When the Odeon Leicester Square is demolished later this year, it will mark the end of an era – with the Charlie Chaplin statue and movie star handprints removed in the square’s 2010-2012 renovation, few traces of its cinema heritage will remain.
That may disappoint film fans, but we prefer to look on the bright side: it’s all true to the square’s unpredictable history. Over the centuries it has been an open field, a fashionable address for the aristocracy, a haunt of writers and artists and a venue for raucous popular entertainment.
As the square prepares to change its identity once more – a trickle of new luxury hotels like the W and One Leicester Street hint at its future – we thought we’d compile a list of some notable, spectacular and downright strange things it has seen since it first emerged in the mid-1700s…
1. A stately home
The house that started it all is Leicester House, built by Robert Sidney, the 2nd Earl of Leicester, in 1635. King Charles I insisted that he leave part of his newly-acquired land open to parishioners, sowing the seed of the public square we have today. In the centuries to come the house would host several of the square’s most famous residents and attractions. It’s visible in this picture of 1750 – look for the large building set slightly back from the north side of the square.
2: A notorious duel
In the late 17th Century the area, then known as Leicester Fields, became a prime spot for settling gentlemen’s disagreements. One of the most famous took place in 1699, after the drinking buddies of Captains French and Coote fell into an argument outside a Charing Cross pub. It ended in tragedy, with Coote dead – run through twice with a sword – and French badly wounded. The subsequent high-profile trial saw a Lord charged with murder and an Earl convicted of manslaughter.
3: Barker’s Panorama
English painter Robert Barker coined the term ‘panorama’ to describe his huge cityscape paintings. And in the late 1790s he created the first purpose-built gallery for them – a large rotunda in Leicester Square, where punters viewed his work from a raised central platform. It was a hit, and made Barker filthy rich. Best of all: it may be invisible from the street, but as you can see in this satellite view, the rotunda still stands.
4: Wyld’s Great Globe
Imagine a hollow globe some 60 feet in diameter, with scale models of mountains and rivers on its inside surface. And imagine going inside it, and exploring it on a multi-level scaffold. We’re not making this up – that’s what mapmaker and MP James Wyld designed for the Great Exhibition of 1851. The Globe’s size and commercial focus kept it out of the exhibition, and it ended up occupying the central gardens of Leicester Square until it was dismantled and sold for scrap in 1862.
5: A king’s childhood
In the mid-17th Century Leicester House went up in the world – it became the family home of the young King George III. Although George moved out after his coronation in 1760, his mother stayed on for another six years. After that, the house’s glory days were largely – though not quite – over, and it was demolished in 1806.
6: The ‘Holophusicon’
In 1775, just eight years after the royals’ final departure, Leicester House opened to the public as a natural history museum. Its founder was Sir Ashton Lever, the model of an eccentric aristocratic collector, and so impressive were his ‘cabinets’ that Captain James Cook donated a host of object from his celebrated voyages to the Pacific. Lever spent faster than he earned, and his oddly-named attraction was forced to move from Leicester Square in 1786. The collection was finally sold off at auction in 1806.
7: The original ‘picnic’
No, we aren’t claiming Leicester Square saw the very first outdoor meal. But it did play host to the society that coined the phrase. The “Pic Nic Society” was a club founded by actress Lady Albina, and along with sharing the cost of theatrical entertainment its members each provided a home-made dish for a collective supper. Commercial theatres were outraged by the model, and the controversy catapulted Albina and friends into the popular press – they were even caricatured by the satirist James Gillray: