08 August 2023

Seven Dials, the ‘Little Dublin’
of London … but misery
no longer ‘clings to misery
for a little warmth’

Seven streets converge at Seven Dials … a unique area close to Covent Garden (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Strolling through London after last week’s visit to Southwark Cathedral and Southwark Deanery, Charlotte and I walked down Fleet Street, called into Dr Johnson’s House in Gough Square and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese in Wine House Court, and then continued on through the West End and Covent Garden, where we found ourselves at the unusually-named Seven Dials.

Seven Dials is Covent Garden’s only village, and this is the first time, as far as I recall, being in this area, where seven streets converge.

Seven Dials boasts a rich and varied heritage, from associations with Charles Dickens to the birthplace of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in Neal’s Yard. The area has an array of boutiques, heritage and vintage shops, salons, bustling bars and cafés, independent restaurants and traditional pubs

Seven Dials is both a junction and neighbourhood in the Saint Giles district of Covent Garden and the West End. It gets its unusual because here seven streets converge at an almost circular central roundabout, which at its centre has a tall column with six sundials – the column is, in fact, the seventh sundial.

The Seven Dials Trust owns and maintains the column and the sundials and looks after the public areas in association with the local authorities, landowners, Historic England and other stakeholders.

The Seven Dials area still has a 17th-century street-plan. Many, original Stuart houses remain, although most were refaced at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the Middle Ages, the area was owned by Saint Giles, a mediaeval leprosy hospital run by the Lazar Brothers. The hospital was expropriated in 1537 at the dissolution of monastic foundations during the Tudor Reformation, and later passed into private hands.

At the time, this was an open area and farmland, between the City of London and the City of Westminster, and development first began on lands owned by the Worshipful Company of Mercers.

Thomas Neale designed the original layout of the Seven Dials area in the early 1690s. Six roads converged in his original plan, but this number was later increased to seven. His layout produced triangular plots, minimising the frontage of houses.

Neale commissioned the architect and stonemason Edward Pierce to design and erect a sundial pillar in 1693-1694. The sundial column was built with only six faces, with the column itself acting as the gnomon of the seventh dial, casting a shadow that acted as a sundial and telling the time.

At one time, each of the seven apex buildings facing the column housed a pub. The original sundial column was removed in 1773. It was long believed that it had been pulled down by an angry mob, but recent research suggests it was deliberately removed by the Paving Commissioners in an attempt to rid the area of ‘undesirables’.

The remains were acquired by the architect James Paine, who kept them at his house in Addlestone, Surrey. They were bought in 1820 and re-erected in a memorial in Weybridge to Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia, Duchess of York and Albany. The badly weathered dial-stone was never reinstalled on the monument.

The original sundial column was removed in 1773 … the 1989 replacement seen from Monmouth Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

With the development of the Covent Garden area, Neale had hoped Seven Dials would be equally successful. But the area declined socially. By the 19th century, Seven Dials was part of one of the most notorious slums in London. John Keats said the area was the last resort for the poor and the ill, ‘where misery clings to misery for a little warmth, and want and disease lie down side-by-side, and groan together.’

The area became the dirt iest slum in London with many poor Irish migrants living there in filth and poverty it was often called ‘Little Dublin’. By the time Charles Dickens wrote Sketches by Boz, Seven Dials was a noisy, riotous place where it was said the Irish either idled about the gin-shops, or scolded, drank, squabbled, fought and swore on the street.

Dickens described the area in 1835, with ‘streets and courts … lost in the unwholesome vapour which hangs over the house-tops and renders the dirty perspective uncertain and confined.’

Seven Dials was a major gathering area for the Chartists in their campaign for electoral reform in the 1840s. But their planned activities of some were thwarted by the police. By 1851, sewers were laid in the area, but poverty intensified in Saint Giles and in the Seven Dials.

In the comic opera Iolanthe (1882) by Gilbert and Sullivan, WS Gilbert alludes in his libretto to the humble status of the area:

Hearts just as pure and fair
May beat in Belgrave Square
As in the lowly air of Seven Dials

In The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists (1914), an influential socialist novel by the Dublin-born writer and activist Robert Tressell (1870-1911), the Liberal Party candidate’s campaign in Mugsborough is enforced by bullies from Seven Dialswho are paid 10 shillings a day.

Seven Dials remained a byword for urban poverty in the early 20th century, when Agatha Christie set The Seven Dials Mystery (1929) there.

