Words Jenna Walker
Illustrations Alexandria Coe
As the old saying goes, ‘If you have to ask, you’ll never know.’ And that’s true of a lot of things. The lottery numbers? Sure. The difference between men and women? Forget about it. The length of a piece of string? Lost cause. But if you dared to ask, ‘What is Fitzrovia?’ Well, that one’s relatively straight-forward.
Often described as having an ‘urban vibe with a bohemian history,’ Fitzrovia is nestled in the little pocket between Marylebone, Soho and Bloomsbury, lying partly in the City of Westminster, and partly in the London Borough of Camden. While its land is laid with shiny digital start-ups, historic pubs, hip hotels, a smattering of independent cafés all claiming to sell London’s best coffee, and Charlotte Street, unofficial sponsor of Thursday lunchtimes for media execs, Fitzrovia is, perhaps surprisingly, classified as being ‘above-averagely deprived.’
The area was first referred to as Fitzrovia in the 1930s, taking its name from the Fitzroy Tavern – the cosy little Sam Smith that sits on the corner of Charlotte Street and Windmill Street – where the writer and artist community used to gather. Until that point, it had only been known by its major streets, such as Great Titchfield Street or Tottenham Court Road, and was often seen as an extension to the West End, or referred to as London’s ‘Latin Quarter’.
As far as we know, the story behind it goes like this: right up until the end of the nineteenth century, the district belonged to Charles FitzRoy, 2nd Duke of Grafton. FitzRoy’s father, 1st Duke of Grafton, had already started work developing the northern part of the area in the early eighteenth century, before buying and giving his name to the Manor of Tottenhall. He later built Fitzroy Square, to which he also gave his name, along with the nearby Fitzroy Street. Part designed by Robert Adam in 1794, and completed by his brothers James and William Adams in 1978, the square remains one of the most distinguished of Fitzrovia’s original architectural features.
While the Duke of Grafton was responsible for the northern part, the Duke of Newcastle took on the south-western side – establishing what was then called Oxford Market, and which is now Market Place and its surrounding area. By the start of the 19th century, this section of London was extensively built upon, severing the Marylebone Passage into what now remains of it on Wells Street.
Having been developed by minor landowners, Fitzrovia is made up of small, irregular streets. This structure is quite different to those in neighbouring districts – such as Marylebone and Bloomsbury – which, as built up by only one or two landowners, were designed with stronger grid patterns and a greater amount of squares. While it was always FitzRoy’s intention to build residencies for the upper classes in Fitzrovia’s jagged tapestry of streets, the aristocracy quickly migrated to the likes of Belgravia and Mayfair, causing a sudden sub-division of such grand houses into flats, studios, workshops and even single rooms to let.
When French and Italian immigrants came to London at the end of the eighteenth century, they established Fitzrovia as a centre for the furniture trade, inviting a host of tradesmen and craftsmen to set up shop, including Thomas Chippendale and John Constable. Literary figures, such as Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw and Arthur Rimbaud also made home in Fitzrovia. Throughout the 1930s, Augustus John and Dylan Thomas were part of a bohemian set that made the space just north of Oxford Street their hangout.
It’s been claimed that John himself was the coiner of the name ‘Fitzrovia’, in honour of his favourite hostelry, the Fitzroy Tavern. Although, it is largely believed that the name was used first by the editor of Poetry London, M. J. Tambimuttu, when talking of the stretch of pubs between Soho to Charlotte Street; it first appeared in print in the Daily Express gossip column by Tom Driberg in 1940. The name was later made popular by chronicler of the 1940s, Julian Maclaren-Ross, in his book, Memoirs of the Forties (1965).
While the name ‘Fitzrovia’ was widely used by the early 1960s, there was little written evidence of it. The term was less commonly used by the late 1940s, due to much of the bohemian community having moved on, or died. However, in 1973, the first ever street festival to be held in Charlotte Street was called ‘the Fitzrovia Festival’ – bringing the name back into common currency and, more importantly, giving residents a label for which to try to define their neighbourhood.
Though it wasn’t officially recognised until 1994 when, following pressure from residents, Fitzrovia’s name appeared for the first time on Ordnance Survey maps. Property developers’ later attempts to rebrand the area ‘Noho’ were immediately quashed.
Biographer Paul Willetts describes Fitzrovia’s name as a “…retrospective label applied to a district of central London where, between roughly 1925 and 1950, the pubs, restaurants, cafés and drinking clubs provided a fashionable rendezvous for a diverse range of writers with a taste for bohemian life. The label, which had passed into common usage by the early 1960s, acknowledged the one-time status of the Fitzroy Tavern at 16 Charlotte Street as the area’s pre-eminent venue. Together with Rathbone Place, Charlotte Street forms the crooked spine of Fitzrovia.”
Today, Fitzrovia is home to around 6,500 people, workplace to some 50,000, and celebrated by all of London. Shakespeare once asked, “What’s in a name?” In the case of Fitzrovia, it’d seem quite a lot. But if you have to ask, then you’ll never know.