Descending the ad-flanked escalators at Tottenham Court Road, you might hear a lonely fanfare rise from the bottom. The lament is not the Last Post, but the theme from the Flintstones. It’s played not on a brass instrument, but a humble traffic cone. This is one of the inventive ways some Soho souls pass the time and gather shrapnel to help the day along.
London is a cruel master to those fallen on hard times. As Dickens put it, “Many hunger-worn outcasts close their eyes in our bare streets at such times, who… can hardly open them in a more bitter world.” You needn’t scour too deep, though to find nooks of refuge. Take the House of St Barnabas. It’s a salubrious-looking place, all smart Georgian brickwork on the outside, rococo plasterwork on the inside. But venture to the Soho Square corner of the building and find a small chute that travels through the railings. At the top is a coin slot; this ‘penny chute’ has been accepting small change for charitable causes for over a century.
The house has been doing good since the mid-1800s, offering itself as a sanctuary to young families threatened by the workhouse, Australian emigrants-in-waiting, and plenty of others. It’s thought Dickens himself put the house, and its plane tree-rustling courtyard, into A Tale of Two Cities. It’s since flourished into a members’ club with a conscience: the party in Soho might never wind down, but that doesn’t mean its moral compass is smashed.
For years, the streets of Soho were graced by Pamela Jennings, or Soho Pam. Described as “short, stooped, with owlish glasses”, Pam was known for her uncanny knack of persuading people to part with cash, so she could get a cup of tea, a packet of fags and a bed for the night. The rest often went to William Hill – although Soho Pam would pay you back if she could. The stories are countless and filled with good humour. The Guardian tells how she was once arrested for selling on travelcards and wound up having the police buy her breakfast. Suggs was so enamoured by her charm, and the way she asked for cuddles, he penned the Madness song, Pam the Hawk, about her. Her legend is writ large in Soho, as big as any club or coffee house.
The only person in Soho said to be immune to Pam’s charms was Norman Balon, the waspish landlord of the Coach & Horses. She had more luck with Balon’s successor, who invited Pam to his wedding. When she died, her wake was held at the pub, people spilling out onto the street. Balon would have been livid.
There are a million more impossible nights to be spent on the streets of Soho. But so long as there are places like the House of St Barnabas, and beloved characters like Soho Pam, then Soho’s conscience can burn bright as its neon streets.