You are right. Piccadilly Circus does not, and never did have lions, elephants or any other wild animal on show. So why was it called ‘circus’? Well, the reason is the roundabout in the center of Piccadilly and the way the traffic circulates around it. But also because of the way the streets are created encompassing it to form a circle.

Piccadilly Circus is a renowned road junction in the heart of London’s west end, in the city and borough of Westminster. The roads that lead off the Piccadilly Circus are full of shops and theaters. To the south is the Criterion Theatre, to the north the London Pavilion, and whichever road off the circus you take, you will end up at an iconic landmark or famous area, such as Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square, Chinatown or Soho. The traffic around Piccadilly Circus was manned by 13 police men until traffic lights were installed in 1937.

Piccadilly in the good old days

Piccadilly in the good old days.
The Victorian Dictionary

The ‘Piccadilly’ part of the name derives from a local 17th century tailor, Roger Baker, who achieved fame for his creation of a frilled collar named the ‘piccadil’. He is believed to have bought a house in the area with the profits he made. The current Piccadilly Circus, which was created by John Nash, was built in 1819.

At the center of the circus stands the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, erected in 1893 and produced by Albert Gilbert, an English sculptor and goldsmith. Lord Shaftesbury was a local politician and philanthropist who was well-known for the support he gave to the poor. Although people call the statue Eros, the subject depicted is actually Anterous. According to Greek mythology, Eros was lonely and so his parents gave him Anterous as a playmate. The idea behind this was that love must be answered in order to be able to flourish. Anterous, the god of requited love thus symbolizes the selfless love Lord Shaftesbury’s showed to the poor. At the start of the Second World War, the statue was removed and put into storage. It was not returned until 1947.

Still some Americans running the Circus

Some Americans are still running the Circus.
Photo by Jay

Piccadilly Circus is a great place to sit and watch people. It is believed that if you sit there for fifteen minutes you have big chances of meeting someone you know. It has always been well known as a place for rent boys and prostitutes to hang about looking for business. During the Second World War there were so many liaisons between the American soldiers and prostitutes that the soldiers were eventually nicknamed “Piccadilly Commandos”.

Piccadilly Circus has always been famed for its advertising. In fact it is one of the most sought after advertising locations in the world reaching over 2 million people every week. Coca-Cola has advertised there longer than anyone else. Over fifty brands have been spreading their messages there over the last 100 years. Sometimes though the lights go out as a mark of respect, such as when Lady Diana and Winston Churchill died. They were also blacked out for safety reasons during the Second World War.

Piccadilly Circus has been extensively documented by artists of all genres. Wild West End by Dire Straits is all about Piccadilly. L. S. Lowry’s famous painting of Piccadilly Circus sold for more than nine million dollars at Christie’s in 1960. And more recently the Harry Potter film was filmed there.