The Dissolution and the Early Expansion of London

The history of Seven Dials begins with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, c. 1536, where the area now called Covent Garden came into the possession of the Crown. At the time, the cities of Westminster and London were distinct, with a road connecting them along the Thames, home to a few houses with pastureland, but the area otherwise comprised fields, country lanes, and streams feeding the Thames.1 The area now called Covent Garden takes its name from a garden which was owned by the Convent of St Peter2 (at Westminster Abbey), the old English word for Convent being Covent. The slow migration into cities from rural areas, coupled with the growth of the British Empire, led to a need for development around the Metropolis.

The area which now houses Covent Garden Market was in fact exchanged by Westminster Abbey with the Crown for some land in Berkshire in 1536, although the remaining land retained by the Abbey was seized by the Crown four years later in 1540 after its suppression.2 The land now known as Seven Dials fell within the parish of St Giles, a patch of land known as ‘Marshland’ and owned by the Leper Hospital of St Giles, which was transferred to the Crown in 1537 after its dissolution.3

The garden itself and the surrounding land was granted to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford, on 28th May 1552.4 He had been made Earl just over two years earlier by the young King Edward VI, in part for ‘promoting the new religion’, meaning Anglicanism, although he had been close to his father, in fact being one of the executors of King Henry VIII’s will.5 John Russell had already acquired lands to the east of the current piazza, and lived in a family mansion called Russell Place on the southern side of the Strand.6 It is likely that the area was simply used for pasture, and the area was inherited by Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford, upon his father’s death in 1555.7 During this time, the ‘Marshlands’ were simply used as farmland, leased by the Crown to various farmers.8

Not much of interest happens until the Bedford Estates are inherited by Francis Russell, 4th Earl Bedford, in 1627, a remarkable man described as being “in advance of his time altogether”.9 Charles I had become king two years before Russell’s assumption of his title, and he had almost immediately, in the style of his predecessors, issued a proclamation attempting to prohibit the expansion of London.10 The proclamation prohibited the erection of any building unless it was upon the foundations of an old building. In an interesting insight into the time, landowners (Francis Russell being one of them) developed their land in contravention of this proclamation but it appears that the Commissioners of Building failed to notice this.11 After a subsequent proclamation and threats of penalties, Francis Russell resorted to applying for a Royal License to build upon his estate, and his application was aided by the King taking offence at the unclean state of Long Acre, which the Earl blamed upon the King’s proclamation which had halted building work on the site, supposedly begun by his predecessors.12 Charles I, his financial position somewhat weak, granted permission for a fee of £2,000 (about £250,000 in 2019).13 Interestingly, this license did not stipulate any conditions upon the type or amount of building, or even the oversight of a surveyor, and this led to Francis Russell being given a largely clean slate for development.

The Earl of Bedford began development using a method which would set the trend for all later development in London. The Earl, with the aid of Inigo Jones, famed Classical architect of the day, planned the development in a square or ‘Piazza’, around the existing garden, subdividing the terraces into individual plots. Crucially, rather than fund the whole endeavour himself, the Earl exchanged leases, usually with builders, in exchange for them undertaking the building work at their own cost. The Earl then stipulated that all buildings should be largely uniform with each other, and built three of his own houses on the eastern side of the piazza, along with the Church in the centre.13 It was claimed by Horace Walpole that upon the Earl saying that the church should be ‘not much better than a barn’, Inigo Jones replied stating, ‘then, you shall have the most handsomest barn in England’, although Walpole was writing more than a hundred years after the event.14 The Church is now Grade I listed, although it is unclear how much of the Church is original, after a fire caused much damage in 1795.15 The most celebrated part of the piazza, the northern and eastern parts, commonly called the ‘Portico Houses’, were built in imitation of the Earl’s own three buildings on the eastern side, leading to a perfectly uniform appearance. Although none of the original leases have survived, it is probable that the speculators were required to exactly conform to the style of those three houses, giving rise to the uniform appearance of the terrace, previously unknown in London but which was to become a defining feature of the Georgian period, one hundred years later. Perhaps this is another reflection of the Earl being “in advance of his time altogether”.

The planned and rational layout of the piazza cannot have failed to have had an effect on people of the time, especially in a London dominated by narrow, haphazard, and essentially random alleyways, with Tudor buildings of timber construction peering over the streets, mostly destined to be burnt to the ground in 1666, only 29 years after the Covent Garden development was completed in 1637.15 The ‘planned’ approach to development was essentially new to London, and the example set by it would have profound consequences for the spread further north of London later in the century.

