“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…” – Charles Dickens, ‘Sketches by Boz’ (1836)
In the early 1690’s, the MP Thomas Neale (1641-99) attempted to develop part of the overcrowded slum of London’s St. Giles into what is now Seven Dials. Today the trendy shopping area is a far cry from the disreputable hovel depicted in William Hogarth’s Gin Lane (1751) – printed almost 60 years after Neale strove to pull the area out of the gutter, it shows that the original plans for redevelopment were ultimately a failure. Neale wanted to establish Seven Dials as a fashionable London address, following in the earlier footsteps of the successful Covent Garden Piazza. However, the area failed to do this and it quickly deteriorated into one renowned for its many gin shops. At one point a pub could be found on every one of the seven points facing the central column, their cellars and vaults connecting in the basement, accommodating the possible need for a quick escape.
Neale’s master plan began to unfold in 1691, with the construction of six streets radiating out from a central ‘circus’, holding a column decorated with six sundials. A seventh street – the eastern part of what is now Mercer Street, named after the Worshipful Company of Mercers, who owned the land and licensed the building work – was added in the early years of the eighteenth century, but it was too late for anyone to alter the already finished column to match. The seventh style of the middle column has thus been interpreted as the actual monument itself.
Charles Dickens Junior (1837-96) noted the poverty of the area in the nineteenth century: shops selling second and third hand goods, a bizarre cluster of stores selling “every rarity of pigeon, fowl and rabbit, together with rare Birds such as hawks, owls and parrots, love birds and other species native and foreign”. He took note of children playing in the streets together completely unsupervised, while their parents presumably sat in one of the seven pubs facing the central monument – “it is evident whatever there may be a lack of in the Dials, there is no lack of money for drink”.
Moreover, the nineteenth century also saw an influx of Irish workers into the area, who were predominately attracted by the cheap, though overcrowded, lodgings. Henry Mayhew observed in 1861: “In many houses in Monmouth Street there is a system of sub-letting among journeymen. In one room lodged a man and his wife, (a laundress), 4 children and 2 single young men. The woman was actually delivered in this room while the men kept at their work – they never lost an hours work!” The flood of immigrants gradually spread out to surrounding areas, from Endell Street to Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue, easing pressure on Seven Dials and allowing for a steady gentrification of it as craftsmen and larger businesses moved in.
** Interestingly, nearby Neal’s Yard, today housing many vegetarian cafes and homeopathic remedy shops, has been home to alternative medicine, occultism, and astrologers since the seventeenth century, all of whom were attracted by the sundials and the symbolic star layout of Seven Dials.