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.
In 1690, William III granted Thomas Neale freehold of the land known as ‘Marshland’ or ‘Cock and Pye Fields’ (named after a public house on the site) in return for his raising large sums of money for the Crown. However, Neale had to purchase the remainder of the lease (which expired in 1731), for £4000, and continue to pay ground rents of £800 per annum for buildings on the land. These were very substantial financial commitments and Neale’s problem was how to lay out a development which would show a profit.
His solution was imaginative, financially ingenious, and still stands today in the unique street layout of Seven Dials. By adopting a star shaped plan with six radiating streets (subsequently seven were laid out), he dramatically increased the number of houses which could be built on the site; plans submitted in 1692 to Sir Christopher Wren, the Surveyor-General, for a building license showed at least 311 houses and an estate church. Construction began in March 1693 and most of the surviving building leases are dated 1694. As soon as the streets had been laid out, sewers installed and the initial corners developed, the Sundial Pillar was designed; the Pillar was topped by six sundial faces (the seventh “style” being the column itself). Neale chose Edward Pierce to build the Sundial Pillar because he was the greatest carver of his generation, working in stone, wood and marble. The first inhabitants were respectable, if not aristocratic, comprising of gentlemen, lawyers and prosperous tradesmen.
However, in 1695, Neale disposed of his interest in the site and the rest of the development was carried out by individual builders over the next 15 years. Today, his involvement is recorded only by two street names – Neal Street and Neal’s Yard. In the 1730’s, the then owner, James Joyce, 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 restrictive covenants. The area became increasingly commercialized as the houses were sub-divided and converted into shops, lodgings and factories.
The Woodyard Brewery was started in 1740 and during 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 before 1723, and elsewhere there were woodcarvers, straw hat manufacturers, pork butchers, watch repairers, wigmakers and booksellers, as well as several public houses. Though not as notorious as the St. Giles ‘rookery’ (slum) to the north, there were numerous incidents of mob violence in Seven Dials. In the 1790s, there was considerable re-facing or reconstruction as leases were renewed, and the façades of many of the older houses are now of that date, as are several of the painted timber shop fronts installed at the same time. The area was particularly favoured by printers of ballads, political tracts and pamphlets, who occupied many of the buildings in and around Monmouth Street. By the middle of the 18th century, the area had ‘declined’ to the extent that 39 night-watchmen were needed to keep the peace.
By the early 19th century the area had became infamous, together with St. Giles to the north, as the most notorious rookery (or thieves den) in London.
Shaftsbury Avenue was cut through along the north-west side of Seven Dials in 1889 as a combined work of traffic improvement and slum clearance.