By Jess Owen

Alighting from a northbound bus, in Tottenham Court Road, by Warren Street, travellers returning home are regularly obliged to take shelter from the beautiful English weather. Most convenient for this purpose, is a passage, leading nowhere in particular, under Fitzroy Court.

Although seemingly recent in origin, it traces the path of a two-centuries-old entrance into what used to be ‘Fitzroy Market’. Now a hotly contested football pitch, it has housed, in its time, a market, a Ragged School and a public bath-house.

Fitzroy Market stood, according to the Survey Of London, on a “site between Grafton Way and Warren Street… one of the little shopping centres frequently planned in connection with new residential schemes.”

It opened in the mid 1790’s. The rate books first record it in 1796. There are a series of advertisements offering premises for lease in the public prints of the period.  The earliest surviving lease dates from 1798.

By the turn of the century Justices were being presented with evidence of nuisances caused by practices there. In 1800 “John Waldeck, butcher, of Fitzroy Market, Saint Pancras, [was] charged with illegally housing and slaughtering cattle.”   A year later a man was presented at  the Old Bailey, charged with “swindling a piece of veal.”

In 1824 the site was put up for sale by auction. It would appear from the court cases that the main business of the market was meat. By the 1830’s , the earliest years by which Directories are of any help, butchers predominate.

In 1833 Robinson’s London tells us that it can be found at 126 Tottenham Court Road. It is not listed in the more extensive Street Key given earlier in the book. The only clue to its possible existence is a gap in the listings for Tottenham Court Road, between John Godsden at No 125 and John Brickell at 127. Robson’s London, of 1835, is more informative. Brickell is a Pawnbroker, as he had been in 1833. The Market is listed as having five tenants: Jas Owen, Thos Hunt Jas Smith, John Gallage and Robt Edie. Jo Blockley now occupies No 126 with a Bakers. Owen  is a butcher, the only trader there to be listed in the main commercial directory, which suggests the dealers working its environs were somewhat itinerant.

There is a decline in the 1850’s. By 1855 the only traders listed are general dealers. There is no mention of any food business. The market went into further decline in the next decade. As a commentator in The Builder put it in 1867: “then there is Fitzroy Market… by Tottenham-court-road, with not a single feature to suggest a market. It seems to consist of shut-up, ruined, slum-looking shops, cats’ meat stalls, marine-store dens, and old furniture brokers.” By 1870 Fitzroy Market had all but ceased to exist, but the people who lived there struggled on.

The St Pancras Coroner heard of the death of “the widow of a clog maker, aged 67 [of] bronchitis, accelerated by want of the common necessaries of life… At 9, Fitzroy Market.” The cold weather of February 1873 hit the elderly residents hard. The Times reported the death of “Thomas Samuels, aged 67, a stableman, of 3, Market-street, Fitzroy-market, [who] asked a fellow-lodger to make him a cup of tea, as he had suffered a great deal through want of clothes and fire. Before the tea could be made he died”. The Coroner “found that death was due to enlargement of the lungs, accelerated by extreme cold.”

The environs of site had not been without incident or colourful characters. In 1852 “Timothy Sullivan, a blind Irish piper” applied to Mr Bingham a magistrate at Marlborough St, complaining that the police prevented him from playing his pipes in the Fitzroy Market. Bingham refused on the grounds that there was “nothing more afflicting to English, Welch, French or German ears than the harassing noise made by the bagpipes”. Sullivan protested that his were Irish pipes, it was the “Scotch….that’s the nuisance”. The magistrate disagreed and told him to find an Irish neighbourhood in which to play.

Seventeen years later it was the turn of Italian musicians to feel the opprobrium of the magistrates. In the same court “Giovanni Dinegri was charged before Mr Knox with playing his organ, to the annoyance of the inhabitants of Fitzroy-market”. One local, “Mr Maynard of no 10 said the defendant came in front of his house; and [his] wife being very ill he desired him to go away.” Dinegri complied with the request. Unfortunately a neighbour of the complainant “requested him to play again, and he did so.” The arresting officer averred the miscreant “said that he had a right to play, as they had given him permission. The magistrate disagreed and fined him 10 shillings with the option of seven days’ prison.

In 1859 Kate White and Catherine Johnson “two smartly dressed girls” were charged with unlawful possession of a cock, belonging to a flock scratching around in Hertford Street [Whitfield Street], Fitzroy Market. A Police officer observed Kate White put the cock under her shawl “after much difficulty” in grabbing it. He challenged her and she denied having anything there. Unfortunately, at that moment the cock crowed. The ladies “smartly dressed” claimed they were “having a lark”. They were both fined 10 shillings.

John Taylor a chimney sweep was remanded, accused of stealing £50 from a greengrocer of Upper Chalton Street [Hanson Street]. The man had hidden it in a shell, lodged in his chimney. His son allegedly saw the man holding it, shortly before the money disappeared.

Nor were guardians of the law exempt from temptation. In 1867 PC Roberts 70 E Bloomsbury was accused of “burglarously entering a butcher’s shop and stealing a leg of mutton”, presumably from one of the last remaining butchers in the area. “He was caught in the very act [and] was dismissed the force”.

Mary Nagle was a lady who attracted the attention of newspaper editors. She kept a lodging house at No 1 Fitzroy Market and was charged, in 1867, “with being drunk and disorderly at the Ogle-street Roman catholic chapel… to the annoyance of the congregation”. A police officer testified he believed “there is some grievance between her and the authorities of the chapel.” Mary Nagle said: “The priest had scandalised the character of my daughter, aged 18.” Failing to find redress at the home of the priest she “thought I would go to the chapel and scandalise him.”  The police officer stated “The prisoner had been drinking, was very much excited and used most abominable language”. She was fined 10 shillings for being  “drunk and disorderly.”

A Mr Gould objected to William Spencer and his companions for “gambling near the mission-rooms..on a Sunday.” He told “them to go away” but “they would not desist”. He was fined 10 shillings or 14 days’ jail (a fairly standard tariff at Marborough Street).

Boisterous behaviour in the market place was, apparently a problem. The ‘inhabitants of Fitzroy-market and the streets adjacent were much annoyed by the nightly assemblage of lads and girls, who conducted themselves in a disorderly manner, pushing passengers off the pavement and interfering with the business of the shopkeepers.”

A year later there were still complaints that youngsters were running amock. The staid Pall Mall Gazette quoted a Marlborough Street case where “Edward Carr, aged seventeen, described as a labourer was charged with behaving in a disorderly manner, and annoying the inhabitants of Whitfield Street, Fitzroy-market”. It was recounted by a police officer that: “last night he saw the prisoner and a number of other lads rushing about in a riotous manner, pushing one another about and passengers off the pavement.” Several “witnesses complained of the annoyance they nightly suffered by a gang of lads and girls rushing about the neighbourhood and behaving in the most disorderly manner”. It was said “they were in the habit of throwing cabbages and stones.” A shopkeeper claimed  “he had been assaulted by the lads.” The Magistrate bound Carr over in the sum of £5 “for the prisoner’s good behaviour.”

Note. Originally published in Fitzrovia News print edition issue 116, spring 2010.