The seven streets at Seven Dials originally had quite different names from the ones they have now. They were Great Earl Street, Little Earl Street, Great White Lion Street, Little White Lion Street, Great St Andrew’s Street, Little St Andrew’s Street and Queen Street. In the 1930s, their names were changed: Great and Little Earl Streets became Earlham Street, Great and Little White Lion Streets became part of an extended Mercer Street, Great and Little St Andrew’s Streets became Monmouth Street, and Queen Street became Shorts Gardens

Seven Dials was named a Conservation Area with Outstanding Status in 1974, it was declared a Housing Action Area in 1977, buildings were restored and businesses were encouraged to move into the area.

The Seven Dials Trust, formerly the Seven Dials Monument Charity, commissioned a replacement sundial pillar that was built in 1988-1989 to the original design. It was the first project of its kind in London since the erection of Nelson’s Column in the 1840s.

On top of the 8 ft (2.4 m) tall plinth there is a 20-ft (6.1 m) tall Doric column. The sculpture contains six sundials and the pinnacle is 10 ft (3 m) tall. This block is arranged with direct north and south facing vertical dials, and four vertically declining dials.

The dials were designed, carved and gilded by Caroline Webb, and the astronomer Gordon Taylor verified the mathematics. Each face is accurate to within 10 seconds. Seven Dials is 0° 07' geographical degrees to the west of Greenwich, meaning it is 3.048 seconds behind Greenwich Mean Time. The dials give local apparent solar time, so corrections must be made using the conversion graph on the plinth to work out clock time.

The pillar was unveiled by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 1989. Her visit to London marked the tercentenary of the reign of William III and Mary II – the area was developed during their reign.

Seven Dials is now a prosperous neighbourhood close to the West End and Shaftesbury Avenue, with crowded narrow streets and many of the West End’s best known theatres on its doorstep. On one of the seven apexes remains a pub, The Crown, on another apex is the Cambridge Theatre, on a third is the Radisson Edwardian Mercer Street Hotel, and on a fourth is the Comyn Ching Triangle, a block of old buildings renovated in the 1980s.

A plaque at 13 Monmouth Street marks where Brian Epstein managed his company; another in Neal’s Yard marks the ‘Animation, Editing and Recording Studios of Monty Python’ in 1976-1987.

We stopped in Monmouth Street to buy some freshly-ground coffee at the Monmouth Coffee Company, before continuing on to Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue, a stroll around Chinatown and Gerrard Street, and dinner at Bali Bali back on Shaftesbury Avenue.

Chinese lanterns decorating Gerrard Street in Chinatown (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (72) 8 August 2023

The former Central Methodist Church on Aldergate, Tamworth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford
We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and this week began with the Ninth Sunday after Trinity (6 August 2023) and celebrations of the Feast of the Transfiguration. The calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today recalls the life and work of Saint Dominic, Priest, Founder of the Order of Preachers, 1221 (8 August).

Before this day begins, I am taking some time this morning for prayer, reading and reflection. As I have recently spent a number of days looking at the windows in Saint Editha’s Church, Tamworth, I am reflecting in these ways for the rest of the week:

1, Looking at some other churches in Tamworth;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The former Wesleyan Temple, later Victoria Street Methodist Church, has been converted into apartments as Victoria Mews (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Three Methodist churches in Tamworth:

It is said, with humour, that Tamworth once had as many churches as it had pubs. At one time in the late 19th century, Tamworth had three or four Methodist churches or chapels.

John Wesley (1703-1791) was the first Methodist to visit Tamworth. Following disturbances in the Black Country in 1743, he rode over to Tamworth to take legal advice from a Counsellor Littleton who lived there. However, the first visit of Methodist preachers to the town is not recorded until 1771.

The early Methodists in Tamworth first met in the home of Samuel and Ann Watton and later in a room in Bolebridge Street. In 1787 John Wesley met the first Sir Robert Peel, who gave the Methodists a site for a permanent chapel in Bolebridge Street. He told them: ‘My lads, do not build your chapel too large. People would like to go to a little chapel well filled better than a large one half full.’

The chapel was opened on 15 July 1794. But the chapel was clearly not built ‘too large,’ for by 1815 it was proving to be too small. A new and larger chapel that could seat a congregation of 300 was built in 1816 at a cost of £1,000.

But just as the first Wesleyan chapel in Bolebridge Street had proved too small, the second one also became inadequate, and in the 1870s it was decided to build a new one.

In 1877, Thomas Argyle, a Methodist solicitor, donated a plot of land for a new chapel on the corner of Victoria Road and Back Lane, now Mill Lane.

The foundation stones for what would become the Wesleyan Temple were laid on 21 May 1877 and a ‘topping out ceremony’ was held on 28 November 1877. The Wesleyan Temple, was built at a cost of £4307 2s 6d and opened on 9 April 1878. The Wesleyan Temple had an inspiring façade, and could seat a congregation of 650 people.

