“The land where Leicester Square now lies once belonged to the Abbot and Convent of Westminster Abbey and the Beaumont family. In 1536, Henry VIII took control of 3 acres (1.2 ha) of land around the square, with the remaining 4 acres (1.6 ha) being transferred to the king the following year. The square is named after Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester, who purchased this land 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 Fields and later as Leicester Square) open for the parishioners.
The square was laid out to the south of Leicester House and developed in the 1670s. The area was originally entirely residential, with properties laid out in a similar style to nearby Pall Mall. In 1687, the northern part of the square became part of the new parish of St Anne, Soho.
In the middle of the square is a small park that was originally available for common use on Lammas Day (12 August), such as washing clothes and herding cattle. The Earl of Leicester was obliged to preserve these grounds, which were separated from the rest of the square with railings.
Leicester House was demolished in 1791–72 owing to rising debts following the extinction of the Leicester peerage, and replaced by Leicester Place. That in turn was converted into a church in 1865 and is now the site of the Prince Charles Cinema.
In 1808, the garden was sold by the Leicester Estate to Charles Elmes, who neglected to maintain it. Ownership changed hands a number of times during the first half of the 19th century, following Elmes’ death in 1822. Little maintenance was done and the garden deteriorated to the point of severe dilapidation.
The garden was saved by the Member of Parliament, Albert Grant, who purchased the park in 1874 and donated it to the Metropolitan Board of Works. The title deed for the square passed to the succeeding public bodies and is now in the ownership of the City of Westminster. After the purchase, the architect James Knowles redesigned the park. A statue of William Shakespeare surrounded by dolphins was constructed in the centre. The four corner gates of the park had one bust each of famous former residents in the square: the scientist Sir Isaac Newton designed by W. Calder Marshall; Sir Joshua Reynolds, the first President of the Royal Academy, by H. Weekes; John Hunter, a pioneer of surgery, by T. Wooler; and William Hogarth, the painter, by J. Durham. Ownership transferred to Westminster City Council in 1933.”