Things you might not know about Piccadilly Circus

piccadilly circus facts

When it comes to busy traffic junctions, there’s no doubt that London has plenty. But none of them are as popular, or as widely known, as Piccadilly Circus.

Located in London’s West End in the City of Westminster (and less than 2.5 miles from the Park Grand Paddington London Hotel), Piccadilly Circus was built in 1819 to connect Regent Street with Piccadilly. It also links directly to the theatres on Shaftesbury Avenue and Glasshouse Street. It’s a favourite spot for visitors, thanks to its extensive shopping, iconic signs, tourist attractions, dining and theatres.

If you’re planning a visit to Piccadilly Circus, here are some interesting facts you might not know about it:

The name

Although there’s an urban myth that says the word Piccadilly is derived from prostitution, the name of this busy area actually comes from the 17th century. A man named Robert Baker built a mansion in the area – he had made his fortune from the sale of piccadills, a type of stiff collar worn by fashionable men in court. Locals called the new residence Piccadil Hall, and the name stuck.

The street was previously called Portugal Street, named for the home nation of Catharine of Braganza, the wife of Charles II. By 1743 it was known by its current name.

As for the “circus” part of the name, it’s debatable whether that’s still accurate or not. The word comes from the Latin root “circ”, for circle, and is often applied to road junctions that have a circular shape thanks to the use of a roundabout. However, the road layout was changed in the 1980s and 1990s to pedestrianise the south side of the roundabout. After this work had been completed, the area lost its circular shape.

The fountain

A large, dark fountain stands in the middle of Piccadilly Circus. It’s made of aluminium and bronze and topped with a sculpture of a winged figure. Many people mistakenly believe that the figure is a depiction of Eros, the Greek god of love (or Cupid), but it’s actually his brother, Anteros, the god of selfless and returned love.

The Fountain itself is actually called the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, and it was erected in 1893 to commemorate the philanthropist Lord Shaftesbury. After the fountain was completed, there were complaints that it was vulgar or too sensual. To quell the criticism, it was decided to call the sculpture the Angel of Christian Charity, but it was too late, and that name never became widely known.

piccadilly circus fountain

The advertising

Called the Piccadilly Lights, the illuminated advertising is one of the UK’s most iconic landmarks, and it’s recognised around the world as a symbol of London. Illuminated signs have been used in Piccadilly Circus since 1908 when a Perrier sign was put up, and for a long time, several buildings had these shining advertisements.

Today, only one building carries them – the one on the northwestern corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Glasshouse Street. Originally, the signs used incandescent light bulbs. Eventually, they were replaced with neon lights and moving signs, and the technology to illuminate the signs has continued to evolve. By 2011, all the neon had been replaced with LED displays.

In January 2017, the lights were turned off for site renovations. It was the first time since the second world war that the lights have gone off for an extended period. A temporary advertising banner will replace the lights until the autumn, when the individual screens will be replaced with a single continuous LED screen – the largest of its type in Europe.

Once the project is complete, the sign will be used as an advertising board for six brands, to provide live video streaming and to give updates about events like the weather and sports results.

Coca-Cola is the longest-reigning advertiser – its sign has been at Piccadilly Circus since 1955.

The nose

If you know where to look in London, you might spot something a bit odd – there are several noses attached to buildings around the capital, and one of them is at Piccadilly Circus. The noses are the remnants of an artistic installation from 1997 and are sometimes referred to as the “Seven Noses of Soho”, even though there are actually ten noses, and not all of them are in Soho.

Artist Rick Buckley created the noses, which are plaster reproductions of his own. There were originally 35 of them, and they were intended as a statement against the introduction of CCTV cameras across the capital. However, the prank didn’t get much publicity, so urban myths grew to explain their appearance. For example, the one inside the Admiralty Arch was said to have been added to mock Napoleon. There’s even a legend that anyone who finds all the noses will be rewarded with infinite wealth.

If you spot the Piccadilly Circus nose on your own, well done. They’re notoriously difficult to see. If you need a bit of help finding it, take a look around Windmill Street, between Ripley’s and the Trocadero.