Piccadilly to Regent Street

Historical Eye

Circa 1896: Piccadilly to Regent Street


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Piccadilly circa 1896: The most conspicuous building in this view of Piccadilly is Burlington House, which was bought by the nation in 1854 for £140,000. The central portion of the modern buildings is devoted to the Royal Academy. The Exhibition opens on the first Monday in May and closes the last week in July. It consists of paintings and sculptures by modern British artists. The ‘Private View’ of the Exhibition is always attended by the cream of society, and is one of the events of the London season. On the western side of Burlington House is Burlington Arcade – a long, covered avenue lined with small, but beautiful shops. Nearly opposite is the Egyptian Hall, with large figures at the entrance. This popular place of entertainment was built in 1812.


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Piccadilly Circus circa 1896: The photograph from which this view was reproduced was taken from the corner of Piccadilly. Immediately on our right is the lower section of Regent Street. A little further along, opposite the London Pavilion, is the well-known Criterion Restaurant, in whose spacious saloons one may rub shoulders with the representatives of every civilized nation, and under whose roof is also included the Criterion Theatre. The most prominent building in this view is the London Pavilion, one of the most important of the Metropolitan variety theatres. To tread the stage of the London Pavilion is the loftiest professional ambition of the average music-hall artiste; and at this house the ‘programme’ is usually filled with the names of variety stars of the first magnitude. Behind the London Pavilion is the Trocadero Music Hall, which has experienced many vicissitudes and is now closed. In Piccadilly Circus, between Piccadilly and the Quadrant, Regent Street, is the beautiful bronze Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, the work of Mr Alfred Gilbert. The winged figure on top is of aluminium.


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Piccadilly Circus today: The trouble with then-and-now photographs is that the ‘now’ shot is  outdated almost straight away. The ‘bendy-bus’ crossing the circus has been consigned to London history – they were disliked by motorist for taking up too much space and not much loved by the passengers who used them. Anyway, I took this shot from the sports shop Lillywhites and, while it is nowhere near the angle taken by the Victorian photographer, it mirrors the hustle and bustle of this part of London. Notice how much more space the roads take up compared with 1896 and the  broader paths of the Circus back then. The statue is of Anteros and not Eros, as most people believe. It was a marvel at the time because aluminium was extremely expensive to produce. Indeed, the means for mass production through electrolysis only started to be introduced in the early 1890s. The site of ‘Eros’ was changed during the 20th Century when Piccadilly underwent a comprehensive redesign. Meanwhile, the Criterion Theatre is still very much in business, although the genre of Music Hall has long gone. Across from the Criterion and Lillywhites is a wall of electronic signage that bathes the circus in a kaleidoscopic light at night.


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Regent Street circa 1896: Regent Street and Regent’s Park both owe their existence to a magnificent whim of George IV, who as Prince of Wales and Prince Regent. Regent Street proper commences at Piccadilly Circus, and maintains its long-established supremacy as one of the great show-places of fashionable London. The above view gives one a capital idea of the magnificent sweep of the Quadrant – a feature of the Metropolis that never palls upon even the most inveterate Londoner.


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Then and now 1896

'Opposite the London Pavilion, is the well-known Criterion Restaurant in whose spacious saloons one may rub shoulders with the representatives of every civilized nation'

Piccadilly today: Burlington House is still the home to the Royal Academy and a plethora of other societies as it was in the Victorian era. The exterior of the building is little changed, although we can see that there is a lot more advertising for the exhibitions. Burlinton Arcade still exists, although its shops are exclusive and stocked with expensive goods. Not mentioned in the 1896 entry, for obvious reasons, was the use of Burlington Arcade and surrounding areas by higher-class prostitutes. Piccadilly also had a reputation for rent boys and ganymedes, although gay men had to be cautious as homosexuality was illegal and could incur severe punishment, something  the playwright Oscar Wilde  sadly discovered. The Egyptian Hall is long gone and its site is now a noodle restaurant I seem to recall.

Regent Street today: Regent Street is home to branches of the most famous and most expensive shops in the world. Thankfully, the splendour of John Nash's vision from the 1810s and 1820s remains apparent. Not having many escudos in the bank, I’ve never really had a reason to buy anything here. As a young boy, my parents took me to Hamleys the vast children’s toy store on Regent Street. It  seemed the most amazing place – an eighth wonder of the world. The toys were slightly more traditional and I wonder what they sell nowadays? Probably loud and  luminous objects, purposefully designed to push parents over the edge of insanity. In the 1896 photo a policeman stands in the foreground, ready to assist the public and keep order. He also looks smart. Good luck in finding a smart policeman today ... hmm, scratch that, good luck in even finding a policeman, let alone a community support officer.


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