Empire, Leicester Square

Originally a Victorian Music Hall, opening in 1884, the first moving pictures in Britain were shown here by the Lumiere Brothers in 1896. (Barker’s Rotunda (above) was the forerunner of cinema. The theatre was replaced by this building in 1928, updated to multiscreen use in the 1960s with its stalls becoming the Mecca Ballroom.


Built in 1900 by famed theatre architect Frank Matcham. Originally a circus – ‘hippo’ means horse – with a 100,000 gallon water spectacle, then a theatre where Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake had its English première in 1910. Houdini, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Stevie Wonder are among those artists who have performed here.

Odeon Leicester Square

Built in 1937 on the site of the Alhambra music hall, this is the UK’s largest single screen cinema. It still has a working Compton organ and the magnificent art-deco auditorium, featuring two naked nymphs, has been partially restored. Its 1,683 seats make it popular for film premieres and the square has been redesigned for them.

The square was laid out in 1670 near the former house of the Earl of Leicester, lived in during the 1730s by Frederick, Prince of Wales – eldest son of George II and father of George III. Beneath is the West End’s main electric sub-station, its cabling connected by tunnel to Wimbledon.

Tube: Leicester Square

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Leicester Square

Sir Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin’s Tramp character featured in the first movie trailer to be seen in a US movie theater in 1914. Born in South London, he had a string of affairs, married two under-age girls and had 11 children. This statue is by John Doubleday (see his Sherlock Holmes near Baker Street Tube station).

Leicester Square WC2
Tube: Leicester Square

John Hunter

A founder of ‘scientific surgery’, Scots-born John Hunter came to London in 1748. As an army surgeon, he developed new treatments for gunshot wounds. Moving to 28 Leicester Square in 1783, his teaching museum – with a kangaroo specimen donated by Captain Cook – became world-famous.


Notre Dame De France

Jean Cocteau frescoes and the altar’s Robert de Chaunac tapestry make this a unique space. Artist Robert Barker built a Rotunda on the site in 1793 for his patented circular panoramas – the Battle of Waterloo made a fortune – hence the round footprint of the church. It dates to 1868, though rebuilt after heavy WWII bomb damage.

5 Leicester Place WC2

William Hogarth

Trained as an engraver, Hogarth had his own printing business in 1720, using his spare time to learn to paint. He became famous for his morality paintings - published as engravings. These were so popular that his campaign against the pirating of his work led to the Copyright Act of 1735. A full-length statue stands in Chiswick.

Joshua Reynolds

Plymouth-born Reynolds (1723-1792) came to London to study art in 1740. A disciple of William Hogarth, he also studied in Rome before setting up as the most fashionable portrait painter of the time. The first president of the Royal Academy in 1768, he was knighted in 1769. His full-length statue stands at the Royal Academy.


William Shakespeare

Worshipped by dolphins, this 19th century statue of Shakespeare is actually a rarity in London. England’s most famous playwright has few memorials in the capital. This one by Giovanni Fontana was copied in 1874 from his memorial in Westminster Abbey, done in 1740 by Peter Scheemakers to a design by architect William Kent.


Swiss Clock

Many Londoners lament the passing of the Swiss Centre which once stood nearby but this musical clock serves as a reminder of its presence. The Glockenspiel has 27 bells with moving Swiss figures and the original decorated the outside of the centre. It chimes at noon, 5pm, 6pm, 7pm and 8pm every day (also at 2pm, 3pm and 4pm on weekends.


Gone but not  forgotten: These statues decorated Leicester Square until it was redeveloped for the 2012 Olympic Games. Hopefully, they will appear elsewhere in London in due course.