Christmas has come early for the property owners, developers and estate agents in Fitzrovia as The Sunday Times in its annual trawl of the best places to live in London named the neighbourhood as its first choice.
Attractions according to its lifestyle editors include a number of sylish bars and cafes, and Exemplar’s pile on the site of the former Middlesex Hospital with starting prices of £1.35m.
Crossrail they note is fuelling a development frenzy but the neighbourhood’s real gems are the quiet back streets and Georgian town houses. Buying anywhere to live here will cost at least £750,000 they state.
The Sunday Times in its Home section published last weekend said it based its decision on statistics on crime, school performance, life expectancy, house prices and services such as transport links. They also considered whether there were good pubs and places to eat as well as a true community spirit.
The area is very well served by public transport and has one of the lowest rates of car ownership in the UK with many people choosing to walk or cycle to get around. Yet it is blighted by high levels of pollution from motor vehicles.
Many of the 8,000 or so residents and the tens of thousands who work here may agree with the ST‘s assessment of best place to live but would point out the challenges of rising rents and the nuisance from the constant demolition and construction, neighbours wanting to extend their property, and the increase in late night opening of restaurants and bars.
The area was first referred to as Fitzrovia in the 1930s, being named after the Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street where a group of writers used to gather. Before then it did not have its own name and was known by its major streets and places like Tottenham Court Road, Fitzroy Square, and Great Titchfield Street. It was often referred to as part of the West End. The historian E Beresford Chancellor called it London’s Old Latin Quarter.
The name Fitzrovia may have been first used by the founder and editor of Poetry London M. J. Tambimuttu who used the name to describe a crawl of pubs from Soho to Charlotte Street in the 1930s. It first appeared in print in a newspaper column by Tom Driberg in 1940 but was later popularised by the chronicler of 1940s Fitzrovia life Julian Maclaren-Ross.
Biographer Paul Willetts describes the name Fitzrovia 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.”
Although Willetts notes that the name was in common usage by the early 1960s there is little written record of this. It seems the name Fitzrovia fell out of use from the late 1940s as many of the writers, their associates either died or moved on. Many homes were lost as commercial buildings increased in number during the 1950s and 1960s.
However, the 1970s saw the rise of a number of community activists in Fitzrovia. First the Charlotte Street Association formed in 1970 to try to prevent the demolition of Georgian buildings and stem the loss of people’s homes. Founding members of the Charlotte Street Association included the artists Adrian and Corinne Heath.
Then in 1973 the organisers of the first street festival in Charlotte Street wanted to create a title for the Festival. The name Fitzrovia Festival was suggested by Eric Singer, a German immigrant who recalled the use of the name in the 1940s. The organisers of the Festival were not familiar with the name at the time.
So the name Fitzrovia came back into common currency reinforced by the annual Fitzrovia Festival and people now had a name from which to try to define their neighbourhood.
The sense of community was further reinforced with the publication of Tower a monthly free newspaper written by volunteers and first published in 1973. Tower was later replaced by Fitzrovia News.
By the time the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Centre was opened by the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association in 1975 the district included the streets bounded by Great Portland Street, Euston Road, Gower Street and Oxford Street. People saw it as a distinct area defined by its mix of residential and commercial uses and its small-scale Georgian streetscape. This special character they attempted to protect, particularly its residential amenity.
East of Gower Street the buildings formed part of the campus of the University of London and separated the residential streets around Huntley Street from the streets of Bloomsbury to the east. Likewise Great Portland Street marked a change from the mix of residential and commercial to the more affluent mansion blocks and grander buildings of the Harley Street area of Marylebone to the west.
Situated on the edges of Westminster and Camden, Fitzrovia was affordable, shabby, even run-down. In the 1960s and 1970s there was squatting in empty houses which were falling to pieces and both Camden and Westminster councils stepped in to compulsory purchase large apartment blocks after their landlords had let them go to rack and ruin.
Charlotte Street’s restaurants and cafes were run by immigrants and provided affordable food and drink as well as intimate places to socialise.
But developers always had their eyes on Fitzrovia positioned as it is so close to the West End. Buildings were refurbished and rents rose, pushing out the independent businesses never to return.
Residents in private rented flats suffered the same fate as protected tenancies and rent controls were abolished under the 1986 Landlord and Tenant Act. Friends and families moved away to cheaper and better housing.
Pressure on housing in London growing since the mid-1980s continued apace. From a low point in 1979 London’s population grew again towards its pre-World War II peak of over 8 million. Fitzrovia was caught up in this, exacerbated by the advent of the Crossrail project which caused mass property speculation because of Fitzrovia’s close proximity to both the Tottenham Court Road and Bond Street Crossrail stations.
Commercial pressure increased with the advent of a business improvement district initiated by the property developer Derwent London in 2012 and threatened the delicate balance between residential and commercial uses. Small businesses felt the pressure from developers who wanted to amalgamate small shops into larger ones, and overseas property owners registered in secrecy jurisdictions boarded up shops having evicted the tenants.
At the heart of Fitzrovia is the huge property development of Fitzroy Place on the site of the former Middlesex Hospital. The apartments being sold on the development site sold for between £900,000 and £15,000,000. In the surrounding streets, residents who have lived most of their lives in their modest homes here have found themselves forced out by rising rents and by developers selling to overseas investors.
It is often overlooked that the majority of people (about 70 percent) living here rent their homes and half of those are in council or housing association property. All of this is under threat from changes to planning and other legislation.
Even the relatively well-off media industry is under threat in Fitzrovia. Small agencies and production units are clustered near the larger companies, but where these do not own their property they are increasingly being priced out. Those that own their premises are sometimes cashing-in on their assets and converting their offices to luxury flats after they have moved elsewhere.
The vast amount of construction work makes life a misery at times with the noise from demolition and the movement of concrete lorries through the streets. There’s plenty of posh flats going up but little in the way of real affordable housing or public open space being created.
Today’s Fitzrovia may be talk of the town but it is undergoing rapid change and is struggling to preserve what made it attractive in the first place, despite its conservation areas and the determination of many people to keep it as a diverse living and working community.