The Development of the Marshland

The area called Marshland was still undeveloped at the time of the completion of Covent Garden. Cromwell had commissioned a survey of lands which the Parliamentarians had confiscated from the Crown, between 1647 and 1650, with the aim of valuing them and selling them to pay his New Model Army, whose support was crucial to his position.17 In 1650 the Marshlands were subject to this survey, which noted the presence of the Cock and Pye Inn, a garden, and various other small buildings and structures.18 In Newcourt’s map of London in 1658, the area is broadly referred to as ‘St Giles’ Fields’ and is shown as totally undeveloped,19 and by 1682 the development of London had sprawled further northwards and encroaches upon the Marshlands, now referred to as ‘Cock and Pye Fields’.20 It seems that the end of royal proclamations prohibiting the expansion of London, coupled with the huge redevelopment necessary in the City of London after the Great Fire of 1666, led to a surge in building in the capital. When Covent Garden had been completed in 1637, it was essentially the northern border of London. However by 1682, just 45 years later, London had spread so far north so that Great Russell Street was its new northern boundary. Certainly the upheavals in the interim – the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, the execution of Charles I in 1649 (ten minutes from Covent Garden), the restoration of Charles II in 1660, and the Great Fire in 1666 – must have left building authorities in a state of disarray, giving landowners opportunity to develop their land at will. Certainly by the time Thomas Neale becomes leaseholder of Marshland, Westminster and the City of London had become one huge mass – London.

Similarly to how the 1st Earl Russell gained his land through royal favour, it appears that Thomas Neale gained the leasehold of Marshland through the royal favour of William III – he was keen to get his hands on the lease as the land had previously come with building permission.21 He entered into development with other four other speculators – taking from them a loan of £16,000 (about £2,00,000 in 2019) over three years with Marshland as security. However Neale found the loan to be “farr insufficient” and was forced to seek a further £5,000 (about £600,000 in 2019) from a further speculator, in return for all the property erected upon Marshland. Eventually Thomas Neale died in debt in 1699,22 perhaps the failure of this scheme and further schemes contributing to his eventual demise.

Thomas Neale’s plan of seven radiating streets for Seven Dials is what remains today as its hallmark, and although considered strange it was by no means unprecedented. Red Lion Square to the east had been lain out by Nicholas Barbon in 1684,23 6 years before Neale gained his leasehold, which although a square, was a particularly small one, with a total of eight streets radiating from its centre. Barbon was a notorious developer – the “Great Builder” of London, and it is likely that his scheme was simply intended to maximise frontage and therefore maximise rents – in fact the square’s existence at all seems to be a concession on his part to Gray’s Inn to the north, who kicked up a considerable fuss about his aggressive developments.24 Both Evelyn’s and Wren’s plan for the redevelopment of the City of London after the Great Fire consisted of multiple focal points with radiating streets. It seemed that at the time of Neale’s development, radiating plans were in fashion, and it must be noted that the Surveyor General of the time was in fact Sir Christopher Wren, who would have to approve Neale’s development plans before he could begin work.

The Seven Dials development took a long while to complete, with the seven streets only being completed by 1710, long after Neale’s own death.25 Like many developments of its type, it was not fashionable (meaning not inhabited by aristocrats) but was certainly respectable (meaning inhabited by ‘men of quality’ – the aspiring middle classes of the time).26 However this did not last for long, and it appears that Seven Dials started to fall into disrepute before it had even been completed. Neale had written into the terms of his leases various stipulations prohibiting breweries and other such unsocial trades, but perhaps as a result of the struggle to fulfil the supply of housing stock, companies moved in and began to trade in this manner regardless. Fire insurance records show that even by 1701, only half way through development, Monmouth Street was home to an Inn called the ‘Goat and Golden Ball’, with Earlham Street home to ‘The Crown’.

The problems were manifold. Firstly Neale had intended the development to be purely residential, but the housing was cramped, the radiating plan being too small for the site, and it can hardly have been as pleasant to live in Seven Dials as in the newly developing Bloomsbury to the north, with its open squares and wide streets, with views to Highgate and Hampstead. Secondly, by the time of completion, Seven Dials was firmly an inner city area of London, surrounded by areas which were older and had already begun a process of decline into commercialisation.29 The disposal of Neale’s interest in 1695 and the transfer of property to people who were uninterested in the development can hardly have helped, coupled with the slow migration of the poor into London to find better opportunities. It seems the development was doomed from the beginning.

