Real Bloomsbury, by Nicholas Murray (Seren Books, £9.99)

Reviewed by Mike Pentelow

Cartoon depicting judge in 1727 reading out charges and saying: "Immorality... Vice... Public disorder... — and it isn't even 2011 yet."The whimsical juxtapositions of the area’s past and present will raise many a smile and a few tears.

The more parochial Fitzrovians will be pleased that the book covers the disputed border territory with Bloomsbury between Gower Street and Tottenham Court Road.

The debauchery of the fairs at the top of Tottenham Court Road until the 18th century are lovingly described, and compared favourably with the soulless office blocks that exist there today.

In 1727 the courts clamped down on many of those enjoying the fair, accusing them of riot, tumult, public disorder, vice, immorality, and “the debauching and ruining of servants, apprentices, and others.” They were denounced as “rogues and vagabonds” by the court, which ordered the high constable to get the “petty constables” of Tottenham Court to stop it all. They seemingly did their duty as the event was turned into a mild annual gooseberry fair.

These and the original raucous fairs took place on the site of the old Tottenhall manor house, which had become the Adam and Eve pub, with a miniature menagerie, consisting of a monkey, a heron, various wild fowl, parrots, and a goldfish pond. The pub was on the junction of Tottenham Court Road and Euston Road, and was demolished when the underpass was built in 1961.

The author muses that the soulless office blocks now lining this road would be “enlivened by the rough jollity of the Adam and Eve crowd.”

He sees history repeating itself on the matter of private security. The Duke of Bedfords did not like public access to their estates in the area, so employed uniformed gatekeepers to operate barriers. They were only forced to remove them by an act of parliament in 1890, and it was not until 1893 that Gower Street became a public thoroughfare, and the last barrier was removed from Torrington Place. Nowadays, says  Murray, the very same streets are patrolled by “community support officers” and scrutinised by CCTV.

When the University of London opened in Gower Street in 1828 to provide education at “a moderate expense” it was denounced by the establishment as being “the Cockney College.”

The poet Winthrop Mackworth Praed lampooned this snobbery:

But let them not babble of Greek to the rabble,
Nor teach the Mechanics their letters;
The labouring classes were born to be asses,
And not to be aping their betters.

The snobs need not have worried, muses Murray, as University College London (which it became in 1836) is now “one of the most elitist parts of the British higher education system: a third of its places going to students from private fee paying schools, one of the highest proportions of any British university. Less than one undergraduate in five has a working class background. The Cockney rabble has been seen off.”

As for its traditions of moderate expenses, it is now “itching to raise tuition fees” and is all about marketing itself as “London’s  global university”, which to the author is a meaningless phrase.

One reply on “‘Debauching and the ruining of servants’ in Tottenham Court Road fondly remembered”

  1. What a wonderful insight into the past of that leafy corridor. Your review has given me a tempting taste and now I want to read the book and get all the wonderful detail.

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