Leicester Square /ˈlɛstər/ is a pedestrianised square in the West End of London, England. It was laid out in 1670 and is named after the contemporary Leicester House, itself named after Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester.
The square was originally a gentrified residential area, with notable tenants including Frederick, Prince of Wales and artists William Hogarth and Joshua Reynolds. It became more down-market in the late 18th century as Leicester House was demolished and retail developments took place, becoming a centre for entertainment. Several major theatres were established in the 19th century, which were converted to cinemas towards the middle of the next. Leicester Square holds a number of nationally important cinemas such as the Odeon Leicester Square, Empire, Leicester Square and Odeon West End, which are frequently used for film premières, The nearby Prince Charles Cinema is popular for showing cult films and marathon film runs. The square remains a popular tourist attraction, including hosting events for the Chinese New Year.
The square has always had a park in its centre, which was originally Lammas land. The park's fortunes have varied over the centuries, reaching near dilapidation in the mid-19th century after changing ownership several times. It was restored under the direction of Albert Grant, which included the construction of four new statues and a fountain of William Shakespeare. The square was extensively refurbished and remodelled for the 2012 London Olympics, costing more than £15m and taking over 17 months to complete.
The square lies within an area bound by Lisle Street, to the north; Charing Cross Road, to the east; Orange Street, to the south; and Whitcomb Street, to the west. The park at the centre of the Square is bound by Cranbourn Street, to the north; Leicester Street, to the east; Irving Street, to the south; and a section of road designated simply as Leicester Square, to the west. It is within the City of Westminster, north of Trafalgar Square, east of Piccadilly Circus, west of Covent Garden, and south of Cambridge Circus.
The nearest tube station is Leicester Square tube station, which opened in 1906. London bus routes 24, 29 and 176 run on nearby Charing Cross Road.
16th – 18th century
The land where Leicester Square now lies once belonged to the Abbot and Convent of Westminster Abbey and the Beaumont family. In 1536, Henry VIII took control of 3 acres (1.2 ha) of land around the square, with the remaining 4 acres (1.6 ha) being transferred to the king the following year. The square is named after Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester, who purchased this land in 1630. By 1635, he had built himself a large house, Leicester House, at the northern end. The area in front of the house was then enclosed, depriving inhabitants of St Martin in the Fields parish of their right to use the previously common land. The parishioners appealed to King Charles I, and he appointed three members of the privy council to arbitrate. Lord Leicester was ordered to keep part of his land (thereafter known as Leicester Fields and later as Leicester Square) open for the parishioners.
The square was laid out to the south of Leicester House and developed in the 1670s. The area was originally entirely residential, with properties laid out in a similar style to nearby Pall Mall. In 1687, the northern part of the square became part of the new parish of St Anne, Soho. Leicester House was briefly the residence of Frederick, Prince of Wales from 1742 until his death the following year. The poet Matthew Prior lived at what is now No. 21 around 1700 and artist William Hogarth resided at No 30 between 1733 and 1764, where he produced some of his best known works including Gin Lane. The magistrate Thomas de Veil, later to found Bow Street Magistrates' Court, lived at No 40 between 1729 and 1737; this location is now the Odeon West End. The painter Joshua Reynolds lived at No 47 from 1760 until his death in 1792; this location is now Fanum House, once the Automobile Association head office.
At the end of the 17th century, Lord Leicester's heir, Philip Sidney, 3rd Earl of Leicester, permitted a small amount of retail development in booths along the front of Leicester House. A statue of King George I was built on the square in 1760 following the coronation of his grandson, George III. The square remained fashionable throughout most of the 18th century, with notable residents including the architect James Stuart at No 35 from 1766 to 1788 and the painter John Singleton Copley at No. 28 from 1776 to 1783.
