Seven Dials, WC2
In the Covent Garden area between the theatre district of Shaftesbury Avenue and the posh shops in Neal’s Yard is to be found a curious part of London, Seven Dials, where seven roads converge into a space with a sun dial pillar in the middle. It is full of fashionable shops and eateries as well as having a hotel, a Radisson, and a theatre, the Cambridge, at its apex. It is a fashionable part of town but it wasn’t always so.
Incredible as it may seem the area now occupied by Seven Dials was farmland owned by the Worshipful Company of Mercers in the mid 17th century. The Mercers realised that with the momentum to expand London westwards becoming almost irresistible, their land was worth more if they issued building licences to developers and this is what they did. Thomas Neal acquired the licence for the area and drew up plans for the development in the 1690s. The original plan had six roads converging into one point but this was later increased to seven – the idea was to maximise the number of houses that could be built looking on to the Dials and the pillar was built with only six faces, the dial itself acting as the seventh.
Although nearby Covent Garden became the epitome of fashionable society, Neal’s dreams for the Seven Dials were not fulfilled. Like many a speculator he was more interested in making a quick buck than developing solid buildings and many were of sub-standard condition and deteriorated quickly. With the thriving Covent Garden nearby offering jobs aplenty to the labouring classes, the properties around Seven Dials became their lodging houses. By the end of the 18th century and the start of the 19th Seven Dials had become one of London’s most notorious slums.
Living conditions were terrible, houses were packed and filthy, children swarmed everywhere. The housing barely served their tenants’ basic needs. Such shops as there were sold second-hand goods. Yet for the well-off with an artistic bent there was something alluring about the Dials. William Hogarth is thought to have drawn his inspiration for his series of cartoons called Gin Lane from the Dials and Charles Dickens was fascinated with the area, writing in Night Walks from the Sketches of Boz (1836), “the stranger who finds himself in the Dials for the first time…at the entrance of Seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity awake for no inconsiderable time”. We can well imagine the sights and the dangers that confronted the unwary traveller.
As the 19th century progressed the area’s rep didn’t improve. W.S Gilbert in Iolanthe wrote, “Hearts just as pure and fair/ May beat in Belgrave Square / as in the lowly air of Seven Dials” and for Agatha Christie who used it in the title of her 1929 mystery, the Seven Dials Mystery, it was a by-word for urban poverty. It was also associated with Chartism as the Chartists regularly used it as a foal point for their campaigns for electoral reform.
The original sun dial pillar was removed in 1773. There is a story that it was destroyed by an angry mob but more prosaically it seems to have been removed by order of the Paving Commissioners in an attempt to rid the area of undesirables. What was left was acquired by an architect, James Paine, and kept at his place in Addlestone. They were then purchased by public subscription and erected in Weybridge in 1820 to commemorate the recently deceased Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia, Duchess of York and Albany. The current one was constructed to the original design in 1988/9.