11 Secrets Of Piccadilly Circus

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 35 months ago

Last Updated 21 June 2021

11 Secrets Of Piccadilly Circus

"It's like Piccadilly Circus in here", has muttered many a person when things have got a bit hectic. But how much do they really know about the busy central London area, which around half a million people pass through each day?

Looking down on Piccadilly Circus in 2009. Photo: Chris Yiu

1. Eros isn't actually Eros

We bet you've been past the statue of Eros multiple times — perhaps you've even used it as a meeting point, or sat on the steps that surround it? We've got news for you: it's not actually Eros.

The statue's official name is the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain (although it's also known as The Angel of Christian Charity), and it was built in 1893 to commemorate philanthropist Lord Shaftesbury. It was intended to be the Greek god Anteros, but the bow in his hand put the public in mind of cupid, and it's therefore confused with the Greek god of love, Eros.

The statue was removed for the duration on the second world war and replaced by hoardings to keep it safe, before being returned to Piccadilly Circus in 1948. It was also covered by an inflatable snow globe in Winter 2013-2014 to protect it from drunken festive revellers.

The statue of "Eros" sits in the centre of Piccadilly Circus. Photo: Gary S. Crutchley

2. Where's the circus..?

Many a tourist has, no doubt, been disappointed to arrive at the world-famous Piccadilly Circus and not find a single circus act. In this context, Circus refers to the fact that it used to be a complete roundabout, or circle. When Shaftesbury Avenue was built in 1886, the junction ceased to be a complete circle, but the name stuck.

That said, during the 2012 London Games, a circus festival did take place in the area (and no, we're not talking about Boris Johnson's zip-wire antics).

3. ...And what's a Piccadilly?

Piccadilly Circus is named after the neighbouring shopping street Piccadilly, home to Fortnum & Mason among others. That in turn was named after Piccadilly Hall, a house belonging to a tailor who specialised in a type of collar known as a piccadill.

Photo: markdbaynham

4. Your name in lights

Probably the most famous feature of Piccadilly Circus is its light-up advertising boards. In 2009, we went behind the scenes of the lights to get an insight into how they work.

The first sign to be illuminated was a Perrier advertisement in 1908, which used incandescent lightbulbs. Neon was first used for a Bovril sign in the 1940s. Every building in Piccadilly Circus used to have advertising signs, but now, those leased from the Crown Estate are forbidden to advertise.

The current Coca-Cola sign is made from 774,144 pixels.

The lights were switched off for the duration of the second world war, only being relit in 1949. Other than that, the only times the lights have gone out were for Churchill's funeral, Princess Diana's funeral and WWF Earth Hour.

5. The underground theatre

The Criterion Theatre, on the south side of Piccadilly Circus, is entirely underground except for the box office. It's Grade II* listed, and when it was built in 1873, fresh air had to be pumped in during performances to prevent the audience being asphyxiated by the toxic fumes from the gas lights.

6. Secrets of Piccadilly Circus station

Piccadilly Circus station, which sits under Piccadilly Circus itself, is one of the only stations on the network to exist entirely underground. When it was built in 1906, a surface level ticket office existed, but when the station was revamped in the 1920s, it was demolished. The station building is Grade II listed.

One of the entrances to Piccadilly Circus station. Photo: James Murray

7. John Lennon

When John Lennon sang "imagine all the people", we doubt he was referring to the hoards that pass through Piccadilly Circus daily, but that didn't stop his widow Yoko Ono shelling out to have the lyrics to Imagine displayed here.

In 2002, she paid an estimated £150,000 for a banner that mused: "Imagine all the people living life in peace" covering the Nescafe neon sign for three months.

8. Seven noses of Soho

Heard of the Seven Noses of Soho? It's rumoured that anyone who tracks down all of the sculpted hooters will have infinite wealth. One of them is mounted to a wall somewhere in Piccadilly Circus — we won't tell you where, but see if you can sniff it out next time you're in the area (or take one of Peter Berthoud's walking tours, which visits all seven noses).

9. The Ballet Of Change

Only one film has ever been broadcast on the advertising screens, and that was The Ballet Of Change: Piccadilly Circus. The four minute film, about the history of the area, was shown in November 2007.

10. Europe's largest hotel

The Regent Palace Hotel stood just north of Piccadilly Circus from 1914 to 2006. When it opened it was the largest hotel in Europe with 1,028 bedrooms. Ever noticed the bridge over Sherwood Street? It was built to link the hotel to its laundry room and staff quarters. Rumour has it that an underground passage linking the two buildings was built in the 1930s, although there's no evidence that it still exists today.

11. The police post

On the west side of Piccadilly Circus, at the junction between Piccadilly and Regent Street, sits an old Police public call post. It's Grade II listed, dating from about 1935, and one of few of them to survive.

The listed Police call box. Photo: Liam Doyle