Hidden London: Where to Find One of Victorian London’s Most Notorious Neighborhoods

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Since the 1970s, Old Compton Street has become a focal point for London’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. It is home to several gay bars, gay-friendly restaurants, cafes and specialty gay shops. The street is also home to the Prince Edward Theatre, located at the east end of the street.

Historically, the street is named after Henry Compton who raised funds for a local parish church. The area in general, and this street in particular, became home to the Huguenots, French Protestant refugees who were granted asylum in England by Charles II in 1681. The street was known simply as Compton Street until that it be renamed Old Compton Street in 1896.

In the late 18th century and until this change of name, the eastern end of the street between Greek Street and Charing Cross Road (then Crown Street) was known as Little Compton Street. Evidence of the street’s Victorian heritage can still be seen today, with a sign for Little Compton Street on the wall of a utility tunnel that runs under Charing Cross Road – under a street grating on an islet of traffic.

Having heard of possible underground Victorian ruins, MyLondon’s Amber-Louise Large went to investigate.



It was definitely one of the most misplaced ‘London secrets’ I have explored

Here’s how she pulled it off:

No matter how long you’ve been in London, there’s always something new to learn. There is always a nugget of history to unearth or a hidden place to discover.

And sometimes those London secrets are right under your feet. Often frequented by tourists and local theatergoers, Charing Cross Road looks very modern on the surface, but it has a lot of history behind it.

But if you cross the road to Old Compton Street, with a Café Nero on one side and a Wetherspoons on the other, you might catch a glimpse of 1800s London. After hearing rumors of a hidden street buried under modern roads, I headed to Soho to investigate.

Visible through a metal grating on a walk-through island, Little Compton Street isn’t the best-placed hidden landmark. I guess that’s the whole point of being “hidden”. I had to kneel down to peek through the metal bars as I desperately tried to get a good picture.

While doing so, I received my fair share of odd stares from passers-by on either side of the street. When someone crossing the road walked on the island, I stood up to give them plenty of room. Often they would hover momentarily to look at what I had photographed, then give me a thoughtful but confused look.

Because if you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, Little Compton Street can look like a pile of wires and maintenance equipment in a dingy underpass. Maybe they thought I lost an earring or something there, I don’t know. There were a few lost items there, including what looked like an ID card.

As I mentioned, the first thing you notice when looking at the underground pathway is a bunch of wires. However, if you go lower down (with your back to the Coach and Horses pub) you can see the gray brick wall that lines the underground tunnel and spot the historical signs. A weathered and rusted sign appears to read “COMBTON”.



Getting a good photo proved very difficult (Image: Amber-Louise Large)
Getting a good picture turned out to be very difficult

A rust stain has turned the P into a B and most of the words “Little” and “Street” have worn away. Luckily, underneath you can spot painted letters that clearly say “Little Compton Street”. So you know you are in the right place. But what exactly is this place? According to London Walking Tours, Little Compton Street was part of one of Victorian London’s most notorious slums.

The street was demolished in 1886 to make way for Charing Cross Road to link Trafalgar Square, Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. Some Londoners believe the street was literally buried when the new link road was created and can still be seen through the grid.

In reality, the so-called ‘street’ is actually part of an underground network built under Charing Cross Road to carry utilities and minimize disruption to the new road when repairs needed to be carried out. “Little Compton Street” signs served as markers so workers knew where they were without having to surface from the tunnels.

So if you find yourself using this level crossing on Old Compton Street and don’t mind a few suspicious stares from tourists and Londoners, peek through the grate to find a piece of history hidden beneath the streets of Soho. Just keep a grip on your belongings so they don’t fall through the gaps and become history themselves!

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