Victorian London - Districts - Areas - Leicester Square

see also The Alhambra - click here

It was not till a few days had elapsed that I discovered how incongruous it was for a gentleman to be residing in Leicester Square, or for the matter of that in any part of that neighbourhood, where the shops are as indecently stocked and the streets as badly frequented as soom well-known Paris haunts that shall be nameless! A visitor, with social aspirations, residing there would run the risj of creating a very unfavourable impression. I therefore moved to other quarters ...

Francis Wey, A Frenchman Sees the English in the Fifties, 1935

Gone is Cranbourn Alley, the home of the bonnet makers, and Leicester Square, such as I remember it - a howling wilderness, with broken railings, a receptacle for dead cats and every kind of abomination; then covered over by the hideous building for Mr. Wyld's great Globe; and lastly in its present pretty and cheerful condition.

Edmund Yates, His Recollections and Experiences, 1885
[chapter on 1836-1847]

Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Theatre and Shows - Dioramas, Panoramas et al. - Wyld's Globe, Leicester Square 


We did not even take a carpet-bag, or a tooth-brush, or a clean collar with us. All our luggage consisted of a walking-stick and a postage-stamp. The latter we parted with at the end of our journey, to acquaint our friends that we had been round the Globe in perfect safety.
We have our doubts whether ladies will approve much of this new style of travelling. It dispenses with everything in the shape of luggage.
Our only passport was a shilling. This passport is very convenient.
It requires no viséing. No allusions are made in it to your eyes; no questions asked about your name, residence, or nose. You present your passport at the door; it is taken from you; and you never see it any more. We wish every passport was as easy to obtain, and as easy to get rid of. 
    We like travelling round the Globe. First of all, there is not a single turnpike on the road. There is no dust, nor any throwing of eggs nor flour, as on the journey from Epsom. and again, there are no beggars, as in Ireland, - no revolutions, as in France, - no monks or mosquitos, as in Italy,- and no insults, as in America. It is as easy as going up stairs to dress, and coming down again to dinner.
The journey is made on foot. Young ladies who cannot travel anywhere but in their own carriage, must abandon all thoughts of travelling round the Globe. It is true the journey might be made on horseback, but then the horse must be one of those "trained steeds" from Astley's, which are taught to run up ladders without missing a single step. The travelling, it must be confessed, is rather steep and resembles very much a journey up the Monument. This resemblance, however, arises entirely from the peculiar formation of the interior.
    In this respect MR. WYLD has made a grand discovery. He has satisfactorily proved that the interior of the Globe is not filled with gases, according to AGASSIZ; or with fire, according to BURNET; neither has ho filled it, like FOURIER, with water, as if the Globe were nothing better than a globe of gold fish. No; MR. WYLD has lately  shown us that the interior of the Globe is occupied by immense strata of staircases!
These staircases rise above one another, like the steps in the Duke of York's Column. This new theory must make travelling remarkably easy for persons who are occupied day long in running up and down stairs, and seems as if it had been purposely laid down for maids-of-all. work, or poor relations on a visit.
Our first flight through the Globe - that is to say, when we came to the first landing-place - convinced us that the crust of the Earth very much resembled the crust of a beefsteak pie that had been considerably overbaked. The inequalities on the surface, where the mountains are supposed to rise, represented to our ingenious fancy the bumps caused by the potatoes slumbering below, whilst the cracks through which the rivers are imagined to roll, disclosed to our mind's eye the crevices in the crust that sometimes display such tempting glimpses of the rich gravy that is flowing underneath.
This notion of the pie is not in the least overdone; for really the heat of the Globe is equal to that of any baker's oven. We don't wonder at this, when we observed at every turn that there were small jets of gas bursting out of the Earth, in a number almost sufficient to roast a prize ox at any of the ensuing elections. The combustion of these several gases raises the atmosphere of the Earth almost to boiling point; and we are confident that if any one, anticipating a long journey round the Earth, took his dinner with him, he could cook it on the spot, free of expense.
The most curious thing is, that the higher a person ascends in the World, the hotter it becomes for him; so that when he has reached the greatest elevation a man can attain, he suddenly finds the World too hot to hold him, and is obliged to come down again with a run. This is a fine lesson of worldly ambition, which we experienced, for once, ourselves. We felt the heat so excessive, and fancying the Arctic Regions must be of all regions the coldest in the World, we steamed our panting way up there; but, will it be believed? - accustomed as we are always to be at the top of the Pole, - we could not stand the climate of early peas and pine-apples, that is almost at forcing-height in those icy districts; and we were compelled to run down stairs to the Tropics as fast as we could in order to get cool again. It is lucky that there are parts of the Globe where a person can breathe with comfort, or else MR. WYLD would have made us regret that we had ever come into the World at all!
And of this we should have been profoundly sorry; for, to speak the truth, this World is a most beautiful one. It is most agreeable to stand in the centre of the Earth, and to see yourself surrounded by oceans and continents, - first to feast of a bit of land, arid then to drink in with your eyes a whole Atlantic-full of water. Drink as much as you will, you cannot take all the water in. You dread lest the waters should close in around you, and swallow you up like a cork in the middle of a water-butt. You cling to the railings for support; but the sight of land cheers you the next moment. All the World is before you; you have only to choose where to go to. With a patriotic rush your eyes run to England, and you arc wonder-struck that a country which occupies so large a space in the thoughts of the world, should take up so little room on the surface of it. England, that has filled so many leaves in the world's history , is scarcely the size of a cabbage leaf; and London, which prides itself upon being the centre of civilization, is not half so big as TOM THUMB'S nose.
The World, as has often been remarked by moralists before, is exceedingly hollow; but then, if it were not, we could never have seen it for one shilling. This is very lucky; for it has enabled MR. WYLD to present to us the Globe in the shape of a geographical globule, which the mind can take in at one swallow. You see the comparative  heights of all the mountains, and the comparative sizes of the different continents. Everything is measured to the nicety of a fashionable tailor; and we must say, that in no worldly quality do we admire MR. WYLD so much as in the moderation of his measurement. Most men when they are given an inch take an ell; but MR. WYLD, with a modesty that is beyond all measure, was given ten miles, and he has only taken an inch! - for that is the magic scale with which he has compressed volcanoes into a thimble, and condensed lakes into the size of a tea-cup!
Not only are the features of the different continents carefully portrayed but an attempt has also been made to give the face of each an individual complexion. For this purpose MR. WYLD has called in the assistance of MR. BEVERLEY, whose brush must now enjoy, if it did not before, a world-wide renown. Warm colours are given to warm climates - dead colours to barren districts - neutral colours to countries of which little is known; whilst a generous couleur de rose is thrown over those parts where the Sun of civilization is supposed to shine the strongest. Here and there, you see glittering red points burning away like the tops of the lighted cigars that are made in chocolate These are volcanic mountains, and the authority for painting them that colour, has taken from the celebrated Mountain in the French Chambers, which we all know is excessively volcanic, and particularly Red.
The general effect is very curious. Here a country looks like an immense cabbage-leaf, flattened out, half green and half decayed, with as immense caterpillar crawling right over it in the shape of a chain of mountains. There a country resembles an old piece of jagged leather hung up against the wall to dry, with large holes, that have been moth-eaten out of it. On one side you will see a cluster of islands, like dead leaves floating on the water, whilst opposite to it will be some large tract of land looking vesicated, with the rivers running close to one another like the veins in an anatomical engraving. Above your head will be hanging an old rug, like Russia, looking half-burnt and half- blistered by live coals that had fallen upon it,  whilst underneath your feet may be spread Africa, like an immense skin - in some parts red and tawny, like a lion's - and in others a rich yellow, with beautiful black marks, like the stripes on a leopard's back. Fancy these, and many hundred others, hung up in monster frames with endless margins of blue-water, and you will have a vivid conception, though perhaps not a very picturesque one, of the Globe which MR. WYLD has suspended, like a fine, suggestive, picture, on the wall, for us to look at. The great pity is, you cannot see the picture all at once. It is cut in two by the hideous staircase. But this may have been run up purposely to show us that "one half the Globe doesn't know what the other half is doing."

