A Brief History of Seven Dials

A more detailed history of the area can be seen on the Trust’s company website.

Seven Dials is the only quarter of London remaining largely intact from late Stuart England – the late 17th century. It was the creation of two of the century’s most extraordinary figures, Thomas Neale MP (1641-1699) and Edward Pierce (1630-1695). Neale, known as The Great Projector’, was an MP for thirty years, a member of 62 Parliamentary committees, Master of the Mint and of the Transfer Office and Groom Porter to Charles II, James II and William III. His plethora of  projects ranged from Seven Dials and Tunbridge Wells to mining in Maryland and Virginia and he introduced ‘lotteries after the Venetian manner’, the precursor of our National Lottery. Neale’s influence derived by his combining the three key worlds of late Stuart England: the County, the Court and the City. Edward Pierce was the leading stonemason of his generation, the greatest sculptor of the 17th century, a renowned architect and artist and Master of the Painter Stainers Company in 1693.

Photograph of medalet showing only known portrait of Thomas Neale MP
Thomas Neale MP: his only known portrait on a rare medalet of silver and copper, courtesy the British Museum.
Photograph of Isaac Fuller's painting of Edward Pierce
Edward Pierce: painted by Isaac Fuller, courtesy Sudeley Castle.

In the Middle Ages, the land on which Seven Dials is situated belonged to the Hospital of St. Giles, a leper hospital which was taken over by Henry VIII in 1537. The Crown subsequently let the hospital land on a series of leases.  In 1690 Thomas Neale obtained a lease of Marshland Close ‘intending to improve the saide premisses by building’. He converted his Crown leasehold into a freehold in 1692.

His ‘planning application’ to Sir Christopher Wren, Surveyor General, showed six streets and a church. In fact, the church was never built and Neale laid out seven streets. By adopting a star-shaped plan with radiating streets, he significantly increased the total site frontages and number of plots to be let for building, greatly enhancing the overall site value as rents were charged by frontage.

Construction began in March 1693 and most of the surviving building leases are dated 1694. In October of that year the diarist John Evelyn recorded a visit to the site and his inspection of Edward Pierce’s Doric column at the centre.

Map of Parish of St Giles in the Fields and adjacent lands, 1570
St Giles Map 1570, showing parts of north London including the Parish of St. Giles.
Drawing showing Thomas Neale’s submission to Sir Christopher Wren
Thomas Neale’s submission to Sir Christopher Wren, Surveyor General, shows six streets and an estate church. In the event, Neale built seven streets and no church. Courtesy London Borough of Camden Local Studies and Archives Centre.
Strype’s map of the Parish of St Giles in the Fields, 1725
Strype’s map of the Parish of St Giles 1725 illustrates the unique layout of Seven Dials (bottom left of map).

As can be seen from Strype’s map of 1725, the layout was quite different from the then fashionable residential squares and is unique in London town planning. Professor Baer’s fascinating research paper demonstrates that from the outset this was a mixed-use development, not just residential. There were covenants written into each lease to avoid noisy and smelly activities, an early and interesting attempt at estate management. From the outset, Neale envisaged what we would now call a high-density, mixed-use area with residential, suitable businesses and leisure. This was almost certainly unique at the time though, ultimately, not successful.  

William Hodge's painting of Seven Dials, 1776, just after the removal of the Sundial Pillar
Seven Dials 1776 by William Hodges. Just after the removal of the Sundial Pillar.
Paul Draper's drawing based on William Hodge's painting.
Trustee Paul Draper’s drawing is based on William Hodge’s painting. Both still show some semblance of elegance, unlike the illustrations which follow, documenting the area’s decline into poverty. Paul Draper made this drawing for the Seven Dials Trust’s Year Donors scheme where each donor receives a signed and numbered Collotype.

The first inhabitants of Seven Dials were respectable gentlemen, lawyers and prosperous tradesmen. The social cachet of the area was short-lived however. As fashion marched steadily westwards, the star-shaped layout came to be seen as confused and cramped rather than novel. In the 1730s the then owner, James Joye, broke up the freehold, selling off the triangular sections separately. In the absence of a single freeholder, there was no one to enforce Neale’s careful restrictive covenants. The area became increasingly commercialised, with houses converted into shops, lodgings and factories.

Though not as notorious as the neighbouring St. Giles ‘rookery’ to the north, Seven Dials had something of a reputation for rough behaviour. Numerous incidents of mob violence are recorded in the parish minutes. The reason given for the removal of the Sundial Pillar by the Paving Commissioners in 1773 was that it acted as a magnet attracting undesirables.

Gustav Dore's drawing 1860, of what is now Shaftesbury Avenue, showing pavement trading.
Gustave Doré’s 1860 drawing of Dudley Street off what is now Shaftesbury Avenue graphically illustrates the area’s decline into poverty, with trading on the pavement from basements. In the early 1980s, when the Comyn Ching Triangle was being restored, an oven full of nuts was found in the basement of 13 Shelton Street, doubtless there for such pavement trading.

Combe’s Woodyard Brewery was started in 1740 and, in the next hundred years, spread over most of the southern part of Seven Dials. Comyn Ching, the architectural ironmongers, were in business in Shelton Street from the early 1700s, their lease signed by William & Mary. Elsewhere there were woodcarvers, straw hat manufacturers, pork butchers, watch repairers, wig makers and booksellers, as well as several public houses.

