Piccadilly Circus isn’t exactly known for being London’s most respectable road junction.
The name Piccadilly probably comes from the word piccadill. This was a stiff wide collar of filigree lace (originally the lace edging on a ruff). Only upper-class gentlemen sported piccadills, as they weren’t the kind of thing you could wear in most manual occupations, especially at a time when dry-cleaners were a bit thin on the ground.
It seems that, around 1612, a tailor by the name of Robert Baker bought a plot of land on the east side of Great Windmill Street (which in those days still had a windmill). Baker made his fortune selling piccadills, and so his home and shop were known popularly as “Piccadilly Hall”, and the street that led up to it from Hyde Park Corner, though officially called Portugal Street in honour of Charles II’s Portuguese wife Catherine of Braganza, took on the name Piccadilly.
The statue of Eros isn’t in fact a statue of Eros, but of his brother Anteros. Eros, aka Cupid (possibly you know this version better), was of course the god of love, as anyone who’s ever been smitten by one of his little arrows will know. Anteros, by contrast, was the avenger of unrequited love – considered a potentially fatal malady at one time – whose arrows punished those who spurned the love of others.
The statue was cast in 1893 by Alfred Gilbert in a new-fangled material, aluminium, the first statue ever to be made of it. It was considered a bit risqué by the Victorians for being both unclothed and pagan; as a sop to them, a pretence was made that it was the “The Angel of Christian Charity”. It stands atop a fountain erected in memory of the Earl of Shaftesbury, a Christian Tory philanthropist who had battled tirelessly to ban child labour and improve the conditions in psychiatric hospitals; Shaftesbury Avenue is named after him. Anteros was seen as the god of selfless love, and therefore appropriate on a monument to Shaftesbury.
Eros was moved to Embankment Gardens while Piccadilly Circus tube station was being built in the 1920s, put back in 1931 but hidden away for safekeeping during the Second World War, and only returned in 1947. He took a little restorative holiday again for eighteen months in 1984–1986. Also during the Second World War, Piccadilly Circus was a playground for GIs in need of a bit of R&R, and for women offering it to them, who were known as “Piccadilly Commandos”.
By the 1960s, the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus – which date back to 1908 – were attracting all kinds of waifs and strays. One group who found camaraderie as a community around Piccadilly were junkies. In those days, heroin was available to addicts on prescription, as part of the “British system”, which kept drug addiction away from organized crime. Boots on Piccadilly Circus was open 24/7, and addicts would wait eagerly outside to fill their next day’s prescriptions on the stroke of midnight.
Of the numbered pedestrian subways leading out of Piccadilly Circus tube station, subway four, with the ladies’ loo, was where the junkies used to hang out, while subway one, with the gents’ loo, was home to the “meat rack”, where the West End’s rent boys would ply their trade. That trade could get pretty sordid, but Piccadilly Circus was in general a hotspot for London’s LGBT community – very much an underground community in those days – with the boys hanging out in Soho’s cafés, and the girls in the “Lily Pond”, upstairs at Lyons Corner House (the very first Lyons Corner House, which stood where the Trocadero now is on the corner of Coventry Street) – not the only racy bit of history in that particular establishment.
In its time then, Piccadilly Circus has seen some stuff. It’s been a home to gods and angels, GIs, junkies, and sex workers of all genders, but of course its high point came in 1985, when Pernilla Wahlgren’s song about it reached number two in the Swedish singles chart. No wonder it’s so famous.