The Georgian Social Decline

The Georgian Era began in 1717 with the accession of George I, the first Hanoverian king of England, and is generally considered to have ended with the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837. The period was marked by a gradual decline in the powers of the monarch to be replaced with the power invested in Parliament and the Prime Minister, with Robert Walpole in 1721 becoming Great Britain’s first de facto Prime Minister, based of course in Westminster. Over this period, London saw immense expansion, fuelled by the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution (the steam engine invented in 1712), the expansion of the British Empire and London’s place as its capital, and a huge boom in population. In 1717, the population of London was around 600,000, but by 1837 its population numbered some 2,000,000. In 1717 London spanned about 2,000 acres,30 but by 1837 it spanned closer to 9,000 acres.31 Over about a century, London’s area and population roughly quadrupled.

It is against this backdrop that we see the social class and atmosphere of Seven Dials slowly dropping. In the summer of 1732 a most concerning incident took place. A Mr John Waller was placed in the pillory (stocks) in Seven Dials for perjury (lying), and we are told that after about three minutes:

‘… in which Time he was most furiously pelted with with Colliflower Stalks, large Stones and Pieces of Bottles, by which he was very much cut in his Face and Head; a Chimney-Sweeper jump’d up to him and pulled him down from the Pillory, and tore all his Cloaths off, leaving only his Stockings and Shoes on. After that they beat him, and jump’d upon him as he lay on the Ground until they had actually kill’d him.’32

Perhaps Mr Waller had done much to offend the locals, but the locals were certainly of a low enough class to express their disdain in a very unseemly manner. The incident affords us an insight into the character of the streets of Seven Dials during the early Georgian period, and the character was certainly no longer a genteel one, but a lawless one. We know that from the 1730s onwards the area was ‘increasingly commercialised’, and in 1740 a brewery was established on the current Shelton Street.33 1751 marked the publication of the famous print ‘Gin Lane‘ by William Hogarth, set in the Parish of St Giles, of which Seven Dials of course formed a part. In 1750 over a quarter of all residences in St Giles were gin shops, and the social issues surrounding widespread alcoholism came to be known as the ‘Gin Craze’.34

In 1765 there is another interesting account from a Frenchman passing through the Seven Dials, who records:

‘Happening to go one evening from the part of Town where I lived, to the Museum, I passed by Seven Dials. The place was crowded with people waiting to see a poor wretch stand in the pillory, whose punishment was deferred to another day. The mob, provoked at this disappointment, vented their rage upon all that passed their way, whether afoot or in coaches and threw at them dirt, rotten eggs, dead dogs, ordure, which they had provided to pelt the unhappy wretch according to custom.’35

In the year 1773, we are told that the unusually large number of 39 watchmen were employed simply to keep the peace in the area, and also that the central column was pulled down, it being a congregation point for undesirables.36 Perhaps the lack of detailed accounts of the social situation in the area during this time tells us all that we need to know.

The Victorian ‘Slum’

“The stranger who finds himself in “The Dials” for the first time, and stands Belzoni-like, at the entrance of seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity and attention awake for no inconsiderable time. From the irregular square into which he has plunged, the streets and courts dart in all directions, until they are lost in the unwholesome vapour which hangs over the house-tops, and renders the dirty perspective uncertain and confined; and lounging at every corner, as if they came there to take a few gasps of such fresh air as has found its way so far, but is too much exhausted already, to be enabled to force itself into the narrow alleys around, are groups of people, whose appearance and dwellings would fill any mind but a regular Londoner’s with astonishment.

On one side, a little crowd has collected round a couple of ladies, who having imbibed the contents of various “three-outs” of gin and bitters in the course of the morning, have at length differed on some point of domestic arrangement, and are on the eve of settling the quarrel satisfactorily, by an appeal to blows, greatly to the interest of other ladies who live in the same house, and tenements adjoining, and who are all partisans on one side or other.

“Vy don’t you pitch into her, Sarah?”​exclaims one half-dressed matron, by way of encouragement. “Vy don’t you? if my ‘usband had treated her with a drain last night, unbeknown to me, I’d tear her precious eyes out​— a wixen!”

“What’s the matter, ma’am?” inquires another old woman, who has just bustled up to the spot.

“Matter!” replies the first speaker, talking at the obnoxious combatant,​”matter! Here’s poor dear Mrs. Sulliwin, as has five blessed children of her own, can’t go out a charing for one arternoon, but what hussies must be a comin’, and​ ​’ticing avay her oun​’usband, as she’s been married to twelve year come next Easter Monday, for I see the certificate ven I vas a drinkin’ a cup o’ tea vith her, only the werry last blessed Ven’sday as ever was sent. I​’appen’d to say promiscuously, ‘Mrs. Sulliwin,’ says I​——”

“What do you mean by hussies?” ​interrupts a champion of the other party, who has evinced a strong inclination throughout to get up a branch fight on her own account (“Hooroar,” ​ejaculates a pot-boy in parenthesis, ​”put the kye-bosk on her, Mary!”), ​”What do you mean by hussies?”​ reiterates the champion.

