Soho, long the beating heart of London’s nightlife, has transformed itself from the center of the capital’s sex industry into a district of boutiques and unique bars, theaters and restaurants.
Fifty years of transformation are captured in a series of photographs from MailOnline, which show how the streets once bustling with sex shops and around 60 strip clubs are now a busy beacon of varied entertainment and tourist attractions.
With just over 90 streets spread over a little over a square mile in the West End, it only takes a few minutes to peruse, and Soho is teeming with Instagram hotspots.
But while some streets have changed significantly over the past six decades, others remain almost indistinguishable – with independent shops being replaced by international chains.
In the 1960s, Soho teemed with petty criminals who toiled in the streets and was a center of the British underworld, with crime and prostitution at the forefront.
Christmas lights on Carnaby Street in December 1967 compared to the same view on the same street now pedestrianized
Shoppers and market traders at Berwick Street Market in Soho look down Peter Street in 1961 along the modern view
General view of the Shaftesbury Theatre, a West End theater on Shaftesbury Avenue, in March 1963. It still looks much the same today
A Greek Street sex shop called “Sandra East Xboutique” advertised a line of items in 1972. The shop is now a restaurant
Customers gather around York Minster, now known as The French House, bar at 49 Dean Street, now The French House Pub
The scene in Old Compton Street, Soho, London in 1966 compared to how it looks today – with one shop closed and covered in graffiti
The public walk down Carnaby Street in Soho, which is now home to Swatch, Cooper and Ray Ban stores. The street has also been made car-free
There’s an ‘over 18s only’ cinema on Soho Street and Brewer Street, now it’s a Prowler – the flagship store of Britain’s biggest gay lifestyle supermarket
The Golden Lion Pub in Romilly Street, Soho has been refurbished and now looks much more modern. The street also became a one-way street
Soho’s Revue Bar advertises itself as “the world’s sexiest entertainment live on stage”. But now it stands empty, although an adult store in the same alley remains open
A bar on the corner of Brewer Street and Wardour Street in Soho advertises a “lively nude bed erotica show” compared to the modern image in 1987
A “peep show” promoting “beautiful young girls” and a “male and female duo” in Wardour Street, Soho, November 1987
Following a £1 million refurbishment in 2019, it now houses the Soho Residence, a Regency-style bar and cellar club. So-called Boris Bikes have also been added outside
At that time there were over 100 strip clubs in London, 60 of them in Soho.
But apart from the ugly side of nightlife, Soho has also played an important role in the global music scene.
The term “Beatlemania” is said to have been coined after a Beatles performance at the London Palladium in October 1963, while Jimi Hendrix recorded his first album at 31 Whitfield Street in December 1966.
In the 1970s, Soho’s many strip clubs began to decline, but it was not until the following decade that the process of gentrification began.
Hedonism became the destination for Soho’s revelers in the 1980s, when musicians, fashion designers and artists began flocking to the area’s bars and clubs.
Wag nightclub became a meeting point for many, including David Bowie and Naomi Campbell, as it changed clubbing in the UK.
Police crackdowns and stricter licensing controls have also helped crack down on illegal sex shops and sex clubs.
In December 1970, before the gentrification of the area, a shop advertising sex films can be seen next to an Indian restaurant on D’Arblay Street in Soho.
Tisbury Court is seen in 1990 with the Raymond Revue Bar in the background advertising the ‘world center of erotic entertainment’. The bar now remains in place
Old Compton Street in Soho in May 1974 (left) and the same street shown now (right)
A view south across Frith Street towards Shaftesbury Avenue, Soho, in August 1966 and the same street now populated with ‘Boris bikes’
The entrance to Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club at 47 Frith Street, Soho, London, 1987, compared to the modern entrance
A man pulls a fruit cart on Old Compton Street in June 1975, with some gig ads in the background, as the public walks past what is now a restaurant advertising bagels, a bakery and a bar.
