Marylebone Circus

Marylebone Circus

There’s London’s famous Oxford Circus (which was formerly called Regent Circus), Piccadilly Circus, and not forgetting Cambridge Circus, Holborn Circus, even the lesser known Arnold, Battersea, Finsbury, Ludgate, Mill Hill, Savoy, St George’s, St Giles, Westferry and Queen’s Circuses.

And there’s Marylebone Circus!

There’s no such place in London!

The truth is barely anyone will know of Marylebone Circus – certainly not one person has blogged about it nor will it be found on Google!

Despite the incredulity that might come from people when they hear Marylebone does have a circus, the fact is it’s still there – its just unloved and so very unrecognised – that’s because everyone will know it as a place called Baker Street 🙂

If Sherlock had lived at 221b Marylebone Circus things would have been so very different! LOL.

The entire site of what was once Marylebone Circus, looking down the former grand parade leading to Madame Tussaud’s.

Marylebone’s own circus still exists even though its not referred to as a circus these days. It is sited right next to Baker Street’s tube station and even when the Metropolitan Railway rebuilt its station entrances, those had to be built at an angle because they had to fit into Marylebone Circus.

The Wonderpass looking towards Berkeley Court and Lloyds bank – this is the top most alignment of Marylebone Circus.

There are still quite a few traces of what is perhaps London’s biggest forgotten circus. The Wonderpass entrance and the gateway on the diagonally opposite side which now forms the entrance to Pizza express.

Amazingly the Wonderpass doesn’t mention Marylebone Circus even though the subway is sited right beneath the damn circus itself!

Further clues come in the sides to Berkeley Court and Lloyds Bank. The four remaining ornate lampposts on each corner of the Baker Street/Marylebone Road intersection are in fact part of Marylebone Circus. These posts are sited at an angle which reflects the shape of the circus and not the present road alignments.

One of the old Marylebone Circus lamp posts still in existence outside The Globe inn. Notice the rather odd angle its at, as if in defiance of the present road alignment. Its in that position because it marked the circumference of the former circus.

These particular lamp posts (which were cast by S. Pontifex of Euston Street) were too found along Marylebone Road as far as Madame Tussauds. This section of Marylebone Road has always been a parade as far as the wax works from the days before Tussauds moved here in the 1880s. The waxworks made it extra special however. The world’s first underground railway too enhanced this parade by the use of classic Italianate entrance lobbies as ticket offices, one at each corner of the parade.

The reason for that was the stretch of road between Baker Street and Great Portland Street was of high repute, with its Nash buildings and crescents, bounded by Regent’s Park on the north. Sadly, as I have already said, the stretch between Baker Street tube and the waxworks is quite run down these days, and seriously in need of TLC/improvement considering the huge numbers of tourists who come from all over the world.

Either at the end of the 19th Century or the beginning of the 20th, this is around when it was decided to rebuild the station entrances at Baker Street and widen Marylebone Road, it was about that time that Marylebone Circus came into being. It was created as part of a new wide tree lined boulevard stretching from Baker Street almost to Great Portland Street. Marylebone Circus at this end, Park Crescent at the other marking the furthest extents of an area that had been earlier created by way of a vision first espoused by John Nash.

Marylebone Circus marked on the 1952 OS 1:1250 map. Its obvious how the buildings fit in.

By the time of the First World War area’s buildings and road layout and tube entrances had been altered to bring Marylebone Circus completely into being. Indeed it still exists today, quite tenaciously, its just that no-one knows its there….

The reason for the Wonderpass being at an angle is because it had to fit into Marylebone Circus. And yes, that’s one of the circus’ other lamp posts stood by the entrance!

The reason for Berkeley Court being built with an angled corner is obvious. Marylebone Circus was there and it had to fit in.

Marylebone Circus’ 15 minutes of fame is perhaps the £40,000 ‘traffic-actuated signal’ scheme built along the Marylebone Road in 1935. This to all purposes and intents was the first computer controlled traffic light system in the world. Reports of the time touted the term ‘mechanical mind’ or ‘robot brain’ clearly ‘computer’ wasn’t a word used specifically for that kind of thing yet.