“Niver mind,” ​replies the opposition expressively, “niver mind; you​go home, and, ven you’re quite sober, mend your stockings.”

This somewhat personal allusion, not only to the lady’s habits of intemperance, but also to the state of her wardrobe, rouses her utmost ire, and she accordingly complies with the urgent request of the bystanders to​ “pitch in”, ​with considerable alacrity. The scuffle became general, and terminates, in minor play-bill phraseology, with​ “arrival of the policemen, interior of the station-house, and impressive dénouement”.

– Charles Dickens, writing in 1835 on Seven Dials.

The Victorian Era saw the industrial revolution redefine what was meant by a city, and the pollution brought by hundreds of thousands of chimneys, countless factories and no less than ten railway termini cloaked all of London in soot and grime which in some areas remains to this day. It is hard to imagine the dark, polluted, deprived, and depraved underworld that was Victorian London, but with the invention of the camera in 1816 and a greater interest in the plight of the working classes, we don’t have to. Access to Historic England’s archives and contemporary accounts give the first full-bodied insight into history, and particularly that of Central London, and it is surprising just how much of our current geographical social problems in London are inherited directly from the Victorians.

As Dickens’ account shows most adequately, along with Cruikshank’s37 and Doré’s38 illustrations, on the eve of Victoria’s coronation Seven Dials had become a firmly downtrodden working class district. Despite the area falling to a uniform standard of poverty with the rest of St Giles’ we are told in 1842 that ‘The Seven Dials… are evidence of an attempt to civilise the neighbourhood by introducing respectable houses into it. The attempt was not altogether vain: this part of the parish has ever since ‘worn its dirt with a difference’.’39 Despite the poor nature of the inhabitants, we are told that the area was well-kept and many inhabitants kept potted plants on their broad window-ledges, and singing-birds were kept in cages, livening the sound of the area.40 In fact this is an instance of a wider tendency for the poor working classes, even with such suffering as there was for them, maintaining pride in their local areas, perhaps as a result of the intrinsic quality of the architecture which was commonplace then but all too rare now.

A variety of trades and industries were common throughout the area. The Woodyard Brewery had been established in 1740 and eventually spread to cover all the area between Shorts Gardens and Long Acre by 1880. An architectural ironmongers, Comyn Ching, spread to cover all of the south eastern triangle. The area had more than its fair share of stationer’s and bookshops also, perhaps helping to attract literary interest from Dickens and the like. There were also many shops serving the needs of its residents – grocers, butchers, and other such shops.41 It all combined to create a lively and interesting place, if not a little criminal, from which Seven Dials derives a great portion of its current character.

Donald Shaw in 1908, writing in ‘London in the Sixties’ (1860s) had this to say of Seven Dials:

‘The Clock House on the Dials, now an apparently well-conducted pot-house, was in those days a hotbed of villainy. The king of pickpockets there held his nightly levee, and the half-dozen constables within view would no more have thought of entering it than they would the cage of a cobra. If a man lost a dog, the reward was offered there; if one’s watch disappeared, it was there that immediate application was desirable; and if the emissary was not “saucy” he might with luck save it from the melting-pot that simmered all day and all night within fifty feet of Aldridge’s horse repository. The walk through the Dials after dark was an act none but a lunatic would have attempted, and the betting that he ever emerged with his shirt was 1,000 to 60. A swaggering ass named Corrigan, whose personal bravery was not assessed as highly by the public, once undertook for a wager to walk the entire length of Great Andrew Street [now Monmouth Street] at midnight, and if molested to annihilate his assailants. The half-dozen doubters who awaited his advent in the Broadway were surprised about 1 a.m. to see him running as fast as he could put legs to the ground, with only the remnant of a shirt on him; after recovering his breath and his courage he proceeded to describe the terrific slaughter he had inflicted on an innumerable number of assailants.’42

Despite the common reports of criminality on the streets of Seven Dials, especially in the middle of the Victorian Era, things seem to improve toward the end of the century, with a publication of 1896 stating:

‘Seven Dials, a very well-known part of St. Giles’s, is so called because in the seventeenth century seven roads were laid out at equal angles from a given point, where stood a Doric pillar, furnished with dials. But the dials have long since disappeared, and the pillar supporting them has been removed to Weybridge. The seven streets, however, remain. Not long ago Seven Dials had no high reputation, and the district was regarded as unsafe at night but now it has greatly improved’.42

