Soho identity Ironfoot Jack occupied a similar position in London as Moondog (who we saw just last week) did in New York or the much earlier Bibi-la-Purée in Paris – a bizarrely dressed character slipping in and out of descriptions of the city’s Bohemian life. All three represented stock figures who could be relied upon to flesh out an account of urban eccentricities and give it an authentically oddball edge, but not sufficiently well-rounded to assume the contours of an actual person. They were essentially regarded as hobos, but with an hauteur which suggested an innate aristocratic elevation from their street-level habitat.
Ironfoot Jack (so named for the unusual metal accessory he wore which compensated for a foreshortened leg) always seemed the most elusive of the three, more elusive even than Bibi, who died at the dawn of the 20th century. Jack appeared to hover at the periphery of vision already blurred, such that he may well have been the product of a collective delusion triggered by the advanced alcoholism common to almost all of Soho’s Bohemian habitués.
And yet…here he is! In the daytime! From the fathomless archives of British Pathé comes the winningly named Soho Goes Gay (this being 1955 and thus some years before Soho really did go – officially – gay), with a glimpse of Jack among the multi-ethnic festivities.
And here he is again! In the daytime! In colour! He’s captured in the French, a poky coffeehouse/newsagent, just one of the wonders in this brilliant time capsule of Soho in the 1950s, when the cappuccino machine was still a device of such alien exoticism it may as well have been a sputnik. Enjoy the grumpy proprietors, stagey dialogue and spooky decor:
Ironfoot’s real name was Jack Neave (sometimes rendered as Nieve). A figure of ragged refinement, he would make his way unsteadily around Soho, selling trinkets and poems to unwary strangers, dividing opinions as he went. “Jack’s abysmal personal hygiene – he was the man who put the BO in ‘Bohemia’ – meant he always had plenty of leg room in the French,” goes another contemporary account. I’ve already quoted from Daniel Farson‘s book Soho in the Fifties which details Jack’s sideline in gastronomy but in fairness it should be added that Farson also says: “I found him a dreadful old bore and was far from certain that his story about the restaurant was true.” Colin Wilson’s largely autobiographical novel Adrift in Soho (soon to be a film, maybe) introduced Ironfoot Jack, evidently already sufficiently fanciful that he required no further fictionalisation, as the “uncrowned king of the Bohemians”: “Me subjects ‘aven’t been payin’ their taxes lately. That’s why I ‘aven’t got threepence for a cup of tea.”
A biography of English artist Conroy Maddox summarises contemporary impressions:
Jack Nieve, as the vagrant was really called, already had a well-established reputation in London’s Soho district. His demeanour, characterized by a ponderous way of speaking with a sense of self-importance, would have been memorable enough. But, in addition, he had an extraordinary appearance: he was bald on top, with white hair flowing over his shoulders and generally attired in a velvet jacket and a cravat with a jewelled pin. Even more distinctive was that one of his legs was shorter than the other by about four inches and that he wore an iron frame on the sole of his boot to make up the difference. He was also usually accompanied by a woman much younger than himself, to whom he would refer as his ‘Orniment’. Nieve made his living by buying and selling junk in general but he tended to deal mostly in beads that he would acquire by knocking on doors. To promote his ‘business’ he had cards printed on which he described himself in the most elaborate terms.
Jack, though clearly not young, rarely comes with much of a past in these anecdotes, but further research reveals that he was a long-standing fixture of the grey market which comprised Soho nightlife. According to the book Queer London, “Neave was a strongman, club manager, antique dealer, con artist, and street phrenologist” (and I am surely not alone in thinking that anyone answering to the description “street phrenologist” merits closer attention). Jack was a proprietor of small clubs as far back as the early 1930s, and among his portfolio was The Caravan, which offered a (relatively) safe haven for gays and counted Quentin Crisp among its clientele. It was a place “frequented by sexual perverts, lesbians and sodomites” (according to one local resident), and “London’s Greatest Bohemian Rendezvous” (according to the proprietors, who further promised “all night gaiety”).
The most tantalising piece of information to emerge from the tangled bracken of Ironfoot-related factlets is that he is the subject of a book written by Mark Benney way back in 1939, long before Jack’s accession to Bohemian royalty. What Rough Beast? A Biographical Fantasia on the Life of Professor J. R. Neave, Otherwise Known as Iron Foot Jack Neave is proving elusive, but it is presumably the missing piece which will turn Ironfoot Jack from a footnote to a fully-fleshed human being.