Fitzrovia

Fitzrovia, Westminster/Camden

From the 1930s (or perhaps a little earlier) the area between Fitzroy Square and Oxford Street became known to its denizens as Fitzrovia

Fitzroy Square south side

The local­i­ty was first devel­oped by Charles Fitzroy, lord of the manor of Tot­ten­hall, from 1757. The east and south sides of Fitzroy Square were designed by Robert Adam in 1794 and sur­vive in their orig­i­nal form, in Port­land stone, though with exten­sive restora­tion of wartime dam­age on the south side (shown in the pho­to­graph above).

Fitzroy built for the upper class­es, but they soon migrat­ed south-west­wards to Bel­gravia and May­fair, forc­ing sub­di­vi­sion of the aris­to­crat­ic hous­es into work­shops, stu­dios and rooms to let.

Immi­grants from France and neigh­bour­ing coun­tries crowd­ed in and helped estab­lish the dis­trict as a cen­tre for the fur­ni­ture trade by the end of the 18th cen­tu­ry. Thomas Chip­pen­dale was among the crafts­men who set up shop here. The artist John Con­sta­ble main­tained a local res­i­dence, although he spent most of his time in Hamp­stead.

Ear­ly in the 20th cen­tu­ry Wal­ter Sick­ert and friends formed the Fitzroy Street Group, based in Whistler’s for­mer home at 8 Fitzroy Street.

In the mid to late 1930s Augus­tus John and Dylan Thomas bol­stered the Bohemi­an rep­u­ta­tion of the area north of Oxford Street – which was regard­ed by many at that time as a north­ern exten­sion of Soho.

John is wide­ly said to have invent­ed the ‘Fitzrovia’ name, in hon­our not of Fitzroy Square but of his favourite hostel­ry, the Fitzroy Tav­ern. How­ev­er, in his excel­lent book Lon­don Call­ing, local res­i­dent Bar­ry Miles cred­its the coinage to the Cey­lonese pub­lish­er and edi­tor Meary J Tam­bimut­tu, with the same boozy inspi­ra­tion.

Fitzroy Tavern, external redecoration

But it’s pos­si­ble that nei­ther ver­sion of this roman­ti­cised sto­ry is true. Hid­den Lon­don believes that the term ‘Fitzrovia’ may have been in use by the late 1920s, based on a ref­er­ence in 1930* to “Miss Hamnett’s rem­i­nis­cences of Mont­par­nasse and that dis­trict of Lon­don which is some­times known as Fitzrovia.” Nina Hamnett’s mem­oirs do not men­tion the Fitzrovia local­i­ty by that name, so this ref­er­ence seems to con­sti­tute its first ever appear­ance in print. None of the peo­ple usu­al­ly cred­it­ed with invent­ing the name were fre­quent­ing the local­i­ty in the late 1920s, except pos­si­bly Tom Driberg, and he did­n’t use the appel­la­tion in his news­pa­per col­umn until 1940.

Before the Sec­ond World War Fitzrovia had a high­ly vis­i­ble Ger­man com­mu­ni­ty and Char­lotte Street – the prin­ci­pal thor­ough­fare – was nick­named Char­lot­ten­strasse. Greeks and Ital­ians brought new vital­i­ty to the local­i­ty after the war, fol­lowed lat­er by Nepalese and Ben­galis.

A post-war short­age of com­mer­cial space in cen­tral Lon­don prompt­ed the rezon­ing of Fitzrovia as a light indus­tri­al area and some fine Geor­gian prop­er­ties – includ­ing Con­sta­ble’s house – were knocked down and replaced by office blocks, many of which have since been rebuilt.

Locat­ed at 60 Cleve­land Street, the BT Tow­er was built for the Gen­er­al Post Office and became oper­a­tional on 8 Octo­ber 1965. The tow­er is 174 metres tall – 189m to the top of its high­est mast – and was the UK’s tallest build­ing from its top­ping out until 1980.

James Davis - Noho coverFol­low­ing res­i­dents’ pres­sure, Fitzrovi­a’s name appeared for the first time on Ord­nance Sur­vey maps in 1994. Equal­ly dili­gent efforts lat­er suc­ceed­ed in defeat­ing prop­er­ty devel­op­ers’ mis­guid­ed attempts to rebrand the area ‘Noho’.

Today, around 6,500 peo­ple live in Fitzrovia, while 50,000 work here. Char­lotte Street is a focus for media busi­ness­es – and for their favourite bars and bistros.

The lat­est big projects in Fitzrovia have been the rede­vel­op­ments of the for­mer Roy­al Mail site between Rath­bone Place and New­man Street and the for­mer Saatchi & Saatchi offices in Char­lotte Street. Rath­bone Square has 162 apart­ments, Face­book’s new UK head­quar­ters and shops, cafés and restau­rants around a new pub­lic square. Shown in the devel­op­ers’ CGI below, 80 Char­lotte Street is also a mixed-use scheme with a new pub­lic space. The building’s design is said to be a homage to the con­struc­tivist artists who lived in Fitzrovia in the 1950s and 60s.

Hidden London: 80 Charlotte Street

George Bernard Shaw lived with his mother at 37 Fitzroy Street in the early 1880s and then in Fitzroy Square from 1887 until his marriage in 1898. The former address was the London base of the writer – and founder of Scientology – L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s. The house now hosts an exhibition of Hubbard’s life and work, and is open to the public by appointment.

Postal districts: W1 and WC1 (the WC1 part is Fitzrovia’s “Gower Peninsula” between Tottenham Court Road and Gower Street)
Station: Northern line (Goodge Street, zone 1)
Further reading: Brian Girling, Bloomsbury & Fitzrovia Through Time, Amberley, 2012
and Mike Pentelow and Marsha Rowe, Characters of Fitzrovia, Pimlico, 2002
Further viewing: Paolo Sedazzari’s evocative and informative short film Viva Fitzrovia
Website: Fitzrovia News

 

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* republished in Independent Labour Party, The Socialist Review, series 3, volumes 3–4 (1930–32), Kraus Reprint