Punch, Jul.-Dec. 1851

see also J. Ewing Ritchie in The Night Side of London - click here

see also George Sala in Gaslight and Daylight - click here

[ ... back to main menu for this book]

Leicester Square dates from as far back as 1635, when the first house was built by Robert Sydney, Earl of Leicester. In 1671 the south side was completed. Even at this early date the square had particular attraction for foreigners. Colbert, the French ambassador resided here; and Leicester house sheltered Prince Eugene, and saw the end of the troublous life of the Queen of Bohemia. Later Leicester House became the court of George II when Prince of Wales, who in turn was succeeded in opposition by his own son Prince Frederick Perhaps the first theatrical performance known in the square was when a company of amateurs, including the future George III played Addison’s tragedy of Cato. But Leicester-square has more interesting memories than these. At No, 47, on the west side, lived and worked Sir Joshua Reynolds, and on the opposite side, close to the present Alhambra, Hogarth scent some of the best years of his life. Next door to Hogarth lived John Hunter, and, hard by, Sir Isaac Newton had his observatory. Later on Newton’s house was occupied by Dr. Burney, better known as the father of Madame d’Arblay, the authoress of the now almost forgotten Evelina. Many celebrated shows have had their habitation in the square. Miss Linwood’s gruesome exhibition of worsted work; the earliest idea of hatching chickens by steam; assaults of arms ; and even prize-fights at various times, appealed for public support in Savile House on the north side. The Gordon Rioters sacked Savile House and the complete destruction which even they were unable to effect was some years ago consummated by the fire which entirely destroyed it. In the northeast corner of the square flourished for many years one of the best exhibitions in London, Burford’s panorama; and in the middle of the square the Great Globe itself was set up, until the too sensitive feelings of the inhabitants could bear it no longer. On its removal literally a wreck was left behind. The most hideous statue in London, which Mr. Wyld’s enterprise had relegated to a temporary retirement, made its unwelcome reappearance. The condition of the square and of the statue went gradually from bad to worse, until it became one of the crying nuisances of the town. Squalid vegetation, mangy cats, and almost equally mangy street-boys took possession of the enclosure, which by degrees became the common dust-heap of the neighbourhood. At last a band of practical jokers, under cover of a fog, worked such pranks on the mutilated statue, that even the sense of humour of the authorities was excited, and a preliminary clearance was made. Nowadays the square, thanks to the public spirit of Mr. Albert Grant, is neat and orderly, and the benches with which the enclosure is provided are daily used by many hundreds of the surrounding colony. For as it was in its earliest days so is Leicester-square now. It is the capital of the great foreign settlements about Soho. Exiles of every political “stripe” have trod the flags of Leicester-square. It is easy for the experienced Londoner to trace the course of foreign politics by observing the habitués of the square at the time of the morning pipe.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879

