Ever since Sir Alfred Gilbert's statue of Eros arrived in Piccadilly Circus in 1893 the area has attracted people on the edge of society.
Long before homosexuality was legalised, gay men felt safer in Piccadilly Circus. In the 1920s and 1930s they were welcomed into the family atmosphere of the Lyons' Corner House on Coventry Street where they gathered in a room known as the Lily Pond. The Long Bar at the Trocadero and certain sections of the Criterion, called the 'Witches' Cauldron' and 'Bargain Basement', offered a more risqué setting.
Quentin Crisp, author of The Naked Civil Servant, visited the Regent Palace Hotel for his only public outing in drag, in the 1930s. He took the tube dressed in a black silk dress and velvet cape. The evening was a "triumph" in that it was "boring" and nothing untoward happened.
Years before women won the vote many lived an independent life in Piccadilly Circus. Flower girls camped on Eros's steps and kept a fierce watch over their "patch". "Nippies", the young waitresses who served in Lyons' Teashops (the first opened in 1894 at 213 Piccadilly) and Corner houses, became known as "Teashop Debutantes". The teashops themselves offered somewhere for young female customers to meet in a safe and affordable setting.
When the time came, suffragettes plotted their campaign to win votes for women in Lyons' Teashops, held rallies in the London Pavilion Theatre on Piccadilly Circus and used the genteel tearooms of the Criterion for their meetings (where the ladies' cloakrooms had a reputation for being among the best in London). Their plotting turned to violence in 1912 when they used hammers to smash shop windows including the frontage of Swan & Edgar's department store.
The area's appeal to tourists and visiting soldiers has also made it a centre for the sex trade — from the Victorian prostitute to the "Piccadilly Commando" of the second world war who was adept at judging a man's rank (and how much she could charge him) by identifying the insignia on his uniform in the dark.
In the 20th century Piccadilly Circus gained a reputation for providing any pleasure your heart might desire. In the 1920s, the Bright Young Things, such as Nancy Mitford, sought out daring new acts from America in the subterranean Café de Paris in Coventry Street, where Louise Brooks was said to be the first person to perform a Charleston on its famous dancefloor.
Nearly 20 years later it became famous for its international acts, such as the West Indian Dance Orchestra led by Ken "Snakehips" Johnson. The club boasted it was "blitz-proof" — a claim that proved tragically misguided when it was bombed in March 1941, killing Johnson.
Piccadilly Circus' unique position in London and its reputation for tolerance, or at least averting its gaze, has long made it a haunt for individuals who have struggled to fit in to other parts of society.
Piccadilly: The Circus at the Heart of London by Midge Gillies is published by Two Roads, RRP £25.