Named for the 2nd Earl of Leicester, London’s Leicester Square is at the heart of the city’s prime entertainment district. The square is embellished with several monuments, including a fountain dedicated to Shakespeare.
History of the Square
Situated in an area that was once part of a 1.6 hectare (4 acres) tract owned by Robert Sidney, the 2nd Earl of Leicester, Leicester Square was open to the public around 1640 after locals protested the privatization of the land that was once common ground.
Development of the area began around 1670, and it quickly became a fashionable place to live as homes sprung up around the original Leicester House which, for some time during the very early 1700s, was the home of Frederick, Prince of Wales.
By the late eighteenth century, however, the character of the square changed, and it soon became an area known for its entertainment venues, one of the first of which was a “museum of natural curiosities” known as the Holophusikon.
By the nineteenth century, more entertainment facilities sprung up around Leicester Square, including Wyld’s Globe, which was built for the International Exposition and housed a giant scale map of the world; and the 1854-built Alhambra, a theatre and concert hall which for many years dominated the square. It was joined thirty years later by the Empire Theatre of Varieties. All would help to establish Leicester Square as the heart of the West End entertainment district.
The square is car-free and can be very crowded, especially on weekend evenings. It is often the starting point for people who want to visit one of the many cinemas, theaters, snack bars and restaurants that are in the neighborhood.
Several major cinemas line the square, giving it its nickname “Theatreland”. Visitors will also find a “TKTS” half-price ticket booth here, where discount tickets can be purchased for popular West End shows and musicals. A handful of TV and radio stations also have their headquarters at Leicester Square.
But the square itself has some interesting sights as well. In the center of the square, for instance, visitors will find a garden. In the middle of the garden is a marble fountain with a statue of William Shakespeare surrounded by dolphins. The fountain, created by Giovanni Fontana in 1874 is known as the Shakespeare Memorial Fountain. Fontana’s work is a replica of William Kent’s design from 1749 that Peter Scheemakers created for Westminster Abbey.
At each corner of the park is a statue of another famous Londoner, including Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Hunter, and William Hogarth. Another likeness, that of Charlie Chaplin, was created by John Doubleday and added in 1981.
In addition, the square is surrounded with floor plaques that include the names and handprints of famous actors, similar to those found at the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, California.
The most peculiar sight at Leicester Square is probably the rather strangely-looking Swiss Glockenspiel, a ten-meter-tall steel structure with a carillon. The carillon has twenty-seven bells. Below the bells are eleven wooden figures of animals and people in historical attire. On the hour during the afternoon, the figures walk in a procession accompanied by the chiming of carillon bells. Below the figures is a glass drum decorated with the flags of the cantons of Switzerland. The whole structure is crowned with a Swiss clock.
The Glockenspiel was a gift from Switzerland and Liechtenstein. It adorned the facade of the Swiss Centre, a tourist and trade center that promoted Switzerland. The Swiss Center was demolished in 2008, but the carillon was restored and since November 2011 stands as a freestanding structure on Leicester Square.