My grandmother died on the morning of November 22nd 1990, her last victory being that her reign managed to outlive that of Mrs Thatcher by about two hours. Before she managed the bitter success of outliving Mrs Thatcher, she did several things, including marrying my grandfather (somebody had to), birthing my father and spending thirty years of her life pleasantly residing in what my father termed “a notorious north London slum”. The same week that she died, this slum was granted conservation status by Westminster City Council, in order to devise local policies to protect the unique character and architectural heritage of the area.
Conservation areas suspend time whilst causing some frustration amongst the local population, and in conserving themselves, render significant change unimaginable. Whilst our duty to protect Georgian and Victorian sites is vital, occasionally conservation zones can end up fattening their zones up like a tourist cows ready to be taken to market. The street where my father grew up without a bathroom is now in a district so up and coming it has already upped and came, and where a one bedroom flat in the newly built Fitzroy Place costs £750,000 and up. And up and up and up…. As if preserved in Edwardian aspic, the western side of Cleveland Street sits in Georgian splendour, looking down its eighteenth century nose at the southern end of its road, where someone unthoughtfully placed a low rise shopping parade during the arse end of the 1950s, and then, to add insult to architectural injury, in 1965 someone else built London’s most phallic structure in the Telecom Tower, which rises like an irate penis from Cleveland Street’s southern end.
Many people were upset by the Telecom Tower, in fact the IRA were so offended by its architectural brutalism that they tried to blow up its misconceived revolving restaurant. Local government reacted by designating London’s first conservation areas in 1967. Since then 76% of the City of Westminster has become zoned off and conserved, in 54 separate conservation zones, all of which come under the terrifying auspices of the English Heritage Conservation Area Practice codes. Every Georgian window requiring double glazing, every optimistic roof extension, every suggestion of a solar panel, every commercial business wishing to transfer from A1 to A2 use must pass through the exhaustive remit of not one, but two conservation areas here in Cleveland Street. Even though the Cleveland Street Conservation Area takes in only a short stretch of buildings south of Greenwell Street and north of Carburton Street, this area is subject to Camden’s Bloomsbury Conservation Area as well, notwithstanding the watchful eye of the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association, a formidable organisation which has been putting the fear into local businesses, council employees and property developers since its inception in 1974.
What then, is this area that is being conserved? Why has time chosen to be artificially stopped in this corner of Euston? Who, or what, dear friends, is Fitzrovia? It is not, like Soho or Mayfair, an actual geographical location but rather, like Hollywood, an idea, a sense of a place. No one appears to have used the name Fitzrovia until the early twentieth century and, as we shall see, the area’s story goes back an awful lot further than that. First, we are going to take a trip back about 300 years. And we are going to stop right there, no – hang on – THERE. Charles II’s sex life.
There wouldn’t be any history at all in England after the seventeenth century if it wasn’t for Charles II’s sex life. Charles II hardly had any time to be a monarch, so preoccupied was he with having sex and spawning a startling amount of royal bastards. All of his illegitimate children were subsequently ennobled. His most famous paramour was Barbara “call me Babs, your Majesty!” Villiers, who was so good at having sex with the king that he wasted no time at all in giving her the title of Duchess of Cleveland. Among the five children she had with him was Henry Fitzroy, who was first created Earl of Euston and then Duke of Grafton. At this point she got tired of naming her children after public houses and started shagging John Churchill. The name “FitzRoy” means of course, “Son of the King”, but this Henry Fitzroy is not the first Henry Fitzroy. We have to go back even further to find him. The first Henry Fitzroy was born in 1519, the only illegitimate child that Henry VIII recognised as his own, and before the First Henry Fitzroy’s death at the age of 17 in 1536, he was cajoled into marriage at the age of 14 to the daughter of the very Catholic Duke of Norfolk, in a rascally attempt to secure a Catholic marriage and possible succession. I spent most of yesterday trying to work out what on earth happened to the Fitzroy line between the Tudor age and the late Stuart one. I could find no trace of it. Eventually, I gave up shouting at the computer when I couldn’t find anything. Suffice to say, the land we now know as Fitzrovia was marshland studded by the occasional farm, an unhappy pig and ancient woods until well into the 1750s.
