The Fascinating History of Piccadilly


What better way to revel in West London’s rich cultural and social history than with a hefty batch of Piccadilly Circus Facts? Considering that it is essentially a simply laid out junction with a public space (which, granted, is showing off an intricately designed fountain), it is truly remarkable that it is also one of London’s most-visited tourist attractions and host to one of the world’s most famous advertising districts. 

Given that it’s intersecting with Regent’s Street, it is, of course, a prime shopping starting point. There is also no forgetting that it is on the doorstep of some of London’s most famous, well-visited theatres, like Piccadilly Theatre and The Criterion Theatre – a cultural experience the West End is praised for and unmissable. So let’s delve into the fascinating history of Piccadilly, starting with its name and ending with its worldly reach. 

The background 

Piccadilly was originally a thoroughfare which was called Portugal Street. It was in honour of the queen consort of King Charles II, Catherine of Braganza. That didn’t stick too long, though. It soon became known as Piccadilly after Piccadilly Hall, which was the property of Robert Baker, a tailor known for the sale of piccadills – the word for different types of collars. Piccadilly Circus as a plaza and junction was built on the house and gardens of Lady Hutton, under the guidance of British architect renowned for Regency and Georgian design, John Nash. Though it was referred to as Regent’s Circus for a short period in the 1850s, Piccadilly is the one that stuck. 

Piccadilly Circus underground station was built in 1906, linking Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines to the area and making it about as accessible as it gets – and the area was popular to begin with! Then came the electric billboards that the area is so famous for, which were built on the iconic London Pavilion’s facade, transforming it into something people often think of as the “Times Square” of London. After the installation of traffic lights in the 1920s, the junction would never be at risk of not being a hub for Londoners again – upgrades would continue to make room for the constant increase of traffic. 

The illuminated signs 

The illuminated advertisements in Piccadilly Circus are those recognizable, flashing beacons of light that draw people into the square on the northwestern corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Glasshouse Street. This square alone is enough to draw people in and has encouraged tourists to take care of West End deals for decades.

To this day, the spot where the signs sit is unnamed, though it has taken up various names over the years based on what was there. They have gone through many phases until the revolutionary point they are at now, making them some of London’s most impressive technological sites. 

Though it is of course impressive that the lights have been shining for so long, the original batch wasn’t quite so impressive as the modern LED displays – they have come a long way. The first signs had incandescent light bulbs, which are not all that different from the kind of light bulbs you would use today in your average ceiling light. After the lightbulbs came the neon lights, with the first of its kind being an advertisement for Britain’s beloved meat extract, Bovril. After December of 1998, the signs used digital projectors, with the first of their kind being a Coca Cola projection – a recurring advertisement through time. From the Millenium onwards, LED displays slowly but surely took over the last traces of neon lamps, displaying 100% LED lights by 2011. 

The years have seen a constantly changing ream of advertisements, the likes of Samsung, McDonald’s, LG and Coca Cola brandishing their commercial message for everyone to see. In more recent years, the changing messages are not as common as they once were due to the increasingly expensive rent space. People panicked a bit in 2017 when the machines were switched off for the biggest update yet – but the temporary lights-off are worth the re-launched display currently available in Piccadilly Circus. 

The New Piccadilly Lights have taken one of London’s – and even the United Kingdom’s – most iconic landmarks up a notch. This internationally acclaimed advertising space now has one large 4K LED digital screen and live technology hub, instead of the split-up screen set up from before, and they are a true wonder of modern technology. Basically, you have got to see them while you are visiting London if you haven’t seen their latest update, so book yourself into the Piccadilly Hotel London and marvel. 

Lights out in Piccadilly’s history

Due to this area’s international scope and the attractions’ popularity, it should be unsurprising that it plays a role when significant days affect the UK. There have been several fascinating figures throughout Britain’s history that have warranted the switching off of the Piccadilly lights, as well as certain events that have earned the honour. The death of Winston Churchill in 1965 called for the switch-off, as well as the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. In support of 2017’s Lights Out London campaign, these LED lights went dark. 

Shaftesbury Memorial 

Between 1892 and 1893, the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain was erected to commemorate Lord Shaftesbury, the Victorian philanthropist, politician and social reformer, and unveiled by the Duke of Westminster. It was originally in the centre of Piccadilly Circus but was moved to the southeastern side at the end of WWII. The memorial was topped with the designs of Albert Gilbert, a tribute to the Greek God Anteros, AKA the Angel of Christian Charity – though it is often confused for his twin brother Eros. Yet, due to how common and widespread this misnomer is, people still continue to call it the Statue of Eros. 

This fascinating part of Piccadilly comes with an equally fascinating history, best observed by making the most of our West End Hotels’ Special Offers

From the LED screens that have been so famous over the years, to the magnificent fountain and memorial to the southeastern side of the circus, Piccadilly Circus is one of London’s most favourable pit-stops on your tourist route!