The Sunday School continued to use Bolebridge Street Chapel until new schoolrooms were built in 1898. The old chapel was sold to Woodcocks’ Printers, who used it for many years. Later, in the 1960s the congregation at Victoria Road was joined by families from the Bolebridge Street Mission when it closed.

However, serious defects were detected at Victoria Road Methodist Church, as it had become known, and the costs of remedying them were beyond the resources of the church. In early 1972, a decision was taken to close the church on Victoria Road and to amalgamate with the Methodist Church in Aldergate.

The magnificent Victorian edifice of the church was preserved and at first accommodated squash courts. However, the inside was stripped out in 1974 to accommodate a squash club. The old Wesleyan Temple has since been converted into residential apartments, but the façade remains part of the architectural legacy of Tamworth’s church history, and the lettering in the pediment still reads ‘Wesleyan Temple.’

The Tamworth Station of the Primitive Methodist Church was formed in 1869. It later found a venue in the former Society of Friends’ (Quaker) Meeting House built in 1753 on the north side of Lichfield Street, opposite Peel Street, which had been vacated in 1872.

The Primitive Methodist Chapel Committee and the Circuit Quarterly Meeting agreed to reopen the Tamworth Primitive Methodist Chapel on 3 January 1886. However, attempts to revive the cause at the former Quaker meeting house in 1893 also failed. The old meeting house fell into disrepair and was finally demolished in 1960. An artist’s impression of the old Quaker Meeting House by by John Tracey is in the current edition of the Tamworth Heritage Magazine (1/3, Summer 2023), illustrating an account of the Primitive Methodists in Tamworth.

The former Methodist Church in Aldergate dates from a split that divided Tamworth’s Methodists in the mid-19th century. A new group was formed calling itself the Wesleyan Reformers and later the Free Methodists. When they left the Bolebridge Street Chapel, they met in a room nearby before acquiring a room in Aldergate that was known as ‘The Hut.’

In the late 19th century, the Free Methodists found the Hut did not meet the needs of a growing congregation. They bought a plot of land in Aldergate for £250. The memorial stones were laid at Easter 1886, and the building was completed late that summer, with a fine spire. The Gothic-style building cost £2,250 and opened for worship on 29 September 1886.

In 1907, the Free Methodists became the United Methodists. In 1933, the United, Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist Churches became one Methodist Church, but it was many years before this became a reality in Tamworth. Meanwhile, the original spire was removed in the 1950s.

When they were joined by the Victoria Street Methodists in 1972, the new congregation in Aldergate became known as the Central Methodist Church.

But the premises in Aldergate were inadequate for the needs of the new congregation. It was impossible to extend laterally so it was decided to extend vertically, and a large part of the cost was met by grants from the Joseph Rank Benevolent Trust. The church reopened on 16 September 1978. A further upgrade in 2005 included improved access, toilet facilities and a kitchen.

The last service was held at the Central Methodist Church in Aldergate, Tamworth, on Sunday 22 May 2022, and the church building, which started life in Tamworth in 1886, was closed. A decision was taken to refocus the congregation on the 1960s building of Saint Andrew’s Methodist Church in Thackeray Drive, Leyfields, now known as New Life Methodist Church.

The closure of the church means that since the movement was founded in the 18th century, there is no Methodist congregation or building in Tamworth town centre.

The Central Methodist Church in Tamworth opened as the Methodist Free Church in 1886 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Matthew 14: 22-36 (NRSVA):

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’

28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29 He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’

34 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. 35 After the people of that place recognized him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him, 36 and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

The former Central Methodist Church in Tamworth closed in May 2022 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘A reflection on the Exodus narrative (Exodus 1-13).’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by Archbishop Linda Nicholls, who has been the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada since 2019.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (8 August 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Accept, we pray, our sorrow for the times when we have not shown compassion and mercy to those you have created in love and for love. Help us grow in courage and hope.

The Collect:

Almighty God,
whose servant Dominic grew in the knowledge of your truth
and formed an order of preachers to proclaim the faith of Christ:
by your grace give to all your people a love for your word
and a longing to share the gospel,
so that the whole world may come to know you
and your Son Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Merciful God,
who gave such grace to your servant Dominic
that he served you with singleness of heart
and loved you above all things:
help us, whose communion with you
has been renewed in this sacrament,
to forsake all that holds us back from following Christ
and to grow into his likeness from glory to glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The lettering in the pediment of Victoria Mews still reads ‘Wesleyan Temple’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Primitive Methodists used the now demolished Quaker Meeting House near Shannon Mill on Lichfield Street (John Tracey / Tamworth Heritage Magazine)