London place names change identity, just to confuse us. Cleveland Street was known as Green Lane, then Upper Newman Street and then, by the time a young Charles Dickens lived there in about 1817, Norfolk Street. Perhaps this is sinister echo of the machiavellian Duke of Norfolk manipulating a young, consumptive Henry Fitzroy into marriage. Either way it still doesn’t quite know what it is when it eventually gets to be called Cleveland Street at some point in the mid-nineteenth century. It snaps down the middle of itself into a schizoid street plan. The eastern side of the street is in the parish of St Pancras, the west in St Marylebone. The council followed suit : the eastern side of the street is under the remit of The City of Westminster whilst the western side languishes in The London Borough of Camden. The eastern side of the street is the beginning of the Southampton Estate ( that controlled by the Fitzroy family and various Charles II love children) and the western marks the beginning of the Great Portland Estate. This is neither the West End or North London, neither east nor west, but an undistinguished thoroughfare somewhere in the middle, providing access to Oxford Street in the south and the New Road (later Euston Road) in the north. By 1793 the Fitzroys are rolling with their homies, namely James and Robert Adam, and are on a superb building spree of neo-classical proportions in Fitzroy Square.
There are, according to the Cleveland Street Conservation Area Audit, Grade II buildings, as well as “unlisted buildings of merit”, amidst the former work rooms and commercial businesses that, after a brief, unconsummated flirt with Georgian gentrification, sent Cleveland Street on its slow downward social spiral. The rococo finery of Fitzroy Square around the corner looms out in lurid splendour in comparison, continuing to attract the stylish and rich and talented and when it couldn’t attract them it attracted Virginia Woolf. Cleveland Street wasn’t so lucky. The Conservation Area Audit from www3.westminster.gov.uk insists on mis-spelling Woolf’s name and sort of cobbles her together with “residents of social and artistic importance”, but the only other one they can think of is George Bernard Shaw. Cleveland Street, says our audit, became “less affluent and more commercially focused” throughout the nineteenth century, thereby setting it firmly on its course to become the slum mentioned above.
“This district has significance as a physical record of social and cultural history, which in turn has contributed to a great sense of community pride” the audit continues, before being attracted by more interesting aspects of Cleveland Street, such as it’s “one-way traffic flow” , and flinging about words like “thriving” and “lively” which could basically describe anything. The section of bona fide, 20-carat, Georgian Grade II listed buildings in the centre of Cleveland Street are the plump raisins in the centre of the town planning cake. People get very excited about Georgian houses that were once houses for those dressed in finery, descended into flatlets, stumbled into poverty, eventually became mired in neglect and now appear to have come full circle for people dressed in finery once more. “In contrast” to these Georgian houses, it says, is a mid-19th century listed public house, The George & Dragon, a pub which, during the war, frequently vomited out patrons at closing time, singing “Roll out the barrel, we’ve got the Jews on the run.” Of course, you won’t read about that in many urban history audits, and I only know it because inconsiderate V1 rockets insisted on disturbing my father at night around closing time, whilst he was trying to sleep in his flat up the street. But it’s one thing to be woken up by Germans throwing bombs at you, but quite another to woken up by a group of anti-semites…. Oh.
In its desire to preserve and enhance, the audit sings of “yellow stock brick” and “Flemish bond” in the Georgian, fairly raffish, shoddy looking specimens on the street’s western side. There are “patterns of fenestrations”, “butterfly roofs” and “unadorned parapets”. Then we get some pictures of doors and a “decorative knocker”, before a very stern paragraph in which we are told, as if we were naughty children, that “original architectural features are vital to the architectural quality of buildings” – Really? Doh – and strictly admonished that we remember Policy DES 9 C, which states that the council “will not allow schemes which involve the loss of original features”. Policy DES 9C! Of course I remember you! My fave read. I’ve heard that Policy DES C9 is being turned into a musical! Well, perhaps not, although last year did see the brief theatrical appearance of “Cleveland Street : The Musical” which was a song-and-dance version of the male brothel / telegrams / Whoops there goes Prince Albert scandal of 1888. I stress that my father was not involved in that.
The audit continues, commenting that the Telecom Tower can be seen from “many directions”, which is bloody obvious, because I’d be visible from many directions if I was 619 metres tall. They comment that “railings and boundary walls contribute significantly to the character of conservation areas” and then spend three paragraphs bitching about the railings not been nearly good enough, mainly because poor people lived in the houses they surrounded for about a hundred years. And I cannot tell you the level of near orgasmic delight they achieve when singing the praises of the “cylindrical open heritage style litter bin”. What they do not write about or mention is that neighbourhood streets such as this one only retain they much talked of liveliness and vivacity if they have a stable micro-economy, i.e. if a number of these buildings within conservation zones are specifically ear marked for commercial or small enterprise use, thereby blowing a much needed clean sweep of fresh air through this former neglected corner of Euston. As anyone who has ever walked through a newly-rich conservation area in central London will tell you, this does not tend to happen. Businesses don’t move in to negotiate the council red tape and listed building statuses. Residents do.
