Seven Dials, London

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Seven Dials, view towards Monmouth Street, Shorts Gardens and Earlham Street; note the competing clocks.
Seven Dials around 1836: illustration by George Cruikshank in Dickens' Sketches by Boz
Seven Dials sundial column: Earlham Street and Mercer Street

Seven Dials is a small 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 column bearing six sundials, a result of the column being commissioned before a late stage alteration of the plans from an original six roads to seven.

The term also refers informally to the immediate surrounding area.

History[edit]

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 column was built with only six faces, with the column itself acting as the gnomon of the seventh dial. This number of roads was chosen in order to maximise the number of houses that could be built on the site.

After the successful development of the fashionable Covent Garden Piazza area nearby, Neale hoped that Seven Dials would be popular with well-off residents. This was not to be and the area gradually deteriorated. At one stage, each of the seven apexes facing the column housed a pub. By the 19th century, Seven Dials was among the most notorious slums in London, as part of the rookery of St Giles. The area was described by Charles Dickens in his collection Sketches by Boz, which remarks,

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...

The relatively low status of the location is also stated by W. S. Gilbert in the operetta Iolanthe

Hearts just as pure and fair
May beat in Belgrave Square
As in the lowly air of Seven Dials.

It remained a byword for urban poverty in the early 20th century, when Agatha Christie set The Seven Dials Mystery (1929) there.

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 architect James Paine, who kept them at his house in Addlestone, Surrey, from where they were bought in 1820 by public subscription and re-erected in nearby Weybridge as a memorial to Princess Frederica Charlotte of Prussia, Duchess of York and Albany.

In the 1840s Seven Dials was a focal point for the Chartists in their campaign for electoral reform. However, the intended uprisings there were thwarted by police infiltrators.[1]

Seven Dials today[edit]

Today Seven Dials is a prosperous, largely commercial neighbourhood in the WC2 postcode area between the West End theatre district of Shaftesbury Avenue and the fashionable shopping district around nearby Neal's Yard. It is dominated by traffic by generally slow-moving in the narrow streets, which are usually crowded with people.

On one of the seven apexes remains a pub, The Crown. On another apex is the Cambridge Theatre, and on a third the Radisson Edwardian Mercer Street Hotel. On another is the Comyn Ching Triangle, a block of old buildings renovated in the 1980s. Despite some redevelopment, many original buildings remain.

The replacement sundial column was installed in 1988–89 to the original design. It was unveiled by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands on a visit to commemorate the tercentenary of the reign of William and Mary, during which the area was developed.

In popular culture[edit]

Property development[edit]

Seven Dials is predominantly owned by Shaftesbury PLC, which also have a joint venture with the Worshipful Company of Mercers at the adjoining St Martin's Courtyard.[5]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Flett, Keith. "16th August 1848- the last attempted armed rising on English soil?". Retrieved 16 August 2013. 
  2. ^ British Library Main Catalogue. Retrieved 21 April 2015.
  3. ^ Roddy Frame (2 May 2014). "Artist Playlist – Roddy Frame’s "songs with a sense of place"". Q Magazine. Bauer Consumer Media. Retrieved 8 May 2014. 
  4. ^ "Roddy Frame live in session for Sir Terry Wogan" (Audio upload). Weekend Wogan. BBC. 2 June 2014. Retrieved 21 June 2014. 
  5. ^ "Shaftesbury – History". www.shaftesbury.co.uk. Retrieved 2010-08-05. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 51°30′49″N 0°07′37″W / 51.51361°N 0.12694°W / 51.51361; -0.12694