Seven Dials is a small but well-known road junction in Covent Garden in the West End of London where seven streets converge. At the centre of the roughly circular space is a pillar bearing six (not seven) sundials, a result of the pillar being commissioned before a late stage alteration of the plans from an original six roads.
The term also refers informally to the immediate surrounding area.
The landed estate formally belonged to the Worshipful Company of Mercers which allowed building licences on what was open farmland to maximise their income in what was the burgeoning West End of the developing metropolitan area. The original layout of the Seven Dials area was designed by Thomas Neale in the early 1690s. The original plan had six roads converging, although this was later increased to seven. The sundial pillar was built with only six faces, with the dial itself acting as the seventh. This number of roads was chosen in order to maximise the number of houses that could be built on the site.
Following the successful development of the fashionable Covent Garden Piazza area nearby, Neale aimed for the Seven Dials site to be popular with well-off residents. This was not to be, however, and the area gradually deteriorated. At one stage, each of the seven apexes facing the column housed a pub. By the nineteenth century, Seven Dials had become one of the most notorious slums in London, being part of the rookery of St Giles. The area was described colourfully by Charles Dickens in his collection Sketches by Boz, which includes the quote:
The stranger who finds himself in the Dials for the first time...at the entrance of Seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity awake for no inconsiderable time...
Hearts just as pure and fair
May beat in Belgrave Square
As in the lowly air of Seven Dials.
The original sundial column was removed in 1773. It had been believed that this was due to being pulled down by an angry mob, although recent research suggests that it was deliberately removed by the Paving Commissioners in an attempt to rid the area of "undesirables". The remains were acquired by architect James Paine, who kept them at his house in Addlestone, Surrey. In 1820, the remains were purchased by public subscription and re-erected in nearby Weybridge, as a memorial to Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia, Duchess of York and Albany.
Seven Dials today
Today, Seven Dials is a prosperous, largely commercial, neighbourhood, between the West End theatre district of Shaftesbury Avenue and the fashion-focused shopping district in and around nearby Neal's Yard. Inevitably, the junction of seven roads means the space is dominated by traffic, generally slow-moving in these narrow streets, usually crowded with people.
On one of the seven apexes of the junction is a pub, The Crown; on another apex is Cambridge Theatre, and on a third the Mercer Street Hotel (formerly the Radisson Edwardian Mountbatten Hotel). Despite some redevelopment, many of the original buildings remain.
The replacement sundial column was constructed in 1988/89, to the original design. It was unveiled by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, during her visit to commemorate the tercentenary of the reign of William and Mary, during which the area was developed.
References in popular culture
- One of the pieces in Charles Dickens' collection Sketches by Boz (1837–39) is named "Seven Dials".
- The name of the police station in the British television series The Gentle Touch (1980–1984) was Seven Dials.
- "I could be a rambler from the Seven Dials" is the opening lyric of Stephen Stills' 1991 song "Treetop Flyer".
- Several episodes of the 2008 British TV series City of Vice are set around Seven Dials.
- Slammerkin, a 2011 novel by Emma Donoghue, is partly set in Seven Dials.
- In Terry Pratchett's 2012 novel, Dodger, Seven Dials is the setting for much of the action and is also where the eponymous hero lives.
- The Bone Season, a 2013 novel by Samantha Shannon, is partly set in Seven Dials.
- Flett, Keith. "16th August 1848- the last attempted armed rising on English soil?". Retrieved 16 August 2013.
- "Shaftesbury – History". www.shaftesbury.co.uk. Retrieved 2010-08-05.
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