A wry view of life for the world-weary

The Streets Of London – Part Forty Six


Tottenham Court Road, W1

This street runs from St Giles Circus which forms the junction to Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road in the south to Euston Road and at three-quarters of a mile is one of Central London’s longest and busiest thoroughfares. These days it has a rather seedy feel to it, with its mix of sandwich shops, banks and purveyors of discounted electrical goods.

The area is mentioned in the Domesday Book as belonging to the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s. During the mid 13th century a manor house was built on what is now 250, Euston Road at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Euston Road, belonging to one William de Tottenhall. Excavations on the site have uncovered Saxon pottery, a series of 13th and 14th century yards and the remains of mediaeval and Tudor walls. It seems that over the years Totten Hall became corrupted to Tottenham, although it has no relationship with the area further north bearing that name.

The manor was demolished during the 18th century and during the latter part of that century and the 19th the road became famous for the manufacture of furniture, especially cabinets, and pianos. Unsurprisingly the road hosted a number of furniture retailers, the finest extant is Heal’s at 196 which was enlarged and given a façade of Portland stone in 1912-17 – the architectural historian Pevsner called it “the best commercial front of its date in London” – although the shop had been trading for a century beforehand. There is still a divide in the road with a preponderance of furniture shops to the north of Goodge Street and electrics to the south.

Opposite Heal’s is a rather odd-looking, solitary building now occupied by Caffe Nero and the adjacent concrete square is popular with pigeons and office workers eating their sandwiches. However, its claim to fame was on Palm Sunday 1945 when the area was struck by a V2 rocket, killing 9 people and demolishing most of the surrounding buildings, many of which were not rebuilt. This was the last V2 to strike central London and the seven non-flowering trees to the right of the café are a symbol of the destruction.

Depending upon your taste murals are either forms of vandalism or works of art. The open space created by the bomb, now known as Whitfield Gardens, is to be found the Fitzrovia Mural, painted in 1980 and depicting people at work and at leisure.

At number 92, in the years leading up to the first World War, was the premises of Fairyland which, despite its name, was a shooting gallery, run by Henry Stanton Morley. It seemed to be a magnet for Indian nationalists who came along to practise their shooting skills in reparation for assassination attempts on notable members of the Raj. At least one attempt succeeded, Madan Lal Dinghra, a regular at Fairyland, killing Sir William Curzon Wylie on 1st July 1909. Donald Lesbini shot Alice Eliza Story on the premises, his trial in 1914 establishing the legal precedent that for voluntary manslaughter a reasonable man has reasonable powers of self-control and is never intoxicated.

Situated underneath the junction where Tottenham Court Road meets Chenies Street was the bunker from which General Eisenhower directed the Allied Forces’ invasion of and eventual liberation of Western Europe. And on 17th December 1974 a passer-by, George Arthur, was killed by a bomb attributed to the Provisional IRA.

Death and destruction, it would seem, was never far away from Tottenham Court Road.

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