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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of Piccadilly Circus in London

What is Piccadilly Circus?

Piccadilly Circus is a bustling junction formed in the late 19th century that is famous for its vast electronic advertising display.

Piccadilly Circus

Piccadilly Circus History

With Theatreland to the east, Regent Street curving in from the north, and Piccadilly drawing traffic from the west, Piccadilly Circus has always been busy. When Shaftsbury Avenue was completed in 1886 and linked to John Nash’s early 19th-century Regent Street, the famous crossroads we see today, either in person or on screen, was born. The intriguing name stems from Robert Baker, a tailor who built a lodging-house just east of the present circus. He was most famous for selling pickadils, broad collars of cutwork lace and scalloped embellishments that were fashionable in the 16th and early 17th centuries. By 1626, Baker’s lodging-house was known as Pickadilly Hall and, while the hall is no more, the name remains.

The junction is a hub for shoppers, diners, and revellers: an access point lit up by one vast high-definition Daktronics display. The first electric lights were switched on in 1890 and the opportunity for making money was quickly seized. Perrier, a French bottled water company, paid for incandescent light bulbs in 1908. Advertisements for baby food, yeast extract, tyres and beer soon appeared, glistening all around the circus. Some adverts were creative and short-lived, such as Guinness’ neon moving clock; others have proved long lasting, such as Coca-Cola, which has, in one form or another, been advertising here since 1955. But behind this smokescreen of capitalist consumption and allurement, Piccadilly Circus has a much more salacious past.

You can get a hint of this forgotten world by inspecting the fountain that used to sit in the middle of the circus before the roundabout lost its shape. The Shaftsbury Memorial Fountain by Sir Alfred Gilbert, erected in 1893 to commemorate the social reformer and philanthropist the Earl of Shaftsbury, features at its centre an aluminium statue of a delicately balanced winged archer. It’s known as Eros, the Greek god of love and sex, but is in fact Anteros, the god of requited love; he expresses, in Gilbert’s design, the Earl’s selfless love to the poor.

Piccadilly Circus night time

Nevertheless, the 20th century perceived Eros where they wanted to find him, and took his cue for the pursuit of pleasure in the area. In the 1920s, Piccadilly Circus was famed for its ‘Dilly Boys’, young male prostitutes who spoke with their clients in Piccadilly polari, a melange of cockney slang, sailors’ patois and Italian. The sex workers and their gregarious vernacular were alluded to in 1922 by the author Thomas Burke in his description of the old Café Royal: ‘Here and there may be seen ... Male dancers who walk like fugitives from the City of the Plain. Hard-featured ambassadors from Lesbos and Sodom’.

By the 1940s they had been usurped by ‘Piccadilly Commandos’, women who plied their trade with the relatively wealthy American GIs based in London during the Second World War. Walking through Piccadilly Circus at night in the 1960s, you might just as readily encounter an array of syringes and needles left behind by known addicts after they had received their heroin prescription from the once 24-hour Boots the Chemist, which still stands there today. Although the statue of Anteros was condemned by some at the time for being too sensuous, Londoners clearly took to it. Piccadilly Circus was a carousel of sybarites, the gateway to hedonistic London.

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