Built in the 18th century, this immaculate house in Fitzrovia was home to two famous writers - George Bernard Shaw and L Ron Hubbard. Fitzrovia is an area of London with strong literary associations; George Orwell, Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf all lived and wrote here. Bernard Shaw lived in this house for a year with his mother in 1881, L. Ron Hubbard used the building as his London base of operations from 1956 and it is still owned by his organisation today, who do free tours by appointment.
Number 37 is one of a row of pretty Georgian double fronted houses with wrought iron railings and Juliet balconies. From the outside there is no signage, just a discreet brass plaque underneath the doorbell. So long as you’ve got your appointment booked, ring the doorbell and you get welcomed in by a member of staff. First impressions are of polished wood, civilised furniture and mercifully on a hot day, the cool air of air conditioning.
You are welcomed by a very personable member of staff, your bags are put in a safe place and then you start your tour in the reception on the ground floor, with the wall displays about L. Ron Hubbard's early life.
Old black and white photos in polished wood frames tell a remarkable story of adventure and high achievement. Knowing very little about him, I was impressed at his exploits.
Born in 1911 in Nebraska to a military father and a highly educated mother, he had a childhood of travels and adventures. One of the display cases has his scout badges from when he was an Eagle Scout at the age of 13 - apparently the youngest to ever achieve this honour at the time. He was an avid reader and developed an early interest in psychoanalysis and philosophy. Between the ages of 16 and 18 he travelled thousands of miles across Asia, learning about other cultures and their philosophies, and there are photographs of him on the ship he worked on, looking off into the distance as he explored little known lands.
He studied engineering at university and continued his travels, becoming a glider pilot, and making a living writing pulp fiction. These are popular stories published on low quality paper made of wood pulp and he covered a multitude of genres - science fiction, adventure, westerns, mysteries and romance, gaining some success in the field. World War II saw him joining the navy, where he was in command of several vessels, but ill health meant he was admitted to a naval hospital, where he spent some time.
My guide explained that it was during his time in hospital, where there were also lots of former prisoners of war, that he administered some of his early self-help theories. He could see that the ill were being medically treated, but also that they were not getting any better. Using his understanding of various philosophies learnt from his travels, he persuaded the staff to let him provide counselling services for some of these men. When they started getting better, he realised the impact that counselling could have on someone’s health, and he started writing about what he had learnt and what he was doing, eventually publishing everything in one volume, Dianetics, in 1950. Four years later, his followers set up the Church of Scientology, based on his research and work.
It was in 1956 that he moved his London centre of operations into Fitzroy House, and the guided tour moves from the displays and photos and into his office. It is a lovely room at the front of the house, large windows with the sunlight streaming through, a polished wooden desk, heavy velvet curtains and framed prints on the wall. The room has been restored and set up exactly as it was, right down to the contents of the two display cabinets, which include a noiseless Remington typewriter.
Just off this room is his secretaries room, an exact recreation of how it looked in the 1950s based on photographs. Desks, polished wooden floor, a window overlooking the back, bookshelves containing old box folders, wire in-trays, stacks of paper, office technology of the time; all that is missing is the secretaries, noise and cigarette smoke which must have hung in the air. The old fashioned technology was wonderful - so well looked after that it still all works today. Typewriters, Bakelite telephones, tape recorders, an early fax machine and best of all, a dictation machine which recorded onto vinyl records, really show how these rooms must have been a hive of activity when he worked here.
The tour then takes you upstairs to several elegant rooms. Thick, soft carpets, classic seating, chintz cushions and polished wood furniture which gleams in the sunlight. I particularly liked the large room which is used for events today and which has several photographs taken by L Ron Hubbard who was clearly a skilled photographer - the early scenes of London show a much simpler time and a marked contrast to the London of today.
There are displays on the walls which go into more detail about Scientology and how it became a global phenomenon. Several rooms are filled with bookshelves and dedicated to all of the books he published and these show you just how prolific he was as a writer. In fact, the Guinness Book of Records declared L. Ron Hubbard as the most prolific author of all time, publishing 1084 works between 1934 and 2006. 250 of these were fiction, and they are all laid out on the bookshelves in bright colours. Seeing them all together shows just how dedicated a writer he was.
You leave the tour with a new understanding of the man behind the headlines as well as feeling as if you have spent time in a retreat from the noisy London streets. The whole house is immaculate: all polished wood, soft furnishings and candelabra lighting. It feels like a mixture of museum, time capsule, library, show home and study centre.
It is a unique visit to a house behind a Georgian façade and the tour itself is really interesting: I really appreciated having a one on one tour as it meant I could ask countless questions. I was also really impressed at how they are happy to give up their time to any member of the public who asks for a tour, something the owners of most other historic houses are reluctant to do.
Interior photographs © Fitzroy House
Visiting Fitzroy House
Website: Fitzroy House
Nearest tube station: Warren Street