Piccadilly Circus, Westminster
Once the ‘hub of the British Empire’ and now the focal point of the West End, located at the point where Mayfair, Soho and St James’s meet
Regent Circus South, as it was first named, was created by John Nash in 1819 as a crossroads on Regent Street. Piccadilly led south-westwards towards Hyde Park Corner and Coventry Street provided a short connection with Leicester Square. There was no roundabout but the buildings at the corners were given curved frontages. The Criterion Theatre opened in 1874.
The layout was disrupted in the late 1880s by the addition of Shaftesbury Avenue on the north-east side, which forced the rebuilding of the London Pavilion music hall, now a shopping mall. Sir Alfred Gilbert’s statue of Eros was erected in 1893 to commemorate the good deeds of Lord Shaftesbury. It was the first public monument in the world to be made of aluminium. J Lyons and Co. established the Trocadero restaurant, now a leisure centre, in 1896.
Piccadilly Circus station opened on the Bakerloo line in March 1906 and on the Piccadilly line in December of the same year. The station was rebuilt in 1928 to provide increased capacity. As the result of continual road alterations the circus has now become triangular in shape and Eros has been relocated.
Piccadilly Circus has been home to a succession of famous stores, including Swan & Edgar and Lillywhites, but is even better known for its illuminated billboards, especially the 99-feet wide Coca-Cola sign. The tube station, pavements and road junction are among the busiest in London; there can be a traffic jam here at three in the morning.
Almost throughout its history Piccadilly Circus has served as a meeting place for various subcultures, including prostitutes and their clients, gay men – especially before the decriminalisation of homosexuality – and ‘drop-outs’ and drug dealers in the 1960s and 1970s. Nowadays its attractions are more family-oriented.
Postal district: W1
Station: Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines (zone 1)
Further reading: David Oxford, Piccadilly Circus, Tempus, 1994