Leicester House was intermittently inhabited during the mid-18th century, and was finally sold to the naturalist Ashton Lever in 1775. Lever turned the house into a museum with a significant amount of natural history objects. In turn, the square began to serve as a venue for popular entertainments. Brothels started appearing around Leicester Square during the century, and visitors could pay to watch the severed heads of traitors executed at Temple Bar through a telescope. Leicester House became home of a museum of natural curiosities called the Holophusikon in the 1780s. It was demolished in 1791–72 due to rising debts following the extinction of the Leicester peerage, and replaced by Leicester Place. That in turn was converted into a church in 1865 and is now the site of the Prince Charles Cinema.
In 1790, a new Royal Opera House was proposed to be built in Leicester Square. The scheme was led by The Prince of Wales, Francis Russell, 5th Duke of Bedford and James Cecil, 1st Marquess of Salisbury and aimed to re-establish London as a centre for Italian opera and ballet, with an opera house to rival those in mainland Europe. The opera house was never built, as the royal patent needed at that time to license a theatre was refused. The plans for the original design are preserved in Sir John Soane's Museum, while a 1790 painting by William Hodges, which displays the finished design, belongs to the Museum of London.
19th – 21st century
By the 19th century, Leicester Square was known as an entertainment venue, with many amusements peculiar to the era, including Wyld's Great Globe, which was built for The Great Exhibition of 1851 and housed a giant scale map of the Earth. The construction of New Coventry Street made it easier for traffic to access the square, resulting in private residences being replaced by shops, museums and exhibition centres. Savile House at No. 5–6, built in 1683 for Thomas Bruce, 2nd Earl of Ailesbury, had become a museum by this time, and was ultimately destroyed by fire in 1865. It was rebuilt as the Empire Theatre.
Several foreign-owned hotels were established around the square, making it popular with visitors to London. Brunet's Hôtel at No. 25 was opened by Louis Brunet in 1800, later expanding to Nos. 24 and 26 during the following decade. It was bought by Francis Jaunay in 1815 known as Jaunay's Hôtel. The Hôtel Sablonière et de Provence opened at No. 17–18 in 1845 as the Hôtel de Provence, and renamed in 1869. It closed in 1919 and became a public house. The Cavour, at No. 20 at the southeast of the square, opened in 1864. It was badly damaged in World War II but subsequently restored.
The Alhambra Theatre was built in 1854 on the east side of the square, dominating the site. It temporarily closed two years later when the original owner, Edward Clarke, became bankrupt, but then reopened in 1858 as the Alhambra Palace. It enjoyed a surge in popularity after Queen Victoria and family came to see "Black Eagle – The Horse of Beauty". It burned down in 1882, but reopened the following year. In the early 20th century, the theatre became a popular venue for ballet. It was demolished in 1936 and replaced by the Odeon Cinema. The Empire Theatre of Varieties opened in 1881 on the former site of Savile House, but had a troubled start, closing for a time, until the end of the decade. The theatre had a notorious reputation for high-class prostitutes frequenting the theatre, and in 1894 the London County Council ordered the promenade on the upper balcony to be remodelled. A young Winston Churchill, then a cadet at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, helped destroy canvas screens that had been erected to prevent access to the balcony. The theatre closed in 1927, to be replaced by the Empire Cinema.
During the Winter of Discontent, where the incumbent Labour Party struggled to meet demands of trade unions and a shrinking economy, refuse collectors went on strike in January 1979. Leicester Square was turned into a de facto dump, earning it the nickname of "Fester Square". In the 1980s, the square was pedestrianised, cutting off all vehicular traffic. Access to the square for goods and deliveries is now controlled by specially designated marshals.
By the start of the 21st century, Westminster City Council were concerned that the square was too dangerous at night, and wanted to demolish sections of it to encourage the growth of theatres and cinemas, and reduce popularity of nightclubs. In 2010, a major redevelopment of Leicester Square took place as part of a Great Outdoors scheme proposed by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. The improvements included 12,000 square metres (130,000 sq ft) of granite paving and a water feature surrounding the Shakespeare statue. The square re-opened in May 2012 after 17 months' work at a total cost of £15.3 million. The Greater London Authority said the refurbishments would accommodate more than 1,000 new jobs. The re-opening coincided with the 2012 Summer Olympics later that year.
