A new history of Fitzrovia shows a rich mixture of workers, migrants, intellectuals and villains

Book review: Fitzrovia, The Other Side of Oxford Street, A Social History 1900-1950. By Ann Basu (The History Press, £17.99).

Life on the edge, both geographically and socially, is the theme of this book. Colourful examples come from fake antique dealers, dodgy second hand car salesmen, and a variety of villains.

Many honest and underpaid workers in the furniture trade, the clothing industry, show business, and restaurants are also included. And a rich mix of immigrants from France, Italy, Germany, Russia, Cyprus, and even Japan.

This cosmopolitan nature of the area, where unorthodox ideas could be expressed, “created an intellectual greenhouse where political and philosophical ideas could be formulated, debated, and spread,” observes the author.

But there was also hostility to immigrants, especially during the first and second world wars, when they were treated as aliens.

The Paramount Ballroom at 161 Tottenham Court Road demonstrated both attitudes just after the second world war. It was one of the few halls to play jive music and where black and white young people mixed socially and amicably, dancing the jitterbug. But the Daily Mirror expressed revulsion at the sight of “dance fevered” white teenage girls “nuzzling and clutching the hefty, grinning dancers.” It was raided by police many times and was turned into a banqueting hall in 1950.

Sweated labour was common in the highly competitive rag trade, mostly women making women’s garments. But some of the more unusual skills in this trade included an ostrich feather curler in Charlotte Street and a pearl stringer in Cleveland Street.

The author’s great-grandparents came from Belarus in 1895 and worked in the clothing industry. They changed their surname from Simkovitch to Harris and moved to 1 Little Titchfield Street by 1911.

Furniture making was also competitive with the self employed craftsmen being dependent on orders from the big Tottenham Court Road retailers such as Maples and Heals. This drove down wages for skilled craftsmen such as cabinet makers, guilders, carvers and carpenters. The Worshipful Company of Carpenters set up a training school in 1893 at 153-155 Great Titchfield Street, which was later named the Building Crafts College, and remained there until 2001 when it moved to Stratford.

Some unscrupulous dealers produced fake antique furniture by adding simulated wormholes, burns and “encouraging rabbits to scamper across their surface.”

A “shady” trade which was less seedy however was that of Japanese lampshade making, which was started in 1928 at 92 Charlotte Street, by Seiji Kaneko who stayed there until 1965.

The lampshades were made by Japanese ex-seamen, some of whom were interned or sent to a prisoner of war camp in Scotland during the war. They had their own social club in Tottenham Court Road.

Other immigrants from Asia included Indian students at University College London in Gower Street. The Indian YMCA was set up to “regulate reportedly wild behaviour of Indian students involving English women and drink.” It was set up in Keppel Street in 1920 and moved to Gower Street in 1923, before moving to Fitzroy Square in 1950 where it is now.

Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in eastern Europe settled in the area over many decades.

One young Polish Jewish orphan girl arrived alone in 1937 at Victoria station where a railway policewoman feared she would be captured into the “white slave trade”. So she took her to the Emerson Bainbridge Hostel for Young Women and Girls at 49 Cleveland Street, next door to the Hostel for Fallen Women. The source for this was Ebb and Flow in Fitzrovia by Barb Jacobson and Olive Leonard, published by the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association in 2010.

And it was at the West Central Jewish Lads’ Club at 38 Fitzroy Square where jazz musician, broadcaster and journalist Benny Green first learned all these skills. He learned to speak in public there, “played the saxophone before an audience for the first time in my life there… and I became the editor of the club magazine.” He was brought up in poverty in Cleveland Street within a short walk from the super rich at Nash Terraces by Regents Park “where you saw how the other half lived.”

Just round the corner in Fitzroy Street was the Olympic Gym run by William Klein in the 1940s and 1950s which, according to the Picture Post, had gangster connections, including the mysterious “Joe the Greek”. Apart from boxing it was used for wrestling and weightlifting.

George, a Maltese gentleman, with his face “disfigured by razor scars” but a “kindly family man”, ran Tony’s cafe at 91 Charlotte Street in the 1950s. Its customers consisted of “bohemians, small time villains, and prostitutes with hard faces.”

Many communists, anarchists and other revolutionaries settled including Karl Marx’s tailor, Friedrich Lessner, who lodged in Tottenham Court Road and later co-founded the Independent Labour Party. And from the other extreme Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists had a women’s section run by Lady Makgill at 233 Regent Street (50 yards from Oxford Circus) until 1934.

The entertainment at the theatres and many cinemas in Tottenham Court Road over the years are all chronicled – and the amusement arcades of which there were four by 1920. One had slot machines that delivered horoscopes and even “your future wife’s picture.”

The many restaurants are also recorded. The claim that “tip” stood for “To Improve Promptness” is made but also the discontent of waiters at having these tips creamed off (or “troned” or “trunked” as it was called).

Many of these waiters and chefs lived in a “rooming house” for them in Charlotte Street until the late 1960s, according to “someone on the editorial staff of the Fitzrovia News”, we are told.

Restaurants and residents would often get their milk from the various dairies that existed with cows on the premises. One with ten cows was at 42a Clipstone Street until as late as 1930.

Those who preferred beer had many pubs to choose from including the Fitzroy Tavern on the corner of Charlotte Street and Windmill Street. The proprietor Judah Kleinfeld provided free cigars on Sunday mornings in the 1930s. Surely a custom that deserves reviving (even if they would have to be smoked outside nowadays).

With today’s traffic congestion it is difficult to believe that even as late as the 1950s children could play safely in the streets as there were not many cars. Joyce Hooper of Hanson Street recalls, also from Ebb and Flow in Fitzrovia, that she put her baby daughter in a pram unattended in the street. “The only thing I did was put a notice on, Please do not feed this child’.”

The foreword is by local writer Nick Bailey, author of Fitzrovia, published in 1981. Ann Basu has contributed many historical features to Fitzrovia News.

Fitzrovia, the Other Side of Oxford Street: A Social History 1900-1950, was published on 1 May. It will be launched at the Fitzfest on Friday 21 June, 2pm at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery, 2a Conway Street. Ann Basu is also giving a talk on the book on Tuesday 9 July, 7.15pm, at Camden Local Studies Library, 32-38 Theobalds Road, London WC1X 8PA.

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