A main thoroughfare since at least medieval times, when it was known as “the road to Reading” or “the way from Colnbrook”, Piccadilly takes its from from the piccadill, a wide, decorated collar that was sufficiently popular to make the fortune of a tailor called Robert Baker. When he built himself an impressive residence hereabouts it was promptly dubbed Piccadilly House, presumably by people who thought he was getting above himself.
Pictured here, occupying the enviable address of “1 Piccadilly”, is the premises of Joseph Egg, gunsmith. At the other end of the street is Apsley House, home of the first Duke of Wellington and once known as “Number 1 London”.
During the 19th century, Piccadilly Circus, built in 1819, became infamous for debauchery. It presumably took a lot to shock Fyodor Dostoevsky, the great Russian writer, but he was deeply disturbed when he visited London in July 1862 and wrote about the area nearby: “At night prostitutes crowd several streets in this quarter by the thousands”.
In the 1950s and 1960s it was also a hub for drug users, especially heroin addicts. The majority got their fix not from a shady dealer in a dark corner but the brightly lit 24-hour Boots the Chemist next to the Criterion Theatre. Every day just before midnight a queue would form with everyone holding their prescriptions (‘scripts’) dated for the next day. At that time the largest heroin dealer in London, albeit a legal one, was Boots.