“Heritage style” was a phrase that was barely in existence until about 15 years ago. In the 1990s the world “holistic” was everywhere and no one was quite sure what that meant, either. This decade it’s the turn of “heritage”. I was astonished to find I was recently eating a heritage beetroot. Much satire was made in the BBC comedy series 2012 about the discrepancy between “heritage”, “legacy” and “sustainability” efforts, but no one was capable of articulating the difference between the three. The word “heritage” means things of value or cultural worth that are passed down and inherited through the ages. But there must be the knowledge that what you are choosing to preserve within that heritage has a real, true worth. What if the street you are preserving in a jar was a bit shit? Or, a bit deprived. Or, in one of Euston’s former most socially neglected wards? Why can’t we knock some of these sad buildings down and start again? Because they are, put simply, old. Older items are getting dressed up and coated in new paint so we can forget their histories, so we can gaze at the one surviving coal hole cover in this street which, for some reason, somebody at City of Westminster Council has chosen to “record and retain” , despite the fact that the coalman who delivered for forty years was delighted to see the back of it, and the housewife who had to spend half of her marriage shoveling its contents about probably only smiled for the first time when her husband told her they were having central heating installed.
At what point does an “historic characteristic” become just another reminder of the poverty-stricken history of Euston and Fitzrovia that the area is trying to shake off? There is no merit in choosing to seek historical authenticity in urban poverty. These are not subjects for cultural validity. They are subjects for shame. The twelve door buzzers by an early Victorian door, the scuffed and maltreated front steps, the washing suspended from lines inside sitting rooms; these are things of incalculable embarrassment to anyone who lived in the richest city on earth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. How tall and mean must the houses be to remind us of their previous overcrowding? The former Cleveland Street Workhouse is not listed under the “negative features” section, although to all intents and purposes it should be, as perhaps nothing is more embarrassing to the modern British mind than the reminder that our poor were sent to die in houses of penal correction. Instead the report mentions the things that do not matter such as unsightly cables, cluttered flues and unwanted wires.
Perhaps the most telling phrase in the whole report is that “services should be concealed where possible”. In Britain, where it is legal to be a prostitute but illegal to go outside your front door to advertise the fact, the preoccupation is largely on what face we choose to show the outside world, rather than what goes on inside the city’s front doors. No one really minds that the early Victorian doors have never fitted in their frames because generation after generation of slum landlords have never cared to mend them. No one really minds that the architect lives in a flat that once housed four families. There is, however, a permanent undertaste of squalor in this part of town, which no end of oak flooring and marble slabbed bathrooms can remove.
Only in the last 45 years have we introduced the idea of “conserving” patches of the city, and thereby preventing the innate urban flow of development and progress to run its course. I am not suggesting for a moment that we allow developers to ride roughshod over our loved buildings, far from it. But a more integrated approach is needed unless London is to turn into an architectural series of rich villages, where people may buy flats in former Victorian slums at extortionate prices, safe in the knowledge that social housing will never be able to be built beside them. Fitzrovia is an area that still has its pockets of social deprivation, because, irritatingly, the poor don’t go anywhere. Unless, of course they are lucky enough to get out. Whilst conservation areas perform a vital task in ensuring the cultural and architectural survival of so much of our city, we must also question how normal it is for 76% of one’s major city to be, in essence, within the architectural and building use control of the state. As an urban space, London’s engine is its own power of energy and regeneration, its own flow of money, creation and enterprise, which – like never before – is needed to bring the next generation of Londoners out and up through the economic collapse. What isn’t needed is to artificially extend the life of jerry-built housing and cramped workrooms, and pump them full of money like an old woman’s face filled with collagen in the misguided belief she is making something anew. Just because a building is old, it does not automatically become rendered worthy of “heritage” or preservation. In the late 1970s, a full decade before the establishment of the Cleveland Street Conservastion Zone, the crumbling block of flats in Cleveland Street where my father grew up was knocked down. He wasn’t sentimental about it. He simply said it was too ignoble to survive.
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