A couple of months ago on November 8th, the Soho Society held a special general meeting to announce that the Rector and the Parish Council of St. Anne’s Church had issued them with a notice to quit. Forty years ago the future of St. Anne’s hung in the balance. The building had been almost obliterated in a Luftwaffe bombing raid in 1940 at the start of the Blitz. It had been a dreadful night which left many local people dead or homeless. The church had taken a direct hit with incendiary bombs and a parachute mine; the chancel and the nave were destroyed and all that remained was the tower although even that too had taken a fearful battering. The old tower, although surrounded by craters and burning buildings, was the most prominent landmark in Soho and throughout the war remained the fulcrum around which the community moved.
The Government and Westminster City Council did nothing. By 1970 most of this extraordinary corner of the Metropolis had been scheduled for heavy redevelopment. The Council had already started to demolish Georgian terraces in St. Anne’s Court and Livonia Street. There were plans to replace this ancient settlement with brutalist office blocks and mad architectural excrescences. Planning in the area was out of control. The sex trade had moved in, acquired freeholds and turned once elegant streets into souks full of strip clubs, porn shops and nude posers. Soho was blighted. Families who had lived there all their lives, were leaving as the gangsters moved in.
The Society’s headquarters was a small room in the church tower. It was gifted to them by the Church in 1979 for the fine work they did in defending the parish from the mob of vice-crazed Maltese pimps and the predatory developers and deranged architects who had been released like attack dogs by Westminster City Council as a way of bullying the community. The Society thus developed a close affinity with the Church.
In November of that year the vice and the imminent demolition of their village had become too much for the local people. The Society was formed from volunteers who came together after an angry meeting in a room above Kettners Restaurant. They moved quickly; lobbied successfully for Soho to become a conservation area, raised big money to renovate the tower, helped create a housing association and ensured that the planning laws were followed to the letter by the vice industry. The tower was renovated and money was raised for a new chapel, a community centre, houses and a museum. Suddenly Soho had a heart and the people who lived there had a voice. The Soho Society and Advocacy Plus, a charity set up to help the elderly and infirm, were given space in the bright new tower of St. Anne’s. Things improved. The Maltese Mafia and the predatory developers were seen off. Deranged architects slunk away into the shadows. Families returned to live in the borough, the churchyard was cleaned up and the drug dealers kicked out. Soho remained racy, but it was a working community once more. The Soho Society became one of the most successful social amenity groups in the country.
In 2007 a new Rector was appointed at St. Anne’s. Father David Gilmore moved into the four-bedroom Rectory flat in Dean Street. He had started his career as a social worker in Belfast and had moved to Chelmsford in Essex as an assistant curate. In August 2010, together with the Parish Council, he served an order to quit on the Soho Society and on Advocacy Plus. His reasons were, he said, commercial. It was his duty to demand a market rate for the little rooms in the tower. He wanted £35,000 a year from the Society which was by this time paying £3,000 per annum to the Church. They could not afford the rector’s demands and decided to oppose them; after all, they believed they had been given their space free in perpetuity. There were discussions. The Rector refused to budge and the tenants were told to get out by November 30th 2010. Others involved in using St. Anne’s were also getting rough treatment. The children’s allotment in the churchyard, installed for the kids from the Parish School in Great Windmill Street, was told to go. London Ping, a charitable group who provided free table tennis equipment in London parks, including St. Anne’s Churchyard, were sent packing. On November 30th, determined not to be kicked out, members of the Society squatted in the tower office overnight but, on December 1st, the Rector entered the property and locked a fire door, thus making it impossible for them to remain. It was a mean, furtive little manoeuvre, but it worked. I first wrote the story in the Erotic Review and as things got worse and the Society barricaded themselves in their room on the night of the 30th November, I followed it up next day in the Evening Standard.
After thirty years of close cooperation with the Church in Soho, the Society was now at odds with them. M’learned Friends inevitably became involved and there was much bitterness in the borough. Advocacy Plus gave up without a struggle. Leslie Hardcastle OBE, President of the Soho Society, went to the tower to collect some possessions a few days before all the nastiness came to a head. He found a lady from Advocacy Plus in tears as she cleaned out the room from where they had spent many years helping the elderly in Soho. Hardcastle told me that he just could not understand what was happening. “All the goodwill has evaporated,” he said, “and been replaced by bitterness.”
Then on Thursday December 17th, Soho’s local paper, the West End Extra, led with a sensational story. At a secret Ecclesiastical Tribunal, the Reverend David Gilmore had been found guilty of behaviour inappropriate to a Clerk in Holy Orders. He had been removed from office and prohibited from exercising ministry as a priest for two years. It also transpired that he had been kicked off the Board of the House of St. Barnabas in 2009 as a result of a ’mutual breakdown of trust.’ Gilmore has now disappeared.
Since then it has gone quiet. The Soho Society is still out in the cold but hoping to get their room back. Advocacy Plus has found new premises and continues their work in more straitened circumstances and the important Parish of St. Anne’s in Soho remains without a Rector. There is much goodwill for the Soho Society, but who’s going to pick up the wreckage following their eviction? The Church, as usual in these farcical situations, seems paralysed with embarrassment. Where is the leadership and the understanding? They have a duty to explain how all this came about; why Gilmore was appointed or even considered for the job and what they are going to do about replacing him. How are they going to repay the debt of honour they owe to The Soho Society? What about the kids’ allotment in the Churchyard which the Rector removed and who’s going to extinguish the climate of fear he seems to have created within the school and Westminster City Council?
When I was trying to get an interview with Gilmore before he was kicked out, he referred me to his media Team, a PR company called Luther Pendragon. Perhaps the Bishop of London is even now sitting down to lunch with one of their account directors and trying to work out a media strategy which will blunt the edges of this unfortunate episode. Perhaps a subtle campaign aimed at ‘opinion formers’ and liberal use of one or two key phrases in their communication material? How about a press conference in the churchyard? A few drinks upstairs at The French afterwards? That should create a bit of goodwill. Shouldn’t cost more than £35,000.