This week “London Shoes” went in search of a particular area of central London situated between Tottenham Court Road tube station in the north, and Covent Garden tube station in the south – an area that I should have already been familiar with, bearing in mind that in the late 1970’s I spent 4 years working in a bank, just a stone’s throw away – but I have to be honest and say that I knew very little about this place and particularly its significant historic past.
So – the subject matter of this week’s London Shoes website publication is all about a fascinating area known as “Seven Dials”-London WC2.
“Seven Dials” is a particular district of London that was designed by a ‘Thomas Neale’ way back in the late 1600’s – when the area was mainly just fields.
Throughout the late 1600’s Thomas Neale was one of the most influential men on the London scene. He had been an MP – he had been Master of the Royal Mint – he was the first man to set-up the very first Lottery scheme in Britain (with all proceeds to the Crown) Neale was very much a man-about-town, who had friends in very high places.
Thomas Neale was also a big gambler, not just with his money, but also spending other people’s money on new projects and schemes.
Anyway – Neale saw that certain people were making a lot of money from designing and constructing new housing, especially over in wealthy west London – and he wanted a piece of that action, over to the east side of central London.
Because he had done quite a few jobs for the Monarchy, he was bequeathed a large area of land that was mainly just fields – located in the area we now know as the Covent Garden district.
In his quest was to make the area attractive to London’s wealthier residents, and so he designed a layout of new roads and new houses that he believed would turn the area into one of London’s most prestigious residential districts.
These roads and residences were laid out like a star-fish, and comprised of 7 roads that were set-out in a series of triangles, which all converged at a centre point.
Now – there was a reason as to why the streets were set-out in triangular shapes, and that was because at that time rental income was determined by the size of a building’s exterior frontage, not the size of its interior – so Neale was deliberately looking to maximise his rental income.
The construction work for this new project was finally completed around 1693, and when everything was finished and ready to go, Neale commissioned Britain’s top stonemason ‘Edward Pierce’ (who had worked with Sir Christopher Wren on the construction of St. Paul’s Cathedral), to design and build a massive ‘Sundial Pillar’ that would be the centre-piece of the district, where all the 7 roads converged.
Thomas Neale instructed Pierce to attach sundials to the very tip of this Pillar – hence the reason why the district was named as “Seven Dials”.
However – Thomas Neale’s vision of the area becoming one of London’s most prestigious districts, where only the rich and famous would live – did not materialise. In fact, it had completely the opposite effect, as ‘Seven Dials’ very soon became one of London’s worst and most notorious slum areas.
The whole district soon became renowned for its gin-palaces, pubs, brothels and gambling dens. At one stage, there was a pub on every corner where the 7 streets converged.
‘Seven Dials’ was one of London’s most dangerous districts, where violence, muggings, sexual assault, pick-pocketing, prostitution, drunkenness, debauchery and gang warfare – were a daily occurrence.
In fact, those locals that had not been lucky enough to move away, and long before the Met Police force was formed – had to chip-in to hire ‘night watchmen’ to patrol the streets in an attempt to try and keep some kind of order.
Even the retail shops in the area were a disaster – mainly selling 2nd/3rd & 4th hand goods.
Throughout the early to mid 1800’s, the ‘Seven Dials’ district deteriorated even further – when hundreds of lower-class and poor Irish workers moved into the area, attracted by the cheap rents charged on single rooms that had once made up the large houses – and also the illegal practice of sub-letting was rife throughout the entire district.
Even the renowned poet John Keates, famously described ‘Seven Dials’ as being a place:-
“Where misery clings to misery for a little warmth – and where want and disease lie down side by side, and groan together”
In 1773 the authorities ordered the removal of the original ‘Sundial Pillar’, as it had become a common meeting place for street gangs, and a location from where all the violence in the area seemed to originate from.
In Victorian times, the street slang term for inner city slums such as the ‘Seven Dials’ district, was the ‘Rookeries’ – as its inhabitants had the same habits as the rook bird, who stole, cheated and lived in untidy and dirty nests.
