London’s West End is a melting pot of culture, food, experience and historical significance. From the streets of Chinatown to the majesty of Trafalgar Square, you could find yourself exploring for days, pausing only to get a bite to eat at one of the restaurants in West End London. Even as a local, it can be difficult to see it all, given how regularly new spots and exhibitions come and go.
When it comes to somewhere like the West End, and you find yourself wanting to know as much as possible about its history and significance over the many years that London has been an eclectic nucleus of British life, then this guide is just what you need. Here’s a systematic breakdown, area by area, of the history of London’s iconic West End.
The hustle and bustle of Covent Garden started all the way back in the 7th century when it was a Saxon settlement. It was a hub for community and at the time. After that, the area stayed popular from century to century, for varying reasons, like how its namesake comes from the monks of St Peter’s who used it as their ‘Convent Garden” to Westminster. One of the major key facts in Covent Garden’s history is that the Earls of Bedford – the area’s first developers – used to levy taxes on the market… and made a killing! Some of the most famous retailers in the area were the flower girls, who would sell their goods by bellowing: “Two bundles a penny, primroses!” and “Sweet violets, a penny a bunch!” This is a significant bit of history for the area because this market is nowhere to be seen today – after years of parliamentary and community debate, it was relocated. It used to be just as popular and energetic as markets like the one in Spitalfields and Borough Market.
Given that it is part of the London theatre-district, it is home to theatres which are dripping with history. The Adelphi Theatre on the Strand, which is currently in the full swing of Waitress! The Musical has been standing in that spot since 1806. It was opened by John Scott and his daughter Jane, who helped facilitate melodramas, pantomimes, farces, comic operettas, historical dramas, adaptations, and translations. From October 1979 until October 1981, the antics of a cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, who’s taking speech lessons, in My Fair Lady took the stage. This musical by Alan Jay Lerner is one of the classics, and it was received with great success in Covent Garden’s Adelphi. Then for a long run Me And My Girl hit the stage from 1985 until 1993, while shorter runs of shows like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita only showed for a year.
A culturally-enriching gem of Covent Garden is the London Transport Museum – not only because it has been running since 1980 so is historically significant in itself, but also because it shows the fascinating history of London’s transport, from horse-drawn carriages to double-decker buses. You enter via Covent Garden Piazza, which is historically dense in its own right and still remains a traffic-free cobblestone square bustling with street performers, bars and incredible London West End restaurants.
The Soho of New York City is named as such because of Chester Rapkin, an urban planner who wrote what is known as the “Rapkin Report” – it was short for “South of Houston Street”. London’s Soho, however, has a somewhat different origin, though people often assume it was just copied from New York, given that both areas are associated with their trendy ambience and for being shopping districts. However, the origin is far more interesting than that. James Scott, who was the first Duke of Monmouth, would cry “SOHO” to rally his men in the Battle of Sedgemoor. As a result, the area was named after his “catch-phrase”, if you will.
Though in itself the history of the name is interesting enough, Soho doesn’t stop there when it comes to interesting facts and histories. Chinatown was established in the 1970s, in a run-down area that had Gerrard Street running through it. Since then, it has become a vibrant metropolitan hub for Chinese culture and food. It is off Shaftesbury Avenue, so extremely accessible to several boutique hotels in London.
If Chinatown is providing the food and culture for the Soho area, then it is safe to say that Oxford, Carnaby and Regent Street are sorting out the shopping, completing the whole package. Oxford Street runs from Tottenham Court Road to Marble Arch and is Europe’s biggest shopping street – it gets about half a million visitors per day. It changed from being a residential area to a retail area nearing the end of the 19th century and has (clearly) never looked back. It is also home to a number of historically significant icons. For instance, The Beatles recorded their first record at HMV – AKA No. 363 Oxford Street – in 1921. Or you will be interested to discover that the popular The 100 Club, a live music venue in No. 100’s basement, has been around since 1942. It nearly shut down in 2010, but Paul McCartney raised the funds to keep it afloat.
Regent’s and Carnaby Street are the shopping hubs which focus on fashion brands. It is here that you will find flagships like Burberry and Calvin Klein. You will also find the long-standing Hamley’s, the oldest and largest toy shop in the world which has been on Regent’s Street since 1881.
Leicester Square was laid out in 1670 and is named after the contemporary Leicester House. It has been known since the 19th century as an entertainment area and retains this reputation to date. Between 1851 and 1862, Leicester Square was home to Wyld’s Great Globe. It was constructed in 1851 for The Great Exhibition, which was a worldwide exhibition that would take place in Hyde Park. Inside, you could find a map of the Earth on a grand scale, and it was one of the area’s most popular attractions.
