Piccadilly – gives its name to a major thoughfare, a major traffic intersection (or ‘circus’) and an area in London’s West End.
Piccadilly Circus lies at the eastern end of Piccadilly – a two mile thoroughfare that runs east/west to Hyde Park Corner – and forms the junction of Piccadilly, Regent Street, Shaftesbury Avenue and Coventry Street – that leads in turn to Leicester Square and Haymarket.
As such a busy intersection it has become part of the language ‘It’s like Piccadilly Circus in here today” much as Grand Central Station has in the US.
The two main features of Piccadilly Circus are the statue of ‘Eros’ and the vast illuminated signs that surround the circus.
Other landmarks include Lillywhites – a major Sporting goods store and the former Tower Records, empty at the time of writing.
Piccadilly itself takes its name from the flamboyant ‘piccadil’ collars that were the source of the fortune of a tailor – Robert Baker – who named his London home ‘Pickadil House’. By the mid 18th century the whole area was known as Piccadilly and Piccadilly Circus – to link to John Nash’s Regent Street – was created in the early 19th century.
The statue of Eros (actually his twin brother Anteros) was originally the centrepiece of the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, which stood in the centre of the circus – a circular traffic island or ’roundabout’ as we Brits call them. The road layout was changed after the second world war and the statue (without its supporting fountain) was moved to its current position. The original positioning of the statue had Eros’ bow pointing to the Earl of Shaftesbury’s country seat in Dorset, while the arrow pointed to Shaftesbury Avenue.
The Earl of Shaftesbury himself (actually the 7th Earl) lived from 1801-1885; he was a politician for many years and a leading philanthropist – particularly in the fields of Social and Work-Place reform.
The statue, by Albert Gilbert , caused a scandal when it was first unveiled, depicting a winged, naked male archer. Victorian morals at the time suggested that a depiction of a naked male was inappropriate in such a public venue. The statue is unusually cast in Aluminium and while this was innovative when the statue was unveiled in 1892, pollution has meant that the statue has needed extensive restoration over the years.
‘Eros’ remains one of London’s best known landmarks and is still a popular meeting place.
Almost every film that needs to establish a location as being in London, particularly at night, features footage of the ‘neon’ signs in Piccadilly Circus. The first illuminated signs appeared at the start of the 20th Century, and many – such as the Coca Cola sign have been in place for many years – since 1955 in the case of the Coke sign, although the lighting technologies have changed over the years. Many of the signs these days are complex LED panel displays.
The signs have been extinguished on a couple of occasions – on the death of wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill in 1965 and the death of Princess Diana in 1997.
Slightly south of Piccadilly, and running parallel, is Jermyn Street, long associated with fashion accessories for gentlemen, particularly the makers of fine shirts.
The almost legendary companies of Turnbull and Asser (estd . 1885) and Hilditch and Key (estd. 1899) make bespoke shirts from their Jermyn Street stores. Although a word of warning – the building numbering system in Jermyn Street is eccentric, to say the least.
Further west along Piccadilly, Fortnum and Mason and the Ritz Hotel lie on the south side, the Burlington Arcade and Royal Academy of Arts on the north side – both near Green Park underground station. While at the far west end of Piccadilly the original Hard Rock Cafe (opened June 1971) occupies the site of a former Rolls Royce showroom on the north side.