Making fun - and a name: Politically divided but united cartographically, Fitzrovia is much in fashion. Rhys Williams takes a tour

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
The standard reponse to the word 'Fitzrovia' (as in 'I work/live/have my hair cut in') has been 'Where's that?' A fairly tortured explanation follows, involving something about an area tucked between Tottenham Court Road, Great Portland Street, Euston Road and Oxford Street.

All that changed in May when Ordnance Survey acceded to local demands to have the area named on London maps. When residents gather in Fitzroy Square on Saturday to celebrate the 20th annual Fitzrovia festival, it will be the first time the area in which they live has existed.

For that they can thank Stefano Fraquelli, of the Spaghetti House chain, who is heads the local business pressure group, Fitzrovia Today.

It started, as it invariably does, with a tiff between businesses and a council. Camden, one of two boroughs straddled by Fitzrovia, extended parking restrictions until 8.30pm and all day Saturday - no way, Mr Fraquelli argued, to attract visitors to any area suffering from recession. Camden agreed; the restrictions were lifted.

The experience forced the businesses involved to think harder about what the area meant and how to regenerate it. They formed Fitzrovia Today, hired a consultant and set out a list of objectives.

First, get the area on the map. Next up is Goodge Street Tube station, which the campaign hopes London Underground will rename Goodge Street Fitzrovia.

This week's umbrella festival, of which this Saturday's street party is the climax, will help Mr Fraquelli's more figurative desire to implant Fitz-rovia in the minds of Londoners as an area every bit as distinctive as Soho or Covent Garden. In that, history is on his side.

As late as the middle of the 18th century, Fitzrovia did not physically exist (the name did not come until the Thirties). The manor of Tottenhall, the land on which the area stands, was a patchwork of fields on London's fringe. Charles Fitzroy, who became lord of the manor of Tottenhall on his grandfather's death in 1757, spotted the obvious development potential.

Although Fitzroy was the owner, his lessees could divide plots and sell building leases. What remained was neither large enough nor in the best location for him to realise his vision of mimicking the grandeur of the nearby Bedford Square estate, or Queen's Square in Bath and Charlotte Square, Edinburgh. That did not stop him trying.

Fitzroy built with the aristocracy in mind, but scarcely had the mortar dried on the impressive frontages of Fitzroy Square than the upper classes were migrating west to more desirable addresses in Mayfair and Belgravia.

The magnificent newly built Georgian creations were left empty and unlettable. The only viable way out for developers was to carve them up horizontally and vertically into warrens of separate workshops, studios and rooms to let. Rents were low and the rooms large. The area became a reception room for foreign immigrants - central European Jews, Huguenots, Belgians and French Catholic priests. Many were craftsmen - joiners and French polishers - who quickly filled the workshops on Tottenham Court Road and Fitzroy Street that by the end of the 18th century would establish the precinct as the major centre for furniture making.

Chippendale, Heal's and Maples all started life here. Edward Whithers, a violin maker established in 1765, is still in Percy Street today.

From the begining of the 20th century to the Second World War it became the hub of London's literary and artistic life, writers and painters lured by the cheap rent and wealth of studio space. The Fitzroy Street Group (the painters Walter Sickert, Walter Russell, Spencer Gore and others) set up shop at 8 Fitzroy Street, once occupied by James Whistler.

Just as important as rent was the cheap beer, and it was through the alcoholic fug-filled antics of artists Augustus John and Nina Hamnett, and the writer Dylan Thomas, that the area earned its reputation as the capital of pre-war Bohemia, and its name 'Fitzrovia' - coined one beery night by John and his crowd in honour of their favourite watering hole, the Fitzroy Tavern.

James Meary Tambimuttu, a Ceylonese Tamil always referred to as Tambi and considered the area's uncrowned king, once warned a young writer: 'Only beware of Fitzrovia. . .you might get Sohoitis you know. If you get Sohoitis, you will stay there always, day and night and get no work done.' But much was done. Tambi, himself, founded Poetry London, one of the most liberal magazines of the times to which every leading poet contributed.