One of the most iconic features of the square which is still around today is the Gardens Square itself. Now it is just a part of the history, however, it served a purpose when it was originally built. The square was once the public space where locals could dry their clothes – not sure you would get away with that nowadays, though. Throughout the years, ownership changed and it was neglected for some time before it was rescued by Albert Grant, a member of parliament who bought it for £11,060 in 1874 and then gave it to the Metropolitan Board of Works.
Trafalgar Square is at the heart of the West End and is a cherub of cultural and historical significance. It is named to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar and the British’s naval win over France and Spain in 1805, during the Napoleonic War off the coast of Cape Trafalgar.
It is, quite importantly, also the home to The National Gallery. Not only is the building and the foundation of this gallery significant in itself – it was founded in 1824 – but it also houses a selection of more than 2300 paintings, which date back to the mid-13th century. There are a number of paintings from the years that follow, until 1900. Nelson’s Column is the next historically significant feature of the square. It was built to honour Admiral Horatio Nelson, who died in battle. It was built between 1840 and 1843, and the William Railton design cost £47,000 at the time – a small fortune, given the century!
You can hardly discuss the history of the West End without Piccadilly Circus facts – it comes with the territory. Piccadilly was once Portugal Street, the main thoroughfare of the are. Honouring the queen consort of King Charles II, Catherine of Braganza, it was named Piccadilly after Piccadilly Hall, despite a short period of time where it was known as Portugal Street.
The arrival of electronic billboards is what skyrocketed the square up in the tourism manuals. The advertisements on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Glasshouse Street are likened to the famous Times Square in New York City. The current Piccadilly Lights are some of the country’s most sophisticated, widely-recognised technological achievements. The lights over the years have developed from light bulbs to LED, and are now large 4K LED digital screens which offer the split-screen set-up whilst being one individual screen.
Advertising in Piccadilly Square has been foundational to the city and the city’s relationship with branding and marketing. In December of 1998, the signs projected an iconic, recurring Coca Cola advertisement. Over the years, brands like Samsung, McDonald’s, Bovril and LG made the most of the opportunity to broadcast their message and products to thousands of London-visitors.
On the architectural front, rather than technological, Shaftesbury Memorial is a gem of the area. It is one of the areas most commonly misunderstood features, as many people think it is topped with the Greek God, Eros. However, when built between 1892 and 1893 with the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain to pay tribute to Lord Shaftesbury, it was actually intended to depict Eros’ brother, the Greek God Anteros, who was known as the Angel of Christian Charity. Still, people will call it the Statue of Eros, not realising their mistake… You now know better!
Mayfair is one of the West End’s most affluent areas, and a prime location to enjoy boutique hotels in London. It edges the east of Hyde Park and is known for its Georgian architecture, magnificent hotels and upmarket shopping opportunities. Historically, though, it has quite an interesting story behind it.
From 1686 to 1764, there was a fair which took place in May – the May Fair – which is referred to now as Shepard Market. Before that, it was a part or Eia, a manor, and was simply a rural, privately-owned area until the beginning of the 18th century. The fair was its most popular attraction for a while, but it soon became run-down and the public were not fans of its recurrence. It was at this stage that it was bought by the Grosvenor family, who developed it with the help of Thomas Barlow. The area remains affluent and as iconic as ever all these years later, which is unusual for London, considering the rate of public housing development and gentrification.
Charing Cross goes well back in the history books of London and society. The name comes from some simple but old etymology, with the word “Charing” deriving from Old English – the word cierring – which describes a curve in the River Thames. The “Cross” was added as a result of the Eleanor cross which was erected by King Edward I in 1291 – 1294, a memorial to Eleanor of Castile, his wife. Twelve lavish, stone Eleanor crosses were erected in a line down the east of England. It was brought down by order of Parliament in 1647.
Charing Cross Theatre is a vital contribution to the West End theatre scene, which is under The Arches off Villiers Street below Charing Cross station and has been since 1864. Over the years, it has taken on a few names, such as Gattis-in-The-Arches, The Players Theatre and the New Players Theatre. It was once a Victorian Music Hall, so on Sundays, there are sometimes themed events which pay tribute to this time in history.
It’s no small task breaking down the West End, nor is it ever fully complete given the rate at which things happen in this neck of the woods, from a brand new theatre production wowing audiences to a new building or restaurant popping up. Apart from obvious things like the intricate, grand architecture of Nelson’s Column or the flashing LED lights of Leister Square, what really makes the West End so unique and special is how it continues to grow and expand, with a new march to parliament or food festival taking place so frequently that being here feels like living in the history that travel guides will one day chat about.
Of course, if want even a chance of soaking in all the West End has to offer, you know where to stay: The Piccadilly London West End, of course. So book a room, make sure you take plenty of pictures and relish in the knowledge that the West End to this depth is one of the greatest ways to appreciate what it is now and where it is going.