The Curious History Of Soho's House Of St Barnabas

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By M@
The Curious History Of Soho's House Of St Barnabas

Both Dickens and Bazalgette loom large in Soho Square's most historic building.

Next time you're passing through Soho Square, pay attention to the building at the south-east corner. The House of St Barnabas looks like many other Georgian piles, fashioned from London stock bricks and replete with sash windows.

The one striking difference is the band of red-and-gold glazed tiles between first and second floors. "House : of Charty" stands out in patched-up, jumbled lettering, reminiscent of a sliding puzzle. It feels fitting for a building whose purpose and history seems to shift at every turn.

House of Sewers

The building today is known as The House of St Barnabas. It's an unusual hybrid; part members' club, part homelessness charity. The Georgian interior is gorgeous confection of minty green paint (covering some 18 earlier layers) and rococo plasterwork. The centrepiece is a grand staircase, built to impress guests in what was originally a private residence of various MPs, from the mid-18th century.

The grand staircase

Its most famous inhabitant was a certain Joseph Bazalgette — widely known to this day as the man who built the Embankment and the main sewer system, relieving London of its 'Great Stink'.

Bazalgette and the Metropolitan Board of Works moved into the building in 1855, inheriting it from the Westminster Commissioners of Sewers, who had in turn used the building as a base since the early years of the century. The great man couldn't resist tinkering with the building and you can still see his handiwork to this day, such as the slightly odd partition wall, which can be seen in the Bazalgette Room on the first floor.

The Bazalgette partition. Note how the elaborate cornice changes to a simpler style on Mr B's addition.

House of Dickens

While Joseph Bazalgette was working through London's sanitary improvements, Charles Dickens was plotting out his great historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities.

Dickens very probably based the home of Dr Manette and his daughter Lucie on the house, which is described as on a quiet side street close to Soho Square.

"There were three rooms on a floor... The first was the best room, and in it were Lucie's birds, and flowers, and books, and desk, and work-table, and box of water-colours; the second was the Doctor's consulting-room, used also as the dining-room; the third, changingly speckled by the rustle of the plane-tree in the yard, was the Doctor's bedroom."

The Dickens Room within the House of St Barnabas commemorates the connection to the great author.

The novel's connections to the area were reinforced when the adjacent Rose Street was renamed Manette Street. And there was, until recently, another commemoration that played on the following detail from A Tale of Two Cities:

"In a building at the back, attainable by a courtyard where a plane tree rustled its green leaves, church organs claimed to be made, and likewise gold to be beaten by some mysterious giant who had a golden arm starting out of the wall... as if he had beaten himself precious."

The original of that golden arm is in the Dickens House Museum, but a replica was bolted to a wall of Goldebeaters House on Manette Street until 2017, when it was removed for a redevelopment (hopefully to return).

Incidentally, the plane tree mentioned in both passages still stands, in the small garden behind St Barnabas — said to be the only private garden in Soho.

House of God

The building has a long association with helping the needy. After Bazalgette and his team moved out in 1861, the House of Charity moved in. This worthy institution gave shelter to families crippled by debt and poverty. The destitute who lodged here were also expected to keep up with god, and so a rather attractive chapel was built at the back of the building.  

Designed by the Gothic Revival architect Joseph Clarke, this pint-sized holy place is today used for Anglican services but also has a special relationship with the Macedonian Orthodox community. The stained-glass windows are a particular highlight. One depicts St Barnabas himself, clutching a model of the chapel.

House of St Barnabas

The history of the building through the 20th and 21st centuries is no less eventful than its Victorian legacy. The charity took a direct hit during the second world war, putting it out of action as a refuge. The Air Training Corps then moved in, and patched up the damage. It later became a training centre for students of child welfare, and then a women's hostel.

The library bar before a recent refurbishment. Note the original fireplace.

Since 2013, this Grade I-listed building has operated as a members' club known as The House of St Barnabas, complete with a swish bar, a changing art collection and several ornately decorated rooms for the use of cardholders. The founding members include such notables as Jarvis Cocker, Rankin and Rob Da Bank.

But the building's charitable function has not expired. An employment academy offers support and training to homeless Londoners, giving them a positive environment in which to rebuild their lives. The members' club is non-profit-making, to help support this and other schemes.

And, on a smaller scale, passers-by can still donate to the charity by placing a coin in the alms chute in Soho Square.

After a turbulent 280-year history, the House of St Barnabas appears to have settled into something both attractive and altruistic. The great and good still pass through its doors, following in the footsteps of Victorian giants. But this is also a place where society's most needy find hope. Bazalgette, Barnabas and 'Boz' would all approve of that.

With thanks to London Historians, whose tour of the house inspired this article. Images courtesy of The House of St Barnabas, except for the Bazalgette partition, stained glass window and alms chute, by the author.

Last Updated 04 March 2020