Add the likes of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who would expound in a basement in Tottenham Street or William Morris, George Bernard Shaw, Keir Hardie and Wyndham Lewis, who all passed through, and you are talking about a fairly heady mixture of talent. But little united them bar some vague notion of geography.

Hugh David wrote in The Fitzrovians: A Portrait of Bohemian Society 1900-1955: 'Fitzrovia had none of the neat coherence with which it has been imbued in many later accounts and memoirs. Even during the war. . .at its purest. . .it was nothing but a dream kingdom, a district of the mind which meant cheap drink to some people, good company to others, and true artistic endeavour to only a handful.' When they drifted into Soho after the war in search of all-day drinking at the Colony Room or to Notting Hill for jazz, it might be supposed that Fitzrovia had lost its raison d'etre. Not a bit of it. If anything, the area has re-asserted its identity both soci-ally and commercially.

Andrew Jose, one of the capital's leading hairdressers, left Vidal Sassoon 10 years ago to set up on Charlotte Street. 'I was driving down the road and I thought 'this is fabulous'. It feels European. It has a look and a feel that is different from the rest of London.'

Walk up the street on a summer's day and the air hums with chatter from countless pavement cafes - generally something of a tourist novelty in most parts of London but, thanks to the Greeks and Italians who have flooded in since the war, a fixture in Fitzrovia for decades. And where there is lunch, there is the media in some shape or form. Saatchi & Saatchi moved into Charlotte Street at the end of the Seventies. The BBC's Broadcasting House is around the corner and Channel Four, which started life on Charlotte Street, is about to follow ITN and move into bigger swankier offices. However, the independent production sector the station helped to nurture remains - Eddie Windsor's Ardent Productions, Mel Smith on Percy Street. Lenny Henry's scriptwriter, Andrew Nickolds, works from an office on Windmill Street which, at the turn of the century, housed the British Anarchist Club.

While the likes of Bernard Shaw, Thomas and Sickert are long gone, their creative legacy has been retained and probably built upon. The rag trade has long been centred on the roads around Great Titchfield Street; Imagination stands impressive on Store Street, Janet Fitch again on Percy Street.

'The people who are in the area are genuinely successful, the movers and shakers,' says Jose. 'There is a constant to-ing and fro-ing of people zipping all over with a camera or a script. Most new ideas are happening above a shop in Fitzrovia.'

As they are undoubtedly are in Soho or Covent Garden. But wedged between the sandwich shops, Italian delis and restaurants which feed the 50,000 who work here, there are 'real' shops - an ironmonger's, a scalp-it-and-see barber shop complete with cracked (if this was Knightsbridge, you would say 'distressed') lino-leum floor. There is even a Tesco on Goodge Street. People live here; 6,500 to be precise.

Behind the weekday media village, lies a real one. In 1974, the residents - many in council blocks or association housing - formed Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association to bring together the culturally disparate population - Bengalis, Greeks, Italians and, since the mid-Sixties, Nepalese.

From its rainbow-coloured office on the corner of Tottenham Street and Goodge Place, the association acts as a quasi-Citizen's Advice Bureau, organising the annual street party and Fitzrovia News, a free-sheet and one of the country's oldest community newspapers. David Ferris, an association worker, says: 'It is an extremely mixed community and always has been. That's its strength.'

When Tesco tried to close its Goodge Street store three years ago, the association helped to raise a petition which led to the shop being refurbished instead.

Like the businessmen behind Fitzrovia Today, Mr Ferris believes Fitzrovia an idea worth fostering and promoting. But it straddles Camden and Westminster councils. The association petitioned the Borough Boundary Commission which in 1986 concluded that 'the current boundary is not in the interests of the local community'. However, progress is unlikely unless Camden can be persuaded to lose a safe Labour ward or Westminster coaxed into accepting one.

Gareth Wyn Jones, a book editor who has lived and worked in Fitzrovia for five years, reluctantly admits the area is in danger of becoming fashionable. 'A few years ago, it was variously known as North Soho, West Bloomsbury or East Marylebone. Today it is very much Fitzrovia.'

(Photograph and map omitted)

Comments