In the middle of the Square is a small park that was originally available for common use on Lammas Day (12 August), such as washing clothes and herding cattle. The Earl of Leicester was obliged to preserve these grounds, which were separated from the rest of the square with railings. In 1808, the garden was sold by the Leicester Estate to Charles Elmes for £210 (now 14770), who neglected to maintain it. Ownership changed hands a number of times during the first half of the 19th century, including Robert Barren following Elme's death in 1822, John Inderwick in 1834, and Hyam Hyams and Edward Moxhay in 1839. Little maintenance was done and the garden deteriorated to the point of severe dilapidation.
In 1848, the land was subject to the significant legal case of Tulk v Moxhay. The plot's previous owner, Moxhay, had agreed upon a covenant not to erect buildings but the law would not allow buyers who were not "privy" to the initial contract to be bound by subsequent promises. The judge, Lord Cottenham, decided that future owners could be bound by promises to abstain from activity. Otherwise, a buyer could sell land to himself to undermine an initial promise. James Wyld bought the assets of the garden from the Tulk and Moxhay's deaths in 1849 in order to erect the Great Globe, though buried the statue of George I under 12 foot of earth with the globe stuck on top. The statue was subsequently uncovered following the globe's demise, but by 1866 it had deteriorated due to vandalism and was sold for £16. Arguments continued about the fate of the garden, with Charles Augustus Tulk's heirs erecting a wooden hoarding around the property in 1873. These were quickly removed after the Master of the Rolls ordered that the land must be preserved for its original purpose.
The garden was saved by the Member of parliament Albert Grant, who purchased the park in 1874 for £11,060 and donated it to the Metropolitan Board of Works. The title deed for the square passed to the succeeding public bodies and is now in the ownership of the City of Westminster. After the purchase, the architect James Knowles redesigned the park. A statue of William Shakespeare surrounded by dolphins was constructed in the centre. The four corner gates of the park had one bust each of famous former residents in the square: the scientist Sir Isaac Newton designed by W. Calder Marshall; Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first President of the Royal Academy by H. Weekes; John Hunter, a pioneer of surgery, by T. Wooler; and William Hogarth, the painter, by J. Durham. Ownership transferred to Westminster City Council in 1933. The most recent addition was a bronze statue of film star and director Charlie Chaplin, designed by sculptor John Doubleday in 1981. On the pavement were inscribed the distances in miles to several Commonwealth countries, including Canada, Kenya and Jamaica. After the Great Outdoors refurbishment of the square, only the statue of Shakespeare still remains.
Leicester Square is the centre of London's cinema land, and one of the signs marking the Square bears the legend "Theatreland". It contains the cinema with the largest screen and another with the most seats (over 1,600). The square is the prime location in London for film premières and co-hosts the London Film Festival each year. Similar to Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, the square was surrounded by floor mounted plaques with film stars' names and cast handprints. During the 2010–2012 refurbishment, many of the plaques were removed, confusing tourists who still expected to find them there.
The Leicester Square Theatre is based in nearby Leicester Place. It was constructed in 1955 as a church, before becoming the Notre Dame Hall, then the Cavern in the Town, a popular live music venue in the 1960s. In the 1970s, it was renamed back to the Notre Dame Hall, where the Sex Pistols played one of their first gigs at the club on 15 November 1976. It was converted into a theatre in 2002 as The Venue, and refurbished as the Leicester Square Theatre in 2008. In 2014, it began a production of a musical based on Oscar Wilde's De Profundis.
The Square has been the home for TKTS (originally known as the Official London Half-Price Theatre Ticket Booth), since 1980. Tickets for theatre performances taking place around the West End that day and during the week are sold from the booth at a significant discount. The popularity of the booth has given rise to other booths and stores around the Square that advertise half-price tickets for West End shows. The Official London Theatre Guide recommends avoiding these booths as they are not official and do not contain the Society of Ticket Agents & Retailers (STAR) logo.
