Join Steve Pill for a stroll along the central London thoroughfare, a bustling street frequented by royalty and filled with little-known stories
Piccadilly Circus has long been the nexus of London’s entertainment district, drawing in seasoned locals and fascinated tourists like moths to its bright neon flame. While it perhaps lacks the vaulting scale of similar intersections around the world such as Times Square in New York or Tokyo’s Shibuya crossing, Piccadilly Circus has always had history on its side and with that comes a layer of mystery and intrigue that is unsurpassed.
While the giant TV screens, late-night shops and bustling restaurants create a glow around the main thoroughfares, it is down the side streets, behind the closed doors and even under pavements where the real stories can be found.
Piccadilly Circus was built just over 200 years ago, opening to traffic in 1819 and acting as a rather grand link between John Nash’s George IV-commissioned Regent Street and the Piccadilly thoroughfare which runs west towards Green Park. That street in turn took its name from Piccadilly Hall, which was built in the early 17th century by the local tailor Robert Baker and named after the “pickadills” that he sold – stiff lace collars worn in Elizabethan times.
The Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain at the centre of Piccadilly Circus was named after the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, a much-loved Victorian philanthropist and social reformer. The winged statue on top of the fountain is widely thought to be Eros, the Greek version of Cupid, yet in fact sculptor Alfred Gilbert intended it to be Anteros, the God of requited love and a tribute to the Earl’s selfless qualities. Misunderstandings over the dimensions of the design, however, meant water sprayed over the sides and three days after its unveiling, Gilbert sadly noted that he’d had “the painful experience of witnessing the utter failure of my intention and design”.
The famous bright hoardings overlooking the fountain have been a feature since 1908 when drinks company Perrier constructed the first bulb-lit advertisement here in a bid to attract the attention of travellers emerging from the new tube station, which had opened two years previously.
The area’s reputation for revelry was set in stone early, as captured in EA Dupont’s classic 1929 silent film, Piccadilly, a fascinating time capsule set amid the West End’s theatres and dance halls, with the opening credits displayed on the sides of double-decker buses. Two theatres still stand on Piccadilly Circus today.
The London Pavilion now houses the Body Worlds museum experience, yet it was something of an architectural marvel back in the day. Just over eight months separated the final performance at the old Pavilion on this site and Constance Loseby’s rendition of God Save the Queen during the new theatre’s opening night on 30 November 1885. The speedy construction was made possible thanks to this being London’s first building site to use electric lighting so that work could continue throughout the night.
Electricity was also the saving grace for the Criterion Theatre, which opened in 1874, but was briefly closed less than a decade later thanks to concerns over the use of gas lighting in an entirely underground auditorium. Thankfully, it was soon refitted with electric lamps and has since hosted countless stage productions including the world premieres of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Ivor Novello’s Fresh Fields.
Taking a stroll west of Piccadilly Circus takes us along Piccadilly itself, the thoroughfare once known as “Portugal Street” in tribute to Queen Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese wife of King Charles II. On the south side, buildings by two of England’s greatest architects sit side by side in total harmony. The edifice of St James’s Piccadilly church was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the man responsible for St Paul’s Cathedral, no less. Consecrated in 1684, St James’s is widely regarded as the finest of Wren’s four similar churches in the area, though what is little known is that it is not all his own work. His design for the steeple was “rejected”, according to 1960’s Survey of London, and an alternative design was submitted by a Mr Willcox.
Nevertheless, the redbrick and Portland stone exterior was sufficiently impressive that Sir Edwin Lutyens chose to base his design for the adjacent Midland Bank building on it. Completed in 1925, it was a perfect 42-foot cube, one which now houses the Maison Assouline, a French publisher’s flagship store. Stop for a drink in the shop’s Swan Bar and admire the ornate white ceiling, the only remaining feature inside that was designed by Lutyens.
Talking of books, the next stretch of Piccadilly was notable in the late 18th century for being home to a number of booksellers, almost all of whom were called John. The journalist John Almon began selling books out of 178 Piccadilly in 1765, later resigning his company to John Debrett. Almon’s porter, John Stockdale, set up business across the street at 181, while Johns Owen and Wright occupied 168 and 169, selling pamphlets and books. The only surviving company is that of John Hatchard, who established his first bookshop at 173 in 1797. He moved to the current site four years later and the upper floors originally held offices, notable for being the spot in which the Royal Horticultural Society was formed on 7 March 1804. Today Hatchard’s plush green carpets and wooden shelving make for the most pleasing environment to hunt for signed copies and vintage editions.
It wasn’t just literary types you’d find on Piccadilly. Artists began something of a turf war here in the late 19th century. After a stint in Trafalgar Square, the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) moved to Burlington House on the north side of the street in 1867, while the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours (RI) moved into newly-rebuilt premises on the south side 16 years later. The RI had been formed as a reaction to the RA’s refusal to take the medium of watercolour seriously.
The RA was the eventual winner, however, staying put to this day, not least thanks to a nominal annual rent of £1. By contrast, the RI moved out 50 years ago, though the society’s name remains carved into the façade of 190-195.
Piccadilly’s side streets are filled with stories too. Swallow Street appears short and innocuous, though it once ran as far north as Oxford Street. It was curtailed when Regent Street was laid out and was once home to both a French Huguenot chapel and, later, Sibylla’s, a nightclub part-owned by George Harrison. The club’s 1966 remarkable launch party guestlist included The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Michael Caine and Mary Quant.
Further west, White Horse Street takes its name from the White Horse Cellar, a popular 18th-century coaching inn that in turn was named after the equine symbol in the coat of arms of the House of Hanover, the branch of German royalty that was ruling over Britain at the time, through King George I. The building that is currently on the Piccadilly site of the old White Horse Cellar? A little-known hotel that goes by the name of The Ritz.
All joking aside, the world-renowned hotel has spearheaded Piccadilly’s reputation for five-star luxury. The Wolseley, an upmarket restaurant at 160, is situated in a listed building that was designed as a high-end car showroom, while the ornate Burlington Arcade opposite was opened in 1819 at the bequest of the Earl of Burlington and was originally patrolled by members of his regiment, the 10th Royal Hussars. Luxury shopping continues at 181 with Fortnum & Mason, which began life as a grocery store in 1707, founded by William Fortnum, a footman to Queen Anne.
Over the years, the store has delivered goods to everyone from Florence Nightingale to the Suffragettes, while today the many luxurious items on sale includes the Royal Blend of tea, developed at the request of King Edward VII. And herein lies the beauty of Piccadilly: it is a street that is frequented by royalty and yet open to all, whether you’re an artist or a tourist, a Beatle or a bookseller named John.