‘William Hogarth is even thought to have derived inspiration for one of his famous prints, Gin Lane, from Seven Dials.’
Covent Garden is now one of the busiest areas in London, with a market of exclusive designer shops. Yet the slums of St Giles in the area around Seven Dials behind Covent Garden market were infamous for crime and poverty in the nineteenth century.
Seven Dials has a unique layout with a central monument and streets passing through like spokes in a wheel. However, there is also a remarkable story to be told. It begins with an extraordinary man, Thomas Neale.
Neale submitted a planning application to the Surveyor-General, Sir Christopher Wren, featuring a star-shaped street pattern, snubbing the grand public squares that were trendy at the time. The planning application showed six streets, a church and a sundial pillar in the centre. However, Thomas Neale’s motivation behind the design was not aesthetic but financial.
In those days, they based commercial rent on the width of the shop front. The wider the shop front, the bigger the rent. Ingeniously, Neale knew he could make more money from his unconventional street layout because it would allow him to have more and wider shop fronts.
By 1851 sewers were laid in the area and although the population decreased as workshops and breweries began occupying houses, the Seven Dials was soon a breeding ground of vice, disease and crime.
The area declined to the extent that thirty-nine night-watchmen were needed to keep the peace. By the early nineteenth century, the area became infamous, together with St Giles in the north, as the most notorious ‘rookery’ in London, with many mob violence incidences.
The living conditions were terrible. There was overcrowding, and children swarmed all over the place. The houses were packed and filthy; the shops sold only second-hand items, and lodgings struggled to keep up with their tenants’ basic needs. William Hogarth is even thought to have derived inspiration for one of his famous prints, Gin Lane, from Seven Dials.
The character of Seven Dials was such that it gained both disgust and fascination. Charles Dickens was quite taken with it, and the things he saw in the slums of Seven Dials and St Giles Rookery are believed to inspire Night Walks, an essay he wrote. John Forster, Dickens’s biographer, critic and friend, recalls a young Charles Dickens’s fascination as a ‘profound attraction of repulsion’ whenever the boy ventured near the slum.
A 20ft Doric column adorned with six sundials sits upon an 8ft plinth; the obelisk itself represents the seventh ‘dial’. The original monument was installed in 1694, orientated so there was a direct south and direct north vertical dial, and four vertically declining dials. It was removed in 1773 as it had become a congregation point for the drunk and disorderly of the area, and they erected the modern replica in 1989.
In 1872 there’s an account of a gruesome find in Seven Dials. A little girl, by the name of Annie Cook, went down the stairs of her house and discovered the naked body of a woman lying under the stairs.
Despite accusations cast on a member of the household by an apparently mad woman called Jane Ross, the conclusion was that the woman had died of cold and exposure. Although strenuous efforts were made to identify her, her true identity was never discovered.
They held an inquest on the body of a woman unknown who was found dead in a house in Seven Dials. The Coroner asked if Police had identified the woman’s body. A Police Inspector Usher told him. Around 500 people had seen the woman, but no one knew who she was.
The post mortem report stated the only marks of violence were a contusion on her forehead and a slight abrasion on her nose. The body was barely nourished, and the woman was about thirty-two years of age. Her body was dirty and covered with vermin. There was a man’s jacket over her shoulders, and she had a very old skirt.
Her insides were so shrunken that if the body had been shaken, they might have been heard. The stomach was so contracted that she had probably not taken food for weeks, but lived on drink. Because of a combination of alcoholism and ill-luck, the poor woman found at the address, had lost everything and ended up on the unforgiving Victorian streets of Seven Dials.
Only two houses remain from the original Thomas Neale development of the 1690s; 61 Monmouth Street and 64 Neal Street. Today Seven Dials area is home to over 90 stores including world-renowned international flagships and concept locations, beauty and grooming boutiques and over 50 contemporary cafes, restaurants, bars and pubs.
TALES OF LONDON’S DARKER HISTORY
Paul Asling takes us on a captivating journey around London, to discover some dark tales that have shaped the city’s compelling and turbulent past.
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