Piccadilly Circus is the starting point of one of the most important streets in London’s West End, at least for those who want to go to the theatre. The street continues north from there. As a tourist destination, it is in a prime location for those seeking entertainment, such as the theatre, Chinese food in Chinatown, movies in Leicester Square, and strolling around Covent Garden. Although it appears to be heading straight to Tottenham Court Road, it actually meets Charing Cross Road at Cambridge Circus and continues on to practically end up in Bloomsbury and New Oxford Street, rather than the obvious destination of Tottenham Court Road. As a matter of fact, it is on a relatively new street.
The history of this well-known street
By the end of 1600, it had become clear that there was only one way to get from Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square to Bloomsbury and Tottenham Court Road, and that this was the only way. In 1877, Parliament delegated authority to a council known as the Metropolitan Board of Works to construct the arteries known as Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue in the capital city. Designed by Council architect George Vulliamy and his engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the two-street route was intended to benefit poor people living in the areas through which it would pass. To avoid demolishing a portion of Soho to create Shaftesbury Avenue, it was decided to widen existing streets instead. Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road folloew the path of the streets that existed before their creation.
The creation of Shaftesbury Avenue also resulted in the demolition of some of the most squalid slums of central London, which were depicted in Dickens’ work as well. The need to provide new housing for families who had been displaced by the project slowed the progress of the construction, and it was not until June 1886 that the road was officially opened.
Still, the street was ruined by the poor quality of the architecture; it must be admitted that, although it is a central street, it does not contain many aesthetically pleasing structures. Even though it’s only a few metres away, it has an entirely different look and feel than the buildings found in Piccadilly or Haymarket.
Six theatres opened on Shaftesbury Avenue between 1888 and 1907: the Lyric, the Apollo, the Globe (now Gielgud), the Shaftesbury, the Queen’s, and the Palace. The Lyric was the first, and the Apollo was the second. Except for the original Shaftesbury Theatre, which was severely damaged by the bombings of 1941 and has since been demolished, and the Saville Theatre, which is now the Odeon Covent Garden cinema, all of these buildings, which will be joined by the Saville Theatre in 1931, have survived to the present day.
The majority of the theatres are located on the west side of the street. On this side of the street is the former Columbia Cinema, now known as Curzon Soho, a lovely building constructed in 1958 based on a design by Sir John Burnet, Tait and Partners.
Another interesting fact is that in Shaftesbury Avenue there was the first school of oriental martial arts in Europe, which was founded in 1905. It was known as the Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture, and it was located on this site from 1899 to 1902.
The former French hospital and dispensary, later known as the Institute of Urology of the Hospital of Shaftesbury, and the Gower Street Memorial Chapel, both of which were built in 1536 and demolished in 1917, were located towards the northern end of the east side. The former Trocadedo Restaurant, which is now a shopping arcade and entertainment centre, is located on the east side of the building, facing Piccadilly Circus.
To summarize, despite the presence of a few theatres and cinemas, Shaftesbury Avenue continues to serve as a connecting route between different parts of the West End and as a dividing line between Soho and Chinatown.