    In the long, long ago the entertainment provided by Leicester Square were not of an exciting nature. The "Sans Souci," Walhalla, and Burford's Panorama (where Daly's Theatre now stands) divided the honours til '51, when Wylde's Globe occupied the entire enclosure. This huge erection was sixty feet in diameter, and remained in existence till 1861, when it was pulled down to make way for entertainments combining instruction with pleasure.
   In 1863 the "Eldorado" Cafe Chantant, which was leading a precarious existence, put up the shutters, when a section of the (non-speculative) public made the brilliant, loyal and dutiful suggestion that somebody should erect a "Denmark" Winter Garden as a momento to the Prince of Wales's recent marriage, but the loyal, dutiful, sycophantic proposal did not commend itself as it no doubt ought to have done, and probably would to-day. The requisite capital was not forthcoming, and so not till 1873 did the new era commence, when £50,000 was offered for the Square by that monument of aspiring greatness, "Baron" Grant, who burst upon the horizon then fizzled into space, as meteors are wont to do.
    ... In the days of which we are writing Leicester Square was a barren waste surrounded by rusty railings, trodden down in all directions; refuse of every description  was shot into it, whilst in the centre tood a dilapidated equestrian statue that assumed various adornments as the freaks of drunken roysterers suggested. On the north side (where now stands the Empire) was The Shades, a low-class eating-house in the basement, approached by steps, where every knife, fork and spoon was indelibly stamped "Stolen from the Shades" as a delicate hint to its patrons. On the opposite side stood a huge wooden pump of which more anon. At the adjoining eastern corner were the "tableau vivants," presided over by a judge in "wig and gown" where more blasphemy and filth was to be heard for a shilling than would appear possible, all within one hundered yards of such harmless (if disreputable) haunts as Kate Hamilton's, which were overhauled nightly. It was many years afterwards that the barren wilderness was made beautiful for ever by the generosity of "Baron" Grant. One can see him now, arrayed in white waistcoat and huge buttonhole, accompanied by an unpretentious bevy of councillor and Board of Works men, over whom a few bits of bunting fluttered, presenting his gift of many thousands in a speech that was quite inaudible. But, like medals and decorations, gifts in those days were not rewarded in the lavish manner of to-day. Had such a public benefit been conferred now, the donor would have been dubbed a baronet, or a privy councillor at least, with every prospect of a peerage should he again spring £20,000. Apropos of this gift, there was a peculiar sequel. When asked at the time whether he gave or retained the underground rights in additionto the recreation groun, the great man, in the zenith of his success, replied, "Yes, yes; I give it all." Years after, however, when poor and friendless, hearing that underground works had made the subsoil more valuable than the surface, he enquired whether some remnant could not be claimed by him, but was forcibly reminded of the follies of his youth by a prompt negative, and left to die in penury without a helping hand.

'One of the Old Brigade' (Donald Shaw), London in the Sixties, 1908

leicestersq.gif (85230 bytes)

Leicester Square, 1883

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 - Leicester Square

Leicester Square - photograph


Few spots in London have such interesting associations as Leicester Square. It takes its name from Leicester House, more than once the residence of royalty; and Leicester Fields, as the place used to be styled, were a favourite resort of duellists. From early in the seventeenth century foreigners have patronised the Square. The figure of Shakespeare is a replica by Fontana of Kent's statue in Westminster Abbey; and on the pedestal is recorded the fact that the Fields were bought, laid out, and conveyed to the public by Baron Albert Grant, MP. At the angles of the garden are busts of Hunter, Newton, Reynolds, and Hogarth, who lived in or near the Square. The building on the east side is the Alhambra Theatre of Varieties. The red-brick house to the right, with a parapet, is Archbishop Tenison's Grammar School.