wonder then that the first outcrop of post-war coffee cafés sprang up in Soho where a large group of Italians had settled. The coffee bar boom in Britain began in the early 1950s with the opening of the Café Moka at 29 Frith Street, publicised by a young and quite bemused Italian actress named Gina Lollobrigida, at the behest of an Italian trade delegation anxious to make up for time lost during the war through the export of their most glamorous creations - movie stars and espresso machines.
By the 1960s, London coffee bars were all the rage with over 2,000 in and around Soho and London’s West End catering to a new generation of youth and providing an alternative space for artists, writers and musicians along with their wide-eyed followers – the denizens of London’s new, emerging bohemia.
To get a flavour of what it was like back then, see the documentary below on London coffee bars produced by the Special Features Division of the Rank Organisation in the early 1960s as part of their ‘Look at Life’ series. The narration is something to be endured but it’s definitely a trip worth taking – if you don’t mind the mawkishness of an out-of-sync time machine. >>>