Best known nowadays as a garishly lit tourist hotspot, Piccadilly was once a hotbed of radicalism and scandal
10 September, 2021 — By By Dan Carrier
Grafton Street, Piccadilly, the 1770s: home to two dukes, three lords, two earls and three MPs, it was a sought-after address. And among its early inhabitants was the Admiral Lord Howe, who rented No 3. A few doors down lived his sister, the Honourable Mrs Howe – and it was Caroline Howe who very nearly changed the course of history.
In a new book by historian Stephen Hoare, the intriguing and often scandalous story of the area of Piccadilly is laid bare. He describes how Piccadilly Circus has become world renowned, enjoying the same cachet as New York’s Times Square and Paris’s Champs-Elysees.
And while its reputation as the home of “grotesque entertainments and freak shows of Georgian Piccadilly” and a place where “sadly the role of women was all too often relegated to subservience, sexual display or exploitation,” lingers through the decades, Stephen shows that this reputation does not tell the area’s complete story.
In the 1770s, Piccadilly was also the home to radical booksellers and pamphleteers – and they lent their presses to the cause of American independence. Benjamin Franklin and John Quincy Adams were friends with Piccadilly publishers such as John Almon.
It was this political atmosphere that influenced Mrs Howe – and prompted her to act as a back stairs broker for diplomats to searching for a solution to the American crisis.
“Between December 1774 and March 1775, Mrs Howe hosted a series of meetings at her house between the Ambassador of the American colonies Benjamin Franklin, and her brother Admiral Lord Earl, acting in an official capacity as a negotiator on behalf of Prime Minister Lord North,” says Stephen.
The conversations started when Mrs Howe invited Franklin to her house to play chess. She gradually began speaking about the issues facing the colonists and the British government – and it led to in-depth peace talks.
“It proved to be a catalyst,” writes Stephen. “Howe and two highly placed British sympathisers for the colonists’ cause attended the next meeting arranged by Caroline. Eventually, a list of demands were drawn up, revised and then debated. Dr Franklin immediately set sail for America in hope of a last-minute peace deal. But events were unfolding rapidly. As he crossed the Atlantic the battles of Lexington and Concord were being fought and the American War of Independence had broken out.”
From a missed chance to stop bloodshed and potentially change the course of history to becoming a by-word for late-night entertainments, Piccadilly has played a special role in the story of central London.
The name comes from the coat ruffs worn in the Elizabethan era, where a number of tailors worked, while its development boom began in the Georgian period. The Piccadilly we know today includes the numerous tweaks made during the Victorian era – including its most recognisable landmark.
In 1893, the statue of Anteros – Eros’s brother – was put in situ. Designed by sculptor Alfred Gilbert, it honoured the philanthropic work of the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury.
When it opened, it was meant to be a drinking fountain, but within weeks bronze cups attached by chains had been stolen. Instead, flower sellers moved in and kept their blooms fresh in the fountain’s waters. It then became a meeting place for all manner of activities – from celebrating national moments such as the Relief of Mafeking or the end of the Second World War, through to more shady encounters involving the vice trade.
The author creates a wide and entertaining picture of the neighbourhood, tracing how it became synonymous with the theatre, entertainment, fine dining and club land.
Stephen reveals its success was partly founded on the fact it was a well-used route into London, becoming the site of a large number of coaching inns. “As recently as 1870, the White Bear coaching inn occupied the site where the Criterion Theatre now stands,” he writes.
While the advent of the railways put paid to the stage coach industry, it did not unduly affect Piccadilly, whose inns had become posh hotels and members’ clubs to meet the demand from the aristocrats who used it as their London base.
From 1660, Piccadilly was home to grand palaces. Open fields became squares ringed by homes. It created a mix of the rich and the agricultural: the fields, when not providing sites for posh residences, were used to fatten up cattle and sheep walked into the city before their final journey to Smithfield.
“Herdsmen would let their cattle graze on fields that are now part of Hyde Park,” says Stephen. “Herds were a common sight as they were driven through the streets to the danger to terrified pedestrians. Injuries were not infrequent and it was not unknown for a runaway bull to enter a shop. The expression a bull in a china shop is a literal description of what could occur.”
The trade was also linked to the May Fair, which was not only about agriculture but also letting one’s hair down: Stephen cites a list of activities that included “dangerous sports and eating contests. Eel diving involved someone putting their hands into a tank of wriggling eels. If they managed to catch one in their bare hand, it was theirs to take away.”
Piccadilly today is known more for its garish advertising than radical pamphleteers. “By the early 1900s there were already large advertising boards on many buildings in Piccadilly Circus,” explains Stephen. “In 1904, the first illuminated sign spelled out Mellins Food in six foot-high letters.”
A popular baby food supplement, it was joined four years later by adverts for Perrier and Bovril, the first to be electrically lit.
As Stephen explains, alongside the boom in theatres and music halls, the introduction of these adverts was yet another reason Piccadilly became a destination when the sun went down.
Stephen’s comprehensively researched work describes the cafes and restaurants, the clubs, the street dwellers, and the aristos who partied the night away. He does so with wit and verve -– much like the place itself.
• Piccadilly: London’s West End and the Pursuit of Pleasure. By Stephen Hoare, The History Press, £20.