Leicester Square is a central tourist attraction of London.
Leicester Square is named after Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester, who purchased four acres in St. Martin’s Field in 1630; by 1635, he had built himself a large house, Leicester House, at the northern end. The area in front of the house was then enclosed, depriving inhabitants of St Martin in the Fields parish of their right to use the previously common land. The parishioners appealed to King Charles I
, and he appointed three members of the Privy Council to arbitrate. Lord Leicester was ordered to keep part of his land (thereafter known as Leicester Field and later as Leicester Square) open for the parishioners.
The area was developed in the 1670s. It was initially fashionable and Leicester House was once residence of Frederick, Prince of Wales but by the late 18th century, the Square was no longer a smart address and began to serve as a venue for popular entertainments. Leicester House became home of a museum of natural curiosities called the Holophusikon in the 1780s and was demolished about 1791–1792.
In 1848, Leicester Square was the subject of the land-law case of Tulk v. Moxhay. The plot’s previous owner had agreed upon a covenant not to erect buildings. However, the law would not allow purchasers who were not ’privy’ to the initial contract to be bound by subsequent promises. The judge, Lord Cottenham, decided that future owners could be bound by promises to abstain from activity. Otherwise, a buyer could sell land to himself to undermine an initial promise. Arguments continued about the fate of the garden, with Charles Augustus Tulk’s heirs erecting a wooden hoarding around the property in 1873. Finally, in 1874 the flamboyant Albert Grant (1830–1899) purchased the outstanding freeholds and donated the garden to the Metropolitan Board of Works, laying out a garden at his own expense. The title passed to the succeeding public bodies and is now in the ownership of the City of Westminster.
By the 19th century, Leicester Square was known as an entertainment venue, with many amusements peculiar to the era, including Wyld’s Great Globe, which was built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and housed a giant scale map of the Earth. Several hotels grew up around the square, making it popular with visitors to London. The Alhambra, a large theatre built in 1854, dominated the site, to be joined in 1884 by the Empire Theatre of Varieties. The square remains the heart of the West End entertainment district today.
During the 1979 ’Winter of Discontent’, refuse collectors went on strike. Leicester Square was used as an overflow dump, earning it the nickname of Fester Square