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The History

History of the Seven Dials Area

In the Middle Ages, the land on which Seven Dials is situated belonged to the Hospital of St. Giles, a leper hospital, like St. James, which was taken over by Henry VIII in 1537. The Crown subsequently let the hospital land on a series of leases.

In 1690, William III granted Thomas Neale, 'the Street Proprietor', 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 licence 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 commercialised 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 became famous, together with St. Giles to the north, as the most notorious rookery in London.

Shaftesbury Avenue was cut through along the north-west side of Seven Dials in 1889 as a combined work of traffic improvement and slum clearance. The Woodyard Brewery closed in 1905 and its old premises were converted into box, fruit and vegetable warehouses serving Covent Garden Market.

Covent Garden Market moved out in the 1970s, which led to many changes of ownership and uses and dereliction. Seven Dials was declared a Conservation Area in 1974 and since the mid-1970s much restoration has been carried out within the parameters of the former GLC Covent Garden Action Area Plan, one aim of which was to safeguard and improve the existing physical character and fabric of the area. The reconstruction of the Sundial Pillar is a symbol of the regeneration of this area.

 

Sundials and Gnomonics

The earliest known sundial is an Egyptian one of around 1500 BC and they were also well known in Roman times, as demonstrated in the writings of Plautus and Vitrivius. Such dials would have divided the hours of daylight into 12 'temporal' hours. The length of each hour would have changed seasonally, being longer in summer than in winter.

It was an Arabian astronomer, Muhammad Ibn Jabir Al-Battani, around the middle of the ninth century, who first solved a spherical triangle, given two sides and the included angle. It was another Arabian, Ali Ibn Omar Abul-Hassan al-Marrakushi, who lived at the beginning of the 13th century, who introduced the idea of "equal hours", making all the hours of equal length. This idea did not become well established until the 14th century. After the time of the Crusades, sundials with gnomons parallel to the Earth's axis were to be found all over Europe.

The mathematical knowledge necessary to construct accurate sundials, whether trigonometrical or the geometry of projection, was part of the rediscovery in Renaissance Europe of ancient mathematics. This coincided with an upsurge of interest in recreational mathematics, and an everyday need for reliable public timepieces. Sundials were often erected in public places to regulate the growing number of clocks, which though popular were unreliable and inaccurate.

This piece in the Athenian Mercury of 1692/3 (iv, No 4) the year before the erection of the Sundial Pillar, provides a graphic illustration of the need for sundials:

"I was walking in Covent Garden where the clock struck two, when I cam to Somerset-house by that it wanted a quarter of two, when I came to St Clements it was half past two, when I came to St Dunstans it wanted a quarter of two, by Mr Knib's Dyal in Fleet-street is was just two, when I cam to Ludgate it was half an hour past one, when I came to Bow Church it wanted a quarter of two, by the Dyal near Stocks Market it was a quarter part two, and when I came to the Royal Exchange it wanted a quarter of two: This I averr for a Truth, and desire to know how long I was walking from Covent Garden to the Royal Exchange?"

The Sundial at Seven Dials is illustrative of a common phenomenon of the time. A visitor to London in the late 17th century might have walked from Whitehall up to Seven Dials and would have passed approximately twenty sundials.

 

Thomas Neale and Edward Pierce

Thomas Neale (1641 - 1699)

Seven Dials was one of the many creations of an extraordinary figure - Thomas Neale MP, know as 'The Great Projector'.

Neale was an MP for 30 years, Master of the Mint and the Transfer Office, Groom Porter, gambler and entrepreneur. His projects ranged from the development of Seven Dials, Shadwell, East Smithfield and Tunbridge Wells, to land drainage, steel and papermaking, mining in Maryland and Virginia, raising shipwrecks, to developing a dice to check on cheating at gaming. He was also the author of numerous tracts on coinage and fund-raising, and was involved in the idea of a National Land Bank, the precursor of the Bank of England.

He was one of the most influential figures of late Stuart England, and one of the least chronicled. He used his many contacts garnered via family, court and county connections, to act as middleman between men of money, the Court, other parties, fellow MPs and the general public.

His Venetian Lottery in 1694 became the talk of the town, as did his marriage to England's richest widow and he became known as 'Golden Neal'.

From 1688, Neale developed his interests as a Member of Parliament, sitting on 62 committees. In February 1678, he was appointed Groom Porter to Charles II, a post which he also held under James II and William III. In July 1678, Neale was granted the office of Master of the Mint for life but didn't take up the appointment until July 1686.

 
Edward Pierce (1630 - 1695)

Pierce was a leading sculptor, architect and stonemason of his generation.

He became well known as a sculptor and was 'much employed by Sir Christopher Wren in his carvings and designs' after the Great Fire of London in 1666. Pierce's best known works, as a sculptor, are the carved busts of Oliver Cromwell and Christopher Wren - both in the Ashmoleum Museum in Oxford.

He was also employed by Wren for masonry work and design for many of the City churches and St. Pauls Cathedral. He executed wooden carving at various churches, including the wooden model for the copper dragon weathervane on the steeple of St Mary-le-Bow.

His greatest work as an architect was the Bishop's Palace at Lichfield, built under his supervision and to his designs 1686-7.

He died in 1695 at Surrey Street near the Thames and was buried at St Clement Danes. He left behind him an important collection of books, prints and drawings, and the original drawing of the Seven Dials Monument, now held in the British Museum, may have come from this collection.

 

Thomas Neale, Edward Pierce and Seven Dials

Neale's development at Seven Dials arose from his connections at Court and his services to the Crown. In return for raising large sums of money through the Venetian Lottery, William III granted Neale freehold of the land know as 'Marshland' or 'Cock and Pye Fields' (named after a public house on the site) in 1690. However, he 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 (and thus frontages) which could be built on the site. Plans showing no less that 311 houses and an estate church were submitted in 1692 to Sir Christopher Wren, Surveyor-General, for a building license. At that time rental values were based on the frontage, and not on the square footage.

As soon as the streets had been laid out, sewers installed and the initial corners developed, the Sundial Pillar was designed. Neale chose Pierce to build the Sundial Pillar because he was the greatest carver of his generation, working in stone, wood and marble.

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.

 


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