A History of Covent Garden's Hidden Shopping Village
Seven Dials was originally laid out by Thomas Neale, MP in the early 1690's, who cleverly laid out the area in a series of triangles to maximise the number of houses as rentals were charged per foot of frontage and not per square foot of interiors. The then fashion for squares would have meant far less houses and thus less frontage.
The names of the seven streets were chosen with the intention of attracting well to do residents, however some of the names have subsequently been simplified or changed because of duplication with other streets in London. They were originally: Little and Great Earl Street (now Earlham Street), Little and Great White Lyon Street (now Mercer Street), Queen Street (now Shorts Gardens) and Little & Great St. Andrew's Street (now Monmouth Street). Some of the original street signs can still be seen attached to buildings in the area.
The original central monument was designed and erected at the same time. Neale commissioned England's leading stonemason, Edward Pierce, to design and construct the Sundial Pillar in 1693/4 as the centrepiece of his development in Seven Dials. The Pillar was topped by six sundial faces, the seventh 'style' being the column itself. It was regarded as one of London's 'great public ornaments' and the layout and identity of the area revolves around it.
Neale aimed to establish Seven Dials as the most fashionable address in London, following in the footsteps of the successful Covent Garden Piazza development earlier that century. Unfortunately, the area failed to establish itself as Neale hoped and deteriorated into a slum, renowned for its gin shops. At one point each of the seven apexes facing the Monument housed a pub, their cellars and vaults connected in the basement providing handy escape routes should the need arise.
In 1716 John Gray observed that the area was renowned for ballad printers and singers. Dickens, in "Sketches by Boz" wrote "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..."
Later, his son Charles Dickens Junior further noted the poverty into which the area had descended: shops selling second and third hand goods, a bizarre cluster of shops selling "every rarity of pigeon, fowl and rabbit, together with rare Birds such as hawks, owls and parrots, love birds and other species native and foreign".
He noted that children played in the streets together and unsupervised, their parents quite possibly in one of the seven public houses which faced the monument for "it is evident whatever there may be a lack of in the Dials, there is no lack of money for drink".
The 19th century saw an influx of Irish workers into the area, attracted by cheap, although overcrowded lodgings. Henry Mayhew observed in "London Labour & The London Poor", 1861: "In many houses in Monmouth Street there is a system of sub-letting among journeymen. In one room lodged a man and his wife, (a laundress), 4 children and 2 single young men. The woman was actually delivered in this room while the men kept at their work - they never lost an hours work!"
This continuing influx of residents precipitated the development of the surrounding area, Endell Street was followed by Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue in the 1880s which gradually eased the pressure on the area and allowed gradual gentification as craftsmen and larger businesses moved in.
However, despite some demolition and redevelopment in the 19th and 20th centuries, many of the original buildings still remain and retain original features.
The Thomas Neal's centre, previously at times, a banana, cucumber and book warehouse retains the name of the original developer, whom Neal Street was also named after. Comyn Ching Triangle, a quiet square lying between Monmouth, Mercer and Shelton Streets was named after a local architectural ironmongery business. There has been a flower market on Earlham Street for many years, an offshoot of the more famous Covent Garden flower market. Neal's Yard, which is home to a number of vegetarian cafes and homeopathic remedy stores, has been the home of alternative medicine, occultism and astrologers since the 17th Century, all of whom were attracted by the sundial and the symbolic star layout of the streets.
More recent milestones in Seven Dials heritage include two blue plaques, which mark two great landmarks in Seven Dials colourful history. Above 13 Monmouth Street, a blue plaque highlights the location where former Beatles manager Brian Esptein ran his successful management company NEMS. The plaque was officially unveiled in September 2010 by Liverpool’s darling and entertainer Cilla Black, who was also signed with Brian’s company back in the day and became his only female vocalist. In Neal's Yard, Seven Dials' other blue plaque identifies the location of the Animation, Editing and Recording Studios of Monty Python, which read as: "Monty Python, Filmmaker, lived here, 1976-1987”.
Certain parts of the Seven Dials have changed little since Thomas Neale designed them in the 17th Century - and the area continues to offer a quirky mix of shops, entertainment and residences.
In and Around Covent Garden
Covent Garden Post (John Richardson)
The Annals of London (John Richardson)
London the Biography (Peter Ackroyd)