The Square is home to the 93,000 square feet (8,600 m2) Hippodrome Casino. Following a £40m refurbishment in 2012, the premises can now accommodate 2,000 patrons.
Global Radio has its headquarters on the east side of Leicester Square at No. 30, close to the Odeon. The building houses the radio stations Capital, Capital Xtra, Classic FM, Gold, Heart, LBC, Smooth Radio and Radio X.=
The Odeon Leicester Square, which dominates the east side of the square, hosts many film premières. It has a capacity for 1,683 people, arranged in circle and stalls. The last 70mm film showing was Armageddon in 1998, after which the theatre began to use digital technology. The projection room still contains some of the original 1930s decor and normally houses two projectors. The Empire opened in 1962. It was previously the largest cinema on the square, but in 2013 it was subdivided to cater for an IMAX screen. The Odeon West End, on the south side, opened in 1930. It was not generally used for premières and was earmarked for demolition in 2014, to be replaced by a ten-storey hotel including a two-screen cinema. Westminster City Council reported 400 new jobs would be available after the redevelopment. Vue West End, on the north side, near the north east corner, was the first cinema in Europe to show a 3D film with Chicken Little in 2006.
A short distance from the west of the Square, on the south side of Panton Street, is the Odeon Panton Street. The Prince Charles Cinema, to the north of the square opened in 1962 with a "satellite dish" design where the audience looks upwards to the stage. The cinema became notorious for showing pornographic and erotic films during the 1970s, including 1974's Emmanuelle. It later became a favourite venue for showing cult films, including the The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and a sing-along version of The Sound of Music (1965), and marathon performances including all seven Muppet films back to back. Prices are considerably cheaper than the main cinemas in the square; in 2013 a ticket for a new release at the Prince Charles cost £10, compared to £24 at the Odeon.
Leicester Square is one of several places in the West End that puts on events relating to the Chinese New Year. The celebrations are organised by the London Chinatown Chinese Association and held on the first Sunday during the new year period. Events include music, acrobatics and dancing. In 2015, the celebrations attracted more than 1,000 participants, becoming the largest of their kind in the UK. These included lion dances, a show of the Cultures of China and a drum show. A parade ran nearby through Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue.
The School of English operated on Leicester Square from 1992 until its closure in 2015. It taught over 25,000 students during its years of operation.
The main electrical substation for the West End is beneath the Square. The electrical cables to the substation are in a large tunnel ending at Leicester Square, and originating in Wimbledon, at Plough Lane, behind the former Wimbledon FC football ground, before which the cables are above ground.
In 1726, anatomist Nathanael St André claimed to have delivered rabbits from a woman at No. 27 Leicester Square. The event was widely reported around London, attracting interest from King George I and Royal Society president Hans Sloane. Shortly afterwards, the woman was caught trying to buy a rabbit in secret, and the incident was uncovered as a hoax.
Leicester Square is commemorated in the lyrics of the music hall song "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" along with nearby Piccadilly, which became popular with soldiers during World War I. During the war, British inmates of Ruhleben Prisoner of War camp mentioned the square in a song: "Shout this chorus all you can. We want the people there, to hear in Leicester Square, That we're the boys that never get downhearted."
The square is mentioned in the lyrics of several rock group tracks, including the Rolling Stones' notorious "Cocksucker Blues", (1970) "Jeffrey Goes To Leicester Square" on Jethro Tull's album Stand Up (1969), "Emit Remmus" on the album Californication by the Red Hot Chili Peppers (1999), and "Leicester Square" on Rancid's Life Won't Wait (1998).
Leicester Square has acquired a reputation of having a confusing pronunciation to non-native British English speakers. A report by Premier Inn said it was the most mispronounced place in Britain by tourists, usually as "/laɪˈtʃɛstər/" ("Lie-chester") Square. It is one of a group of three on the British Monopoly board along with Coventry Street and Piccadilly.