Fitzrovia is an interesting corner of London. It’s the area north of Oxford Street; west of Tottenham Court Road; south of Euston Road; and east of Great Portland Street. Fitzrovia, with its pubs and cafes, has always represented a fringe and marginal space within London. It is the drinking culture rather than any discernible aesthetic, political ethic or philosophy that attracted people. It’s also home to some great architecture, history and even better pubs.
The area played host to literary greats such as Patrick Hamilton, Julian Maclaren-Ross, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Quentin Crisp, George Bernard Shaw, Virgina Woolf, Dylan Thomas etc. In addition to the literary titans, other people who lived locally and frequented the local pubs (such as the Fitzroy Tavern and The Wheatsheaf) include Nancy Cunard, Walter Sickert, the Sitwells, Betty May, Graham Greene, Albert Pierrepoint, Tambimuttu, Aleister Crowley, Nina Hamnett, Percy Wyndham Lewis, James Meary, Augustus John, the bookie Prince Monolulu, Arthur Rimbaud, Boy George, John Constable, Whistler, and Paul Verlaine. Some roll call eh?
Previously known as North Soho, the area became known as Fitzrovia in 1940 when the William Hickey gossip column, in the Daily Express, described the Bohemian set that hung out at The Fitzroy Tavern pub as “Fitzrovians”. Fitzrovia soon became used to describe the whole area. As an aside, in the early 21st century, property developers Candy & Candy tried to rebrand the area as “Noho” via a proposed development on the site of the old Middlesex Hospital although, finally, lack of funds meant it never happened and that appears to have put paid to the new name.
Here’s just a few examples of where Fitzrovia features in literature and popular culture…
My favourite writer, Patrick Hamilton, published a book in 1929 called “The Midnight Bell”. The title comes from the pub which is the book’s focal point. Hamilton’s hours of sitting, drinking and observing London pub life all contribute to magic of this superb novel. One of the novel’s best scenes takes place in a prostitute’s flat in Fitzrovia. Patrick Hamilton knew this area well. The interior of the Midnight Bell has a physical resemblance to that of the Fitzroy Tavern (more than any other pub in the area). The Wheatsheaf also offers a close match and Hamilton’s description of the publican at the Midnight Bell is likely based on the short, plump spinster Mona Glendenning, and Redvers, her similarly rotund brother, and his wife Frances.
X Trapnel, the libertine author in Anthony Powell’s “A Dance To The Music Of Time” is based on the impecunious and thirsty bohemian writer Julian Maclaren-Ross, even down to the sunglasses and walking stick. Maclaren-Ross was most relentless of the Fitzrovian monologists, and - for me - is the ultimate Fitzrovian.
Jah Wobble and Bill Sharpe released a jazz album in 2013 called “Kingdom of Fitzrovia” that pays tribute to the area’s artistic past (not usually my sort of thang but, well it’s referencing Fitzrovia so I gave it a chance and, y’know what, it’s the acceptable face of jazz funk and, call it auto suggestion if you will, but it does have a bit of a Fitzrovian vibe).
The UFO Club was situated in the basement of 31 Tottenham Court Road where Pink Floyd were regular performers.
Bob Dylan played his first London show at the King & Queen pub on Foley Street.