The Unique Character of Seven Dials

The core Seven Dials Conservation Area is one of the most compact and distinctive pieces of townscape in the 17th, 18th and 19th-century patchwork that makes up the West End of London. Part of the special character of London which sets it aside from other European capital cities is that much of the historic fabric comprises relatively small, often self-contained estate developments, undertaken by private landowners and developers, rather than large-scale projects imposed by central government.

Many of these individual layouts are no bigger than the fields of the pre-existing rural landscape. This is particularly obvious in the case of Seven Dials where the present roads defining the edges of the Study Area – Shaftesbury Avenue, Shelton Street, West Street and Neal Street – follow the edges of an ancient field known as Marshland Close. The Mercers’ Estate, situated between Shelton Street and Long Acre to the south, occupies the site of another piece of grassland once known as Elm Field.

Print of Map of The Bedford Estate 1824.
The Bedford Estate 1824. This map of the combined parishes of St Giles-in-the-Fields and St George’s, Bloomsbury shows the new formal squares laid out by the Duke of Bedford to the north and wide residential streets. Below them is the hugger-mugger of the rookery of St Giles and then the unique layout of Seven Dials.
Thomas Neale’s submission to Sir Christopher Wren, Surveyor General, shows six streets and an estate church. Neale built seven streets and no estate church.

Most London estate developments in the late 17th and 18th centuries were planned around a residential square as their principal feature, on the model of the Earl of Bedford’s Covent Garden Piazza, designed by Inigo Jones in 1630, and the Duke of St. Albans’ post-Restoration layout of St. James’s Square. Seven Dials is unique in having a radiating pattern of seven streets and a central polygonal space and, unusually, from the outset, was planned as a mixed-use area. The germ of this idea was no doubt derived from Renaissance Italy or Louis XIV’s France, where, for instance, Mansart’s Place des Victoires of 1685 in Paris was a much grander example of a layout with a circular circus and radiating streets. The immediate inspiration, however, may have been Wren’s unexecuted Baroque plan for rebuilding the City after the Great Fire of 1666, which contained several set-pieces with radiating streets.

Illustration of the Piazza, Covent Garden from 1720
The Piazza Covent Garden, a formal square laid out by Inigo Jones in 1630. The illustration is from c1720.
Bloomsbury Square. Developed by the Earl of Southampton in the late 17th century, the illustration is c 1754. Both Bloomsbury Square and The Piazza typify the fashion for spacious residential developments at the time Neale laid out Seven Dials.
Drawing of one triangular section of Seven Dials from 1811
One section of Seven Dials in 1811, showing the extraordinary number of plots which Neale squeezed in, thus maximising his rentals by frontage and illustrating the number of triangular corners also unique to the area.

The character of Seven Dials derives partly from the combination of architectural pretension and its homeliness. It is a grand Baroque idea carried out in miniature scale. The streets are only forty feet wide and the Seven Dials column at the centre is likewise forty feet high. A substantial portion of the original fabric still survives and defines the architectural character of the streets. Many of the houses occupy the original 1690s building plots and retain at least some late 17th or early 18th century structure despite later re-facing, re-modelling and repairs. For more information on change and continuity in Seven Dials, visit the Trust’s company website.

Photograph of Monmouth Street south with restored shopfronts
Monmouth Street South with some of the many listed buildings, still on their 1690s building plots and with early 19th century shopfronts, restored by Shaftesbury PLC who implemented many of the recommendations in the Renaissance Study. Whilst the retailers and colours do change, the frontages remain.
Photograph of No.1 Short's Gardens 19th century shopfront
Seven Dials is characterised by an unusually large number of late 18th century and early 19thcentury listed shopfronts. No. 1 Short’s Gardens retains its early 19th century shopfront and shutters and illustrates the only restored front area (beneath the railings).
Page from Camden Council's Seven Dials Conservation Area Statement showing shopfronts of merit.
As well as listed façades the area has many ‘shopfronts of merit’ illustrated here from Camden Council’s excellent Seven Dials Conservation Area Statement.

From Earlham Street down to Long Acre, across the borough border, most of the massive ex-brewery buildings remain, with imposing façades within narrow streets. They are mostly part of the Mercers’ Estate, owned by the venerable City Livery Company for over 400 years.

Facade of the former 19th century brewery buildings at 24 Shelton Street
24 Shelton Street
Facade of former 19th century brewery building at 10 Langley Street
10 Langley Street