11 Secrets Of Leicester Square

By Laura Reynolds Last edited 9 months ago
11 Secrets Of Leicester Square
Photo: Greg McCormick

What's in a name?

Leicester House, named after Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester, used to sit to the north of what is now Leicester Square. The House, completed in 1635, gave its name to Leicester Fields, which the area was known as when it was home to wealthy residential properties. When Leicester House was demolished in the late 1700s, the area grew less affluent, and as it became a retail and entertainment district, became known as Leicester Square.

A royal death

Frederick Prince of Wales lived — and died — in Leicester House. He was the oldest son of King George II and Queen Caroline, and father of King George III, but never ascended the throne himself as he died before his father. He didn't get along with his parents, and went as far as holding an 'opposition court' of politicians at Leicester House.

What lies beneath?

While you're sitting in Leicester Square watching the action around you, you might not be thinking about what's beneath your feet. The answer is an electricity substation. If that gets your volts flowing, there's a rather dull UK Power Networks document about it here. But all you really need to know that it was constructed, with some difficulty, in 1989.

The TKTS theatre box office on the south side of the square acts as a ventilation shaft for the power station.

Shakespeare

Photo: Matt Brown

The centrepiece of Leicester Square (or Leicester Square Gardens to give it its proper name) is the statue of William Shakespeare, a work by Italian sculptor Giovanni Fontana which has been in situ since 1874.

Fontana based the marble sculpture on a memorial to Shakespeare by Peter Scheemakers in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey. The Leicester Square statue is Grade II listed.

Swiss Centre

Ever noticed this colourful timepiece on the northwest corner of Leicester Square?

Photo: Andy Worthington

The Swiss Clock and Glockenspiel hark back to the days when the Swiss Centre stood where M&Ms World is now. When the Swiss Centre was demolished in 2008, the original clock sadly went with it. But in 2011, Westminster Council rebuilt the glockenspiel just a few metres from where it originally stood, along with a restored clock, which is now controlled remotely from Derby. Every hour, the figurines, representing traditional Swiss farmers, move.

My name is... er... Michael Caine

Actor Sir Michael Caine was given the name Maurice Joseph Micklewhite at birth. While on the phone to his agent from a phone box in Leicester Square, he was told to come up with a stage name — until this point he was working as Michael Scott, but there was already an actor by this name in London. He looked up at the nearby Odeon where The Caine Mutiny was showing, and the rest is history. In 2016 he changed his official name to Michael Caine.

The Kevin Smith toilet cubicle

You've probably seen the outside, but do you know what's inside the Prince Charles Cinema? Photo: taigatrommelchen

The Prince Charles Cinema on Leicester Place, just north of Leicester Square, is known for its quirky lightbox messages. What fewer people know about is the toilet cubicle named after film director Kevin Smith. Apparently, on visiting the cinema for a Q&A session in 2007, Smith complained that Quentin Tarantino had a bar named after him, despite never having visited the cinema. So the cinema staff did the only decent thing and named a toilet cubicle after him, complete with framed photo on the cubicle door. To add insult to injury, the toilets have been swapped in recent years, so the Kevin Smith Cubicle is now in the ladies.

Previous tenants

While it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to live in the tourist-flooded Square today, notable past residents include artist William Hogarth, who worked as an apprentice engraver on Cranbourn Street when the area was known as Leicester Fields.

Fellow artist Joshua Reynolds lived at 47 Leicester Square. There used to be a blue plaque on the site, but it was lost when the building was destroyed.

Karl Marx also lived in a hotel — then The German Hotel, now Leicester House — close to Leicester Square, on arriving in London in 1849.

The Jekyll and Hyde house

John Hunter, well-known surgeon and fellow of the Royal Society, once had a house at 28 Leicester Square. He was famed for being an experimentalist and doing many dissections. The house had a drawbridge at the back entrance, through which Hunter received human corpses from grave robbers. It is thought that author Robert Louis Stevenson used the house as a basis for Dr Jekyll's abode in The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde.

The leotard

The Odeon now sits where the Alhambra Theatre once was. Photo: oatsy40

The one-piece sportswear item was named after a French gymnast and acrobat, Jules Léotard. Léotard made his aerial performance debut in London at the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square, which sat on the east of the square where the Odeon Cinema is today.

The tube station

Photo: Gary S. Crutchley

The journey between Leicester Square and nearby Covent Garden on the Piccadilly line is the shortest on the network. At a distance of just 260m, you'd probably be quicker walking. And if you don't have an Oyster, you're definitely better off going by foot: a single cash fare is £4.90, working out at £30.32 per mile.

Last Updated 11 January 2017