08 August 2023
Seven Dials, the ‘Little Dublin’
of London … but misery
no longer ‘clings to misery
for a little warmth’
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.
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.