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Fitzrovia – Central London’s edgeland

Trevor Smith reviews a new book on a lesser known quarter of London, defined by diverse immigration, industry, arts and left-wing politics.

Trevor Smith
23 October 2019
Cover of Fitzrovia social history
The History Press

All the roughly one square mile communities that comprise central London display their own distinctive characters. Belgravia is very wealthy with vast inherited fortunes, together with more recent loads of overseas laundered 'hot money' investments in large houses which often lie empty. Mayfair is similar, offering top hotels and glitzy nightlife, with the added blessing of nearby parks. Hampstead attracts illustrious literary figures and well-known media pundits. Bloomsbury has long been seen as the repository of notable scholars and intellectuals. Knightsbridge accommodates the highest class of shops and hosts many foreign embassies. Soho’s strip clubs and brothels intermingle with a multitude of restaurants and proximity to the West End's theatre land. Chelsea attracts renowned portrait painters and sculptors. The City of London itself has long been a world-leading financial hub, while Westminster remains the epicentre of the UK's political and governmental institutions.

The exception to all of these metropolitan villages is Fitzrovia, lying north of Soho, south of Marylebone, west of Bloomsbury and east of Mayfair. It is much less well-known and identifiable than the others. As Ann Basu writes, it “was designated as an edge-land right from the start”. There are two main reasons – its landscape of buildings is somewhat commonplace and often downright ugly, and it has spawned so many more features than its counterparts, complicating the scene. Basu’s book provides a long-overdue and masterly detailed analysis of the extraordinary amalgam of activities that constituted Fitzrovia in the first half of the twentieth century.

By the turn of the twentieth century its population was growing fast, and this was to be boosted by further, often simultaneous, waves of overseas immigration from mainland Europe. Jews from Russia, Poland, Germany and other parts of the Continent arrived, inter-mingled with other immigrants from Italy, France, Iberia and Ireland. There was a smattering of Japanese (paper lantern makers) and after 1945 a larger contingent of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots. Fitzrovia was one of the largest and most varied immigrant locations in Britain, which reached a peak in 1911.

Equally varied was the wide range of their occupations. Many worked in catering elsewhere in the capital, ranging from dish washers to waiters and chefs.

Two trades were predominant: carpentry and furniture-making to supply Maples, Heals and other large stores in Tottenham Court Road, and tailoring of all sorts for the clothing outlets of Oxford Street. To the northern-most part of the district were the second-hand car dealers that plied their trade in Warren Street. During World War Two, Charlotte Street, the main thoroughfare, was a major centre for the black market, housed in the basements of shops, cafes and restaurants, and most rationed food was readily available. The platforms at the local London Underground Tube stations, including those of Goodge Street and Tottenham Court Road, became night shelters with rows of bunk beds for local residents seeking to escape from the frequent bombing raids by the Luftwaffe.

Fitzrovia was also a major left-wing political centre, housing the British Communist Party HQ at one time, and often facilitating the activities of Rudolph Rocker's anarchists. Co-operative societies were plentiful as were a number of trade unions and many socialist leagues and associations.

The plastic and performing arts had a presence. Tiranti's, the major supplier of artists' and sculptors materials, came to Charlotte Street in 1945 while the Scala Theatre had its origins as far back as 1772. It had a rather chequered career as an “off-Broadway” facility that catered for dramas (both professional and amateur) and was an early cinema. It was finally demolished in 1969.

The Fitzroy Tavern in Charlotte Street has enjoyed a literary reputation extending over many years which was boosted in the late 1940s and early '50s when it became a favourite watering hole for the likes of the poet Dylan Thomas and the authors Brendan Behan and Anthony Burgess.

The district also attracted a wide clientele from all over for its famous European restaurants that included the German Schmidts, the Italian Bertorelli's and the French L'Etoile and the White Tower, which were altogether more up-market for a time. Charles Forte opened his first milk bar, selling tasty ice creams, in Leicester Square in the mid-1930, while two large Lyons Corner Houses provided quality breakfasts, lunches and dinners with live musical accompaniments.

I frequented the area on a regular weekly basis from 1942 until the early 1950s when my father and his partner manufactured the first plastic dolls in Britain. This book has brought back many memories; one that sticks most vividly is of lunching in the cigar smoke -filled Schweitzerbund Swiss Club in Charlotte Street. It lasted from 1874 to well into the 1950s. The building that accommodate it survived until very recently.

This book fills a void in brilliantly detailing the development of Fitzrovia as a major locality in Central London; a sequel dealing with its move towards the more fashionable area during the second half of the twentieth century would be equally welcome.

FITZROVIA: The other side of Oxford Street 1900-1950, by Ann Basu, is published by The History Press.

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