Post Date: 7th January 2015
Author: Matt Gedge
What on earth is the point of Piccadilly Circus? And why is it famous around the world?
I was once approached by a film crew while waiting for my tour group to arrive and was asked these very questions. I was sorely tempted to tell them that it is famous merely because it is famous. I mean, in comparison to a hundred other spots around London there is nothing here worth shouting about unless you particularly like to spend money on tourist tat, substandard sports clothes or revel in the lurid display of commercial might bearing down on you.
But there was once a point. It acted as a hinge in Regent Street ensuring the grand processional route created by John Nash in the 1820s from Regents Park to the Prince of Wales’ palacial residence Carlton House had a suitable sweeping majesty.
History aside, I would suggest that today it is a grand meeting point, an overcrowded place to have your lunch and appear in a hundred photographs all at once. A place to revel in the excitement and bewilderment of tourists just passing through on their way to somewhere, anywhere else.
So in order to try to imprint some kind of depth or meaning to the place, here is an assortment of facts about Piccadilly Circus which you may not be entirely familiar with:
. An urban legend has grown up that the word Piccadilly comes from prostitution, but I’m sorry to provide a far less seedy backstory. In 1612 a man named Robert Baker built a mansion house just to the north of what is now Piccadilly Circus. He made his wealth from the sale of Picadils, stiff collars worn by the fashionable gents in court. Locals derisively called his mansion Picadil Hall, and so the name Piccadilly stuck.
2. The official name of the centrepiece is the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, named after the great Victorian philanthropist Anthony Ashley Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury. It was financed by public subscription, which is clearly testament to his charitable work.
3. Before the cups were stolen, it was possible to drink from the fountain, with the Duchess of Westminster doing so at its unveiling in 1893. The basin was not as large as Alfred Gilbert’s designs, resulting in passers by being drenched when the fountain was fully turned on! Gilbert was so furious at his altered and now rather embarrassingly impractical design that he refused to turn up for the unveiling.
4. The Statue of Eros isn’t actually a Statue of Eros. As mentioned, the Earl of Shaftesbury was more of a humanitarian than a lothario so in that context it may not surprise you to know that the statue represents Anteros, the god of selfless and mature love, not his twin brother Eros, the god of frivolous and romantic love. It was the first London statue to be cast in aluminium
5. The bright sign for Coca Cola has been here the longest (since 1955) but the first products were advertised in neon lights here in 1908. Bovril and Perrier were among the promotional pioneers. Even corporate might was unable to stop the lights being switched off during WW2, and since then they have also been turned off for individuals on two occasions: Firstly for the funeral of Winston Churchill in 1965, then again for Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997.
6. Yoko Ono once spent an estimated £150k to show the lyrics from her late husband John Lennon’s song Imagine. ‘Imagine all the people living life in peace’ were the words displayed simply in black on a white background for three months in 2002.
7. One of the ‘7 noses of of Soho’ can be found in Piccadilly Circus*
8. The original name for the street now known worldwide as Piccadilly was the far less fun Portugal Street, named after Charles II’s wife Catherine of Braganza’s home nation. But by the middle of the 18th century it had assumed its current moniker.
9. Since the pedestrianisation of the south side in the 1990s the area really has the feel of an open air circus, complete with dancers and gymnasts. However, the word ‘Circus’ comes from latin and means ‘ring’ or ‘circular line’ while Piccadilly Circus took on the 18th century meaning of ‘buildings arranged in a circular line’.
10. Bruce Forsyth was the compere when the Beatles induced Beatlemania while performing at the London Palladium in Piccadilly Circus on Sunday 13th October 1963. The phrase Beatlemania was credited to Daily Mirror newspaper, but was perhaps first coined 8 days earlier on Radio Scotland.
* You can find out more interesting and unusual facts and stories on our Essential London Tour which begins at Piccadilly Circus.