For more of all things London history, sign up for our new (free) newsletter and community: Londonist: Time Machine.
Fitzrovia, that wonky square of joy north of Soho, is a relative newcomer to the map of London. The streets themselves were laid out from the 1730, but the name Fiztrovia didn't appear in print until 1940... or so it was thought.
The name ultimately derives from Charles Fitzroy, an 18th century landowner who set out Fitzroy Square. But his name didn't immediately catch on as a shorthand for the wider area. We can thank the Fitzroy Tavern for that. The still blossoming pub on Charlotte Street was a centre of culture and creativity in the early 20th century, attracting many notable literary and artistic figures. It was the chief landmark in the area for many people, and — so goes the theory — people began to talk about "Fitzrovia" by association.
When exactly did this happen? The Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association reckons the term "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." This is also the date you'll find on Wikipedia, and seems to have become the established chronology across the web.
It's not hard to find earlier mentions, however. A search of online newspaper archives readily brings up a cutting from September 1936 which namechecks the area: "Drawing a group of young people in that colony of Soho known as Fitzrovia...". This shows that the streets north of Oxford Street were considered part of Soho in the early 20th century.
Google Books allows us to push the date back even further. A 1930 edition of the Socialist Review speaks of a Miss Hamnett's reminiscences of a "district of London which is sometimes known as Fitzrovia". We can't access the full record, but the fact that these are reminiscences suggests the term was being used even earlier than 1930.
So the phrase "Fitzrovia" found its way into print at least a decade earlier than previously acknowledged. That fact allows us to immediately rule out one particular origin story. The coinage is often credited to the poet Meary James Thurairajah Tambimuttu (known as Tambi). But Tambi didn't move to London until 1938, eight years after the term first appeared in print. He may have helped popularise the phrase towards the end of the decade, but in 1930 he was a 15-year-old schoolboy in Ceylon.
We can't quite dismiss the good old Fitzroy Tavern so easily, though. The pub reached its bohemian heyday in the 1930s, when figures such as Dylan Thomas, Aleister Crowley and George Orwell were among the regulars. But it seems to have attracted a lively reputation by the late 1920s — early enough to spark the Fitzrovia coinage, and certainly its popularisation.
By the end of the century, the pub had attracted a very different crowd, as a regular meet-up spot for the Doctor Who fandom (including Russell T Davies and Stephen Moffat, who would revive the show from 2005). Perhaps a future episode of the time-travel show could be set among the bohemian figures of Fitzrovia, and end with the Doctor himself suggesting the name?
Images by the author.