Scenes on Rupet Street in Soho showing the open air market in 1966 and the view along the same street today
Bill Haley and bandleader Chris Barber are pictured with The Comets outside Tin Pan Alley Club in September 1964. It is now the Yield Gallery
The 1990s saw The Grouch Club, a former Italian restaurant that fell into disrepair.
It has been renovated to become a bohemian antidote to the stench of traditional private clubs.
After initial problems after opening in May 1985, The Groucho Club established itself as the place to be seen in the 1990s.
Busy shops and cafes also began to replace the vacant premises as sex shops that could not renew their licenses moved out.
Soho has also become an increasingly popular place for the LGBTQ+ community, with a number of gay bars opening their doors.
The Village, Halfway Heaven, Freedom and Comptons welcomed fans after opening in the 1990s.
As we celebrated a new millennium and entered the 21st century, places like Piccadilly Circus were completely modernized, with the old neon lights used to advertise Bovril and other shops replaced by a giant electronic screen.
Dugdale & Adams Bakery in Gerrard Street in May 1980, now a Chinese restaurant
People imagined themselves standing outside the Flamingo Club on Wardour Street all night at 3am in 1960. This is now a Betfred bet
Victor Sassie and two waiters outside his restaurant The Gay Hussar in May 1970. It is now a restaurant called Noble Rot
Other locations, such as Berwick Street Market and the Carnaby Street shopping centre, show the extent to which former independent traders have been replaced, often by international chains.
Soho’s appearance underwent another change when London was hit by the Covid pandemic and outdoor dining became the norm.
Westminster City Council is allowing pubs and restaurants to open pavement tables, allowing venues to reopen under looser coronavirus restrictions in the summer of 2020 and again in April 2021.
It saw Soho’s busy Dean Street, Old Compton Street and Greek Street, once filled with cars and buses, but instead with tables and chairs for strolling.
It came as the council unveiled a design for bumpers to lure tourists back to the West End after the closure, as companies desperately try to boost visitor numbers.
A man with a bowler hat and umbrella walks past fruit and vegetable stalls in Rupert Street, now a cobbled street, in October 1970.
A police officer guards the entrance to the Whiskey A Gogo nightclub and Flamingo Jazz Club at 37 Wardour Street, now a Betfred, in September 1965
A view of the Paramount City Club site and the Old Windmill Theater where a McDonald’s is now being built
St Anne’s Court lined with signs for clubs and shops, with the corner of the Rose and Crown pub on Dean Street in the foreground. The exterior of the building has now been renovated
The Windmill Theater in Archer Street, which still presents ‘tables and dancing’
The Chinatown neighborhood of Gerrard Street faces Newport Place compared to the modern view
But now Londoners, including in Soho, are struggling to save the city’s nightlife after becoming fed up with constant noise complaints that their local bars are threatening to close.
Pub owners and landlords claim the pandemic has led to increased noise complaints as people have become accustomed to ‘Covid silence’ – with someone saying ‘my heart sinks into my stomach’ every time someone is too loud in their bar.
During the May election, Paul Fisher, Labor councilor for the West End, argued that Westminster Council should not issue new alcohol licenses in the area until a tough crackdown on noise pollution took place.
Last year, Westminster Council voted to scrap al fresco dining in Soho, although some bars and restaurants had hoped it would remain.
This is because Oxford Street, once the flagship of Britain’s luxury stores, is increasingly being abandoned by the big brands that earned it such prestige.
Pictures taken by MailOnline showed how Oxford Street has suffered and is now home to empty shells of ornate brick workshops that once housed some of Britain’s best-known brands.
As big names such as Topshop, Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins, Debenhams, Oasis and Warehouse disappeared, town centers across the country remained empty and people instead went online to find their favorite labels.
James is an author and travel journalist who writes for The Fashion Vibes. With a love for exploring new cultures and discovering unique destinations, James brings his readers on a journey with him through his articles.