The system was known as the ‘Autoflex Progressive System’ and this enhanced traffic movement in the area by using intelligent traffic lights which could work out how much flow there was and when the lights needed to be changed.

The wall/arch at Pizza Express in Marylebone Road were built at a particular angle. No prizes for guessing why!

Just two years earlier an there had been a short experiment to evaluate intelligent automatic lights in London’s Trafalgar Square. That was installed by the Automatic Telephone and Electric Company (according to The Engineer, 25 March 1960, P496.)

However the system at Marylebone Circus was far more advanced than the simple experiment conducted at Trafalgar Square.  The Guardian reports on the establishment of the Marylebone system:

Guardian August 1935.

There were several main junctions, of which the biggest installations were along the Marylebone and Edgware Roads. Detectors built into the roads counted the axles of each vehicle, the information being sent to a local controller (there were twenty) and after being collated the data was sent to a master ‘traffic integrator’ based at Marylebone Circus. This evaluated the incoming information in order to phase the lights accordingly to the amount of flow along each road approaching the intersection. The ‘robots’ could be identified by their classical green boxes which soon became numerous across Britain.

Looking south across Marylebone Road. Three of Marylebone circus’ lamp posts can be seen.

Mr. S. G. Purkis, O.B.E., Borough Engineer & Surveyor of St Marylebone Borough Council confirmed in 1935 that “Tests on the Marylebone Circus controller have been entirely satisfactory, and all the controls switched on….” In fact it was Purkis himself who conducted the official switch-on ceremony at Marylebone Circus in September 1935.

Marylebone Borough Council later expanded the scheme, which was installed by both Siemens and the General Electric Railway Signal Company, to cover 50 intersections with plans to ultimately cover a total of ninety around London. (See notes below.)

The facades of Berkeley Court and Wonderpass (plus the exquisite lamp posts) mark the northern side of the former circus.

Even though Marylebone Circus had always struggled under the more famous namesake of Baker Street, it seems the widening of the New Road between King’s Cross and Edgware Road in the sixties ensured Marylebone Circus’ almost total fade from the London scene.

As a result Marylebone Circus was no longer mentioned on official documents, and certainly the switch from St Marylebone Council to Westminster Council in 1965 must have seen officers furiously expunging the circus from every single document transferred over from St Marylebone’s depository.

Of course that didnt happen, but given the almost virtual disappearance of the circus from history, one can’t help wondering…..

Westminster Council search query in 2017: Marylebone Circus translates as ‘Marylebone Room!’

Westminster Council search query in 2022: Marylebone Circus doesn’t exist but Marylebone library does!

Marylebone Circus is not even listed on Google (it will be now because of this post!) If one does a search on Westminster Council’s website they say there’s no such thing as Marylebone Circus, you mean the Marylebone Room? And whatever the hell is that supposed to be?

It seems the last mention of Marylebone Circus in Geographia’s A-Z London Street by Street guide was possibly their 1969 edition…. I do have an AA Greater London Street Atlas (first published 1977) one edition in particular – the fifth – published April 1987) clearly shows Marylebone Circus. Clearly the AA knew something a lot of Londoners dont!

Scan from the AA’s Greater London Street Atlas Fifth Edition of 1987 showing Marylebone Circus.

Some digital editions of OS mapping do show Marylebone Circus. Its not exactly deceased! Barely alive yet its managing to somehow defy the odds!

Marylebone Circus shown at max zoom on Historic England’s map search facility.

Notes: London’s first set of normal lights were at Piccadilly Circus in 1926.

Wolverhampton had the first ever automatic lights, a one day trial in 1927, however London followed with a similar set in 1928, yet the Marylebone ones were the first to use algorithms to control the lights. Westminster followed with a ‘robot set’ at Piccadilly Circus in 1937 (link to video.)

In that video one of those classic green boxes can be seen. By 1935 there were 527 sets of the type of automated traffic light in the capital running as vehicle actuated systems like that at Piccadilly Circus – however that used at Marylebone was a completely different set up altogether as already explained – it wasn’t just vehicle actuated but gathered data to intelligently calculate vehicle flows and traffic light phases across a wide area.

Updated October 2022.