The life and changing times of the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Centre

The Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Centre, which will be closing in June, was a product of its time and was one of several community advice centres being established across Camden and other inner London boroughs in the 1970s.

Newspaper front page.

March 1975 issue of Tower community newspaper announcing the creation of the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Centre in Tottenham Street.

The opportunity arose as a result of funding provided by the Home Office to tackle inner city problems. This Urban Programme ran from 1968 to 75 and Camden was one of 34 local authorities which were eligible for funding. Fortunately Judith Dainton, a leading light of the Tottenham Street Tenants Association, came across the government circular inviting bids while working for the National Council for Social Service then based in Bedford Square. She consulted other local people and, with the help of Camden community workers made an application.

The proposal involved establishing a centre in Fitzrovia which would both provide expert advice on housing, welfare rights and immigration and bring together the twenty or so tenants’ associations and community groups representing different parts of Fitzrovia on the Westminster and Camden sides of the borough boundary.

Early in 1975 this new collective was notified that its proposal was successful and that it was being awarded a grant of £54,000 per year over five years. A series of very talented and dedicated workers were appointed to provide the support the area needed.

Goodge Place and number 39 Tottenham Street had been under threat of redevelopment by the Middlesex Hospital which in the early 1970s was intent on expanding up to and including Charlotte Street. Financial circumstances changed and it soon withdrew redevelopment plans. The hospital was then asked if it would be willing to rent number 39 to provide a home for the newly formed Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association.

In April 1975 the Hospital agreed to let the former glass shop, long since boarded up, for a very reasonable £300 per year. Two other houses in Goodge Place were included in the deal to provide short-life housing. The whole terrace was later saved when Camden acquired the properties on the east side from the Greater London Council.

Tower (forerunner to Fitzrovia News) regularly reported on the dire housing conditions in the area and Sue Blundell from Camden’s Housing Aid Centre ran regular advice sessions for hard-pressed tenants in the Neighbourhood Centre. In response, local residents carried out a series of housing surveys in order to find out the extent of the problem. The results provided the evidence to persuade Camden and Westminster Councils to take action.

The level of community activity was sustained, throughout the decade and into the 1980s. Two notable achievements were the commitment of the Fitzrovia Play Association in raising £30,000 for the improvement of The Warren playground and the involvement of the GLC in acquiring what had been a car park in Whitfield Street and then landscaping it as the now green oasis off Colville Place known as Crabtree Fields.

The Neighbourhood Centre was also the birthplace of many other local groups, including the Central London Law Centre, the Chinese Workers Association, the Bengali Workers Association, and provided a meeting space for numerous tenants and residents groups as well as campaign groups and political parties.

The Bengali Women’s Health Project was also founded here: a partnership between several groups in the area, who worked to bring better health to Bangladeshi women across south Camden through talks, exercise, massage and a pioneering women’s clinic, and was a central group organising the Camden Melas.

The Women’s Art Project worked for years with other community groups and the Mary Ward Centre and the British Museum to make beautiful community displays in response to many of its major exhibitions and was a key partner in the development of its community unit.

The advice service has been helping to bring over half a million pounds a year to the poorest in our area and ensure safer and more secure housing for many, which has helped to maintain diversity in Fitzrovia. This despite the pressure of rents and property prices working to drive out much of the settled working class, many originally from places all over the UK and the world.

The Older Fitzrovia project has linked up pensioners across the area with oral history, singing, trips to places of interest across London, exercise, massage and visits from and to the British Museum as well as signposting people to other interesting activities across Central London.

As Fitzrovia has changed from the workshop of the West End to the spare bedroom of the West End, the FNA has worked hard to maintain a sense of continuity and pride amongst the people who do still live here, and welcome newcomers.

Much of this article is based on an original piece written by Nick Bailey which first appeared in Fitzrovia News autumn 2015 and is based on a talk he gave as part of Fitzrovia Festival 2015.

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