Booth’s Poverty Map of 1898 showing most of Seven Dials as being ‘fairly comfortable, good ordinary earnings’, but with the northern side of Earlham Street being ‘vicious semi-criminal’ and Tower Street being a concentration of further poverty and criminality, with Nottingham Court perhaps being the worst affected.44 Plenty of areas in Bloomsbury were far more criminal, on the face of it, so it is interesting that the area was so famed for criminality. Perhaps Neale had overlooked that providing a focal point where seven streets converge also provides a gathering point with seven modes of escape, with few windows actually facing the centre, and that may have been what provided such attraction for criminals throughout the centuries. Such behaviour is observed even today – Argyle Walk in Kings Cross is home to few criminals, and yet it is the scene of criminal activity daily – only during the night, simply because it has only a couple of windows facing onto it, and five modes of escape. Certainly one might describe someone walking through Argyle Walk after dark as a ‘lunatic’, but during the daytime it is perfectly harmless.

It is perhaps telling that Booth writes in his notebook on a walk with a policeman on July 26th 1898 that the inhabitants of Shorts Gardens ‘flung bricks at the police, but were not criminal’,45 in his own quotation marks, perhaps suggesting that these were the words of the policeman himself. His perambulations and accompanying notes afford an interesting insight into the character of the area towards the end of the Victorian Era. He states that there is already nobody left living in the mews of Neal’s Yard, and Neal Street is inhabited by ‘Irish Cockneys’ selling wares in their mews or working as road sweepers. He mentions houses ‘coming down’, and ‘a great many bird fanciers’ still present in the area, so that we can assume that the delight of bird song was still prevalent. The eastern half of Earlham Street is home to some dwellings ‘about as bad as can be’ and four houses are described as falling down. Most fascinating of all, in Nottingham Court which was from his own map a hotbed of criminality, the worst in the area, and in which he mentions that ‘3 or 4 policemen had their heads cut open last January’, surrounded by dilapidated buildings with broken glass, open doors and ‘draggled, hatless women’ there are still flowers and caged birds at the windows. He also mentions a worsening of the area due to displaced inhabitants from the slum clearance fiasco of Shaftesbury Avenue, driven through the worst of St Giles to the north and completed in 1886, but like so many of the shortsighted ‘regeneration’ attempts, which we still often suffer today, social problems were simply driven out of sight and out of mind, in fact worsening the neighbouring areas yet to see the glories of gentrification.46 It is shameful that we still employ Victorian methods proven to fail to address Victorian problems, more than a century later.

The Twentieth Century

Booth’s poverty map gives an interesting insight into the state of the area at the turn of the century. We see that most areas are described as ‘comfortable’ although a few areas, such as Tower Street, Shorts Gardens and Nottingham Court are home to criminals. No doubt due to the efforts of prominent social reformers such as Booth, the lot of the working classes in the area appears to improve at the start of the century. A new school is built on Tower Street for children around 1874,47 and census records show that by 1911 the not inconsiderable number of children in the area are all in attendance. Census records also show the population in the area to remain remarkably stable up until the outbreak of war when children were evacuated. The censuses and 1939 register show inhabitants as having a variety of respectable occupations, with a painter-decorator in Nottingham Court, a master-builder on Mercer Street, and a milkman on Earlham Street. Conditions could not have been too terrible as there are a number of ‘Old Age Pensioners’ with a few into their eighties in 1911, not inconsiderable considering life expectancy at the time was about 50. Fearful overcrowding was still common though, with up to 3 or 4 families of five members occupying single houses.48

The area of Seven Dials was left largely undamaged during the Second World War, with half a dozen bombs being dropped on the area,49 but with only one property on the corner of Earlham Street and Tower Street sustaining significant damage.50 During the post-war period, however, with the proposed departure of Covent Garden Market (which occurred on 11th November 1974) the GLC, Westminster, and Camden clubbed together to propose ‘redevelopment’ of the Covent Garden area, including Seven Dials, in a ‘Covent Garden Area Draft Plan’ published in 1968. This plan made no secret of the fact that the intention was to demolish and reconstruct the entire area, in a fashion ‘better suited to modern needs’. This was met with immediate opposition from local residents and businesses in the area, and after a prolonged battle the plan was overturned, after a public inquiry held just three years later in 1971 ordered the GLC to formulate a new plan with the aid of a formal consultation body of representatives from the Covent Garden area.