The House of St Barnabas is one of those buildings in Soho that I’ve walked past many times, admiring its elegant Georgian façade – but never been sure what or who it represented. I was delighted, therefore, to be invited on a guided tour to find out more about this illustrious building and its history.
Located on the corner of Greek Street and Soho Square, this former aristocratic residence has many a tale to tell. It was once a grand London house, complete with garden and stables, built by Cadogan Thomas – a timber merchant whose life came to an impoverished end. Since then, it has undergone many incarnations, as a women’s hostel (Joyce Grenfell was a supporter), an MP’s home, a charitable enterprise helping families living in the workhouse next door, war offices – and, now, a not-for-profit members’ club founded by luminaries such as Brian Cox and Jarvis Cocker.
Following a quick tour of leafy Soho Square, which dates back to the 1680s, we arrived at the House – tripping up its steps through an imposing entrance into a light, airy hallway. I fell in love at once with the reception area – its pale green walls and white cornicing are sublime (the Rococo plasterwork on the ceiling is the last complete Rococo plasterwork in Soho, apparently).
As you venture further inside, one of the things that strikes you immediately is how much time and attention has gone into its décor. Each room has been given a distinctive name: the Silk Room, the Monro & Garden Rooms and the Penny Chute, to name but a few. And each has its own, unique feel.
The lounge, for example, is super-glamorous, furnished with an open fire, velvet sofas and delicate chandeliers, as well as one of the most stunning paintings I’ve ever seen. The bar, a former refectory, is fabulous. I loved the Victoriana fireplace, and the deep purple paint on the walls – oh, and the atmospheric lighting.
Famous connections abound; Joseph Bazalgette lived here for a time, during which he changed the house’s layout; Charles Dickens knew the building well and made reference to it in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’.
I could go on, but really you need to visit The House of St Barnabas yourself to understand how special it is. This is the kind of place where nothing surprises. Even the stairwell (complete with original wrought-iron balustrades) features a Banksy – as well as a Damien Hirst protest against nuclear war. Art is a particular theme; St Barnabas showcases the work of emerging and established contemporary artists in a not-for-profit programme of visual art “conceived to inspire and uplift”.
Our tour concluded with a peek into the Chapel, which was built in 1862. Furnished with wonderful stained glass windows and Belgian marble columns, this tranquil place of worship is used for both Anglican and Roman Catholic services – as well as concerts. Those windows, sadly, are not the originals (they were blown out by the Luftwaffe), but they are beautiful nonetheless; I loved the window dedicated to St Barnabas, who was also known as the Son of Encouragement – fitting, when you come to learn more about the House’s Mission.
Speaking of which, it transpires that the House is not just a pretty face; it is also a charity whose aim is to break the cycle of homelessness and social exclusion in London. Accordingly, it runs a social enterprise – the not-for-profit members’ club that I mentioned earlier, which helps people back into lasting, paid work.
Like I said, a very special place – one to which I very much hope to return. Here are some final thoughts…
What I liked:
• The beautiful – and at times breathtaking – décor;
• The rationale: helping people to help themselves;
• The theme of inclusion.
What I didn’t like:
• The prices. How is charging £14 for a salad inclusive in any way? I’m not sure who the bar and restaurant are targeted at, but St Barnabas is open to people wandering in off the street, so presumably everyone.
Food for thought, I’m sure you’ll agree…?