Painting of the Combe Delafield Brewery c 1830, with dray horses in the foreground
Drawing of the Woodyard Brewery, 1888. Showing the now vanished linking bridges across Shelton Street and Earlham Street
The Woodyard Brewery in 1888, showing the cast-iron bridges between buildings, spanning Shelton and Earlham Streets.

In the 1790s there was considerable reconstruction as leases were renewed. The facades of many of the older houses are now of that date, as are several of the painted timber shopfronts.

In the 19th century much of the population of Seven Dials comprised immigrants, chiefly Irish and Jewish, many of whom lived and worked in the cellars. The area was particularly favoured by printers of ballads, political tracts and pamphlets who occupied buildings in and around Monmouth Street. Indeed broadsheet printing was pioneered by Jemmy Catnach (1792-1841) who started in Monmouth Street in 1813. His many rivals and followers spread up to Denmark Street and this is almost certainly the reason for sheet music printing originating in ‘Tin Pan Alley’.

Photograph of 19th century broadsheet with title The Life, Trial, Character, Confession, Behaviour and Execution of James Ward.
Photograph of 19th century broadsheet with title Procession, Dirge and Funeral Solemnities of George IV
Seven Dials became the centre of broadsheet printing pioneered by Jemmy Catnach and taken up by his many followers. The penny sheets varied from the sensational to the serious and were distributed in the streets by patterers, who, as the name implies, had the gift of the gab in selling their wares. Newspapers were expensive at the time and these broadsheets brought the news to a population whose literacy was limited.

A combined work of traffic improvement and slum clearance cut Shaftesbury Avenue through the northwest side of Seven Dials and the St Giles Rookery in 1889. The Woodyard Brewery closed in 1905 when the business moved to Mortlake. Its old premises were converted into box, fruit and vegetable warehouses serving Covent Garden Market. The Seven Dials warehouse became Lepard and Smith paper merchants. The area was densely populated with vibrant markets on each street off The Dials and a great mix of uses.

Photograph of market in Earlham Street 1896
Earlham Street Market 1896
Hand coloured lantern slide of Seven Dials with horse drawn carriage, 1890
The Dials c. 1890

The rare hand-coloured lantern slide shows The Dials around 1896. The photograph of Earlham Street market is from the same year. Both illustrate the intensive use of the streets in Seven Dials.

Over the years the street names and numbering of Seven Dials were altered several times.The area survived WW2 with relatively little damage. The major upheaval came with the move of Covent Garden Market in 1974 which led to many changes of ownership and use. Both the London County Council and then the Greater London Council had proposed plans which would have seen the demolition of much of the area. These plans were defeated by a community-led campaign by residents and long-standing local businesses.

Photograph of model for London County Council's plan for Covent Garden 1957
London County Council model of plan for Covent Garden, 1957
Photograph of model of GLC's plan for Covent Garden 1968
Model of plan for Covent Garden, 1968. Courtesy Historic England
Photograph of model of London County Council plan for Soho, 1954
Model of London County Council plan for Soho, 1954

Seven Dials was declared a Conservation Area with Outstanding Status in 1974 (one of only 38 with such status out of c.6,000 in England) and was also a Housing Action Area (HAA) 1977-1984. From the mid-1970s much restoration was carried out within the parameters of the former GLC Covent Garden Action Area Plan, which aimed to safeguard and improve the existing physical character and fabric of the area and increase the residential population. Within Seven Dials, 90% of the housing stock had lain empty for 40+ years in the expectation of wholesale demolition. The HAA brought it all back into use as well as encouraging new public and private housing. For more information about the journey from demolition to conservation, visit the Trust’s company website.

Photograph showing the semi-derelict state of Monmouth Street c. 1960
Monmouth Street c.1960
Photograph of the Comyn Ching Triangle c.1971 showing the semi-derelict state of the area.
The Comyn Ching Triangle c.1971, courtesy of Jim Monahan. In the 1960s and 1970s the area was in a state of dereliction.

A particular triumph has been the reconstruction of the sundial column in the middle of Seven Dials, largely funded by private subscription. The original Roman Doric column designed by Edward Pierce was taken down by the Pavement Commissioners in 1773 (and later partially re-erected at Weybridge as a monument to the Duchess of York). The Seven Dials Trust (then known as the Seven Dials Monument Committee) raised the funds and commissioned an exact replica from  A.D. Mason of Whitfield Partners Architects. This was based on Pierce’s original measured drawing in the British Museum and the Weybridge remains. The unusual foundations, twice as deep as the Sundial Pillar’s height, were designed by Roger Howard, Hockley and Dawson structural engineers. The bulk of the masonry was executed by youth trainees from Vauxhall College and Ashby & Horner. The column was erected in 1989 as a dramatic symbol of the regeneration of the area. This was the first project of its kind in London since Nelson’s Column in the 1840s.

Photograph of the unveiling of the reconstructed Sundial Pillar by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands in 1989. A shroud in the Dutch national colours is being lifted, releasing balloons.
The reconstructed Sundial Pillar was unveiled by HM Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands with Prince Claus, as the finalé of the 1988-9 William and Mary Tercentenary. The shroud and balloons were in the Dutch national colours. Each biodegradable balloon had a return tag and the furthest reached a back garden in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. The Pillar has played a key role in the area’s economic life and has become one of London’s famous monuments.

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