However, as the 1800’s drew to an end, housing in London expanded at a rapid rate, and this had the effect of taking a bit of pressure off of the ‘Seven Dials’ district and slowly but surely, more affluent people started to move into the once inhabitable area , and this in turn encouraged new businesses into the area.
This improvement in circumstances and conditions continued throughout the 20th Century, to the extent that the ‘Seven Dials’ district is today has become one of the more desirable areas of London – attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors and tourists every year.
The majority of its original Georgian and Victorian buildings are still intact, and at least 25% of them are now Grade I or Grade II listed.
In fact, old John Neale’s legacy still lives on with Neal Street, and Neal’s Yard being big tourist attractions where loads of independent businesses such as coffee shops, bakeries, cheese shops and cosmetic shops have totally transformed the area.
It just goes to show how much certain areas of London have changed for the better over the last 100 years or so.
The ‘Neale’s Yard’ area is not the only attraction that brings visitors to the ‘Seven Dials’ district – there are loads of other unique historic landmarks throughout the area – such as:-
The ‘new’ Sundial Pillar :-
In 1989 an exact replica of the original Pillar that was removed in 1773, was built and erected, and was officially opened by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands
St. Giles-in-the-Field Church:-
The present St. Giles Church dates back to 1733, but there has been buildings on the site dating right back to the 1100’s.
It used to be a Monastery – then a Leper colony – then a plague burial pit – an execution stop-off point – before it became the church as it is today.
It is now a Grade I listed building, which means that it can’t be touched inside or outside.
This famous theatre was built in 1930 and is located on one of the corners of ‘Seven Dials’ where the 7 roads converge – directly opposite the ‘Sundial Pillar’.
The Crown Pub:-
Is another building located on one of the corners where the original 7 roads converge – with the Sundial Pillar directly opposite it.
The pub was built in 1833, and its exterior still has its original Victorian tiling.
It is a pub which was once described by Charles Dickens as being “A hot bed of Villainy”
On the corner of Neal Street, is one of London’s oldest Indian restaurants – having traded there since 1946.
Displayed on one of the houses inside Neale’s Yard is a blue plaque commemorating the fact that Monty Python’s Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam worked on Monty Python material from there for quite a while.
Another blue plaque on display on a building down at Seven Dial’s Monmouth Street, commemorates the fact that the legendary Beatles manager Brian Epstein once ran his business empire.
Down in the Long Acre area of Seven Dials/Covent Garden, there is a green plaque on display that commemorates where Britain’s very first bicycle’ the ‘bone shaker/hobby horse’ was invented and manufactured there.
The ‘Punch & Judy’ flagstone:-
In the actual Covent Garden square itself, there is flagstone embedded into a wall – to commemorate the spot where in 1662 the very first Punch & Judy show was said to be performed.
On the pavement of Great Newport street there stands a distinctive statue commemorating the globally famous author and playwright ‘Agatha Christie’, who is the only woman to have had 3 plays on the go in the West End at the same time, and whose ‘Mousetrap’ play is the longest running in the history of theatre.
Nothing historic about this specialist chocolate shop – I just luv the name – and the fact that it attracts loads of punters.
Throughout this day out, I was privileged to be accompanied by my former Canary Wharf banker worker work colleague and partner-in-crime for over 10 years – me ol’mucka ‘Jackie’ who did a great job on the navigational front, and she also took some mean photos – however, adopting a ‘no publicity’ stance, she was very insistent that she should not be in any of them.
Anyway – after a tiring day wandering all over ‘Seven Dials’ and ‘Covent Garden’ – we were very much in need of some liquid refreshment and a nosebag – and so we headed off to the excellent “Montagu Pyke’ pub, a Wetherspoons situated down the Charing Cross Road.
Montagu Pyke was a famous impresario in the early days of public cinemas in London – and the pub itself used one of his former cinemas. In fact it was opened in 1911 and was the last of the 16 cinemas he owned throughout London, before he went broke.
So – after a few ‘cheeky’ ones and a plate of southern fried chicken goujons & chips, it was time to reflect on what had been a successful day blogging the ‘rise & fall-and rise again’ of “Seven Dials” – London WC2.
Hope the accompanying photos help tell the story.