We tend to think of the streets on which we live, work or walk as embodying permanence, but the reality is that they are in a state of continuous evolution. Those of Fitzrovia are no exception, and a look at their names and changes to them in the relatively brief period of its development reflects this transience. So numerous are the changes that this article could not possibly record them all.
As a district, with the exception of the blocks along the north side of Oxford Street, the area was almost completely undeveloped until the latter part of the 18th century, consisting before then largely of fields, with the name ‘Fitzrovia’ a later invention of the 1930s.
We begin, appropriately, outside the Fitzroy Tavern, many habituees of which embodied the district’s literary, artistic and bohemian character in the period around the Second World War, lending it a name and character distinct from that of Soho to the south.
Standing on Charlotte Street, we should remember that the area, and adjoining Bloomsbury, formerly contained additional streets bearing, somewhat confusingly, the same name, commemorating the wife of George III, who had become Queen Consort in 1761. Several ‘Charlotte’ and ‘George’ streets existed, named by the aristocratic families responsible for much of the urban development and keen to ingratiate themselves with the monarchy. Street naming also reflected their many family surnames or villages on their country estates. Rationalisation in the latter part of the 19th century culled many of these duplicates.
On the west side of Charlotte Street, Rathbone Street was formerly known as Upper Rathbone Place, with the short section at the northern end formerly known as Bennett Street. In fact, Rathbone Street itself was originally Glanville Street, changing later to commemorate a 17th century resident. At the southern end of Rathbone Street is a tiny gated mews, originally Glanville Mews (also known as Granby Mews or Pritchard’s Yard), though by the 1890s it had become Granville Mews. It is uncertain how the Mews acquired its later name and whether Granville simply sounded better or less liable to ambiguous mispronunciation.
If we return and walk north through Charlotte Place — previously Charlotte Court and Little Charlotte Street — we can cross over Goodge Street to the cobbled Goodge Place — formerly called Cumberland Street in the 1870s, before changing to Little Goodge Street by the 1890s. The western section of Goodge Street, between Wells Street and Charlotte Place, was originally called Charles Street, but was partly subsumed into Goodge Street, the remainder becoming the eastern extension of Mortimer Street.
Further north, adjoining Charlotte Street, Scala Street — formerly Pitt Street — commemorates the theatre, demolished in 1969, that once stood there. Nearby Chitty Street was previously North Street — again named after a Prime Minister — on the 1870 Ordnance Survey map, but was renamed by the 1890s.
Turning left out of Goodge Place, into Tottenham Street and thence to Cleveland Street, we look across to the former Middlesex Hospital site, now entirely redeveloped, and walk north along Cleveland Street, past Riding House Street, the eastern section of which from Great Titchfield Street was previously called Union Street. This gave its name to Union Mews — now Bourlet Close — and the short Candover Street was originally York Street.
Cleveland Street, at its lower section, was known as Upper Newman Street, changing to Norfolk Street — as Charles Dickens would have known it when he lived there — before acquiring its present name. Its northern section was known as Buckingham Place, and then Upper Cleveland Street. It should be remembered, though, that long before all this, its route was known as The Green Lane, marked on Rocque’s map of London of the 1740s, running from Farthing Pye House near today’s Great Portland Street Station down to the northern end of Berners Street.
Opposite the eastern end of Foley Street is the now restored second part of the former Middlesex Hospital site which was originally the Strand Union Workhouse, built in the 1770s. Looking new — the result of brickwork restoration with fresh lime mortar, and cleaned of over two centuries of coal-smoke pollution. We should remember that Fitzrovia’s air is now cleaner than it has ever been for over two hundred years.
We now walk north to the junction of Cleveland Street with Howland Street, and can look west along present-day New Cavendish Street, the section to Great Portland Street originally named Upper Marylebone Street, and known as such when political activist, writer and revolutionary Thomas Paine stayed there for a short time in the early 1790s whilst writing the second part of ‘The Rights of Man’.
Walking up Cleveland Street to the next junction, we look up at Fitzrovia’s iconic landmark, the BT Tower. It stands over what was the original Cleveland Mews, the remnant entrance to which is still visible in the pattern of some of the granite kerbstones in the modern Cleveland Mews that connects Howland Street with Maple Street.
Confusingly, today’s Cleveland Mews was originally known as Russell Mews. Maple Street itself was formerly London Street, and at the first junction along Maple Street is present-day Conway Street. Looking up at the brickwork on the corner house we can actually make out the painted ‘ghost’ sign that reveals its former name of Southampton Street, an appellation it carried at the end of the 19th century, but a glance at the 1870 Ordnance Survey map shows us that before then it was known as Hampstead Street, presumably changed to avoid confusion with the nearby Hampstead Road.
We walk past the present-day ‘Lore of the Land’ pub, originally named the ‘Adams Arms’, (later O’Neill’s and the ‘Lukin’) in recognition of the Adam brothers, architects of some of the large houses that face Fitzroy Square, named after its developer Charles Fitzroy, the 1st Baron Southampton. We can sit on one of the benches, and remember that in the 1750s we would be sitting in open fields, with little more than a farmhouse visible to the north, pausing in our tour until next time.
Jon Temple is a writer and psychogeographer, author of ‘Living Off The State: a critical guide to UK royal finance’, and currently writing Vol.6 of the History of the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames.