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Voices from the Past

'Seven Dials' - Illustration from Knight's 'LONDON' 1842

Illustration from Knight's London, 1842. Charles Knight published a variety of illustrated works such as Old England and the Land we Live in and the Pictorial Gallery of Arts, based on the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Knight's London, 1842

Charles Knight 1860s. A CDV photograph of Charles Knight in old age, circa 1865 by London photographer Ernest Edwards (1837-1903)

A CDV photograph of Charles Knight in old age, circa 1865 by London photographer Ernest Edwards (1837-1903).

"It is time to come to the modern St. Giles's. This interesting district is bounded to the north by the great brewhouse in Bainbridge Street, and on the south by the great brewhouse in Castle (now Shelton) Street; and extends from Hog Lane on the west, to Drury Lane on the east.... the Parish of St. Giles may be considered one of the most thoroughly uniform and consistent in point of character of any in London...

The Seven Dials...are evidence of an attempt to civilise the neighbourhood by introducing respectable houses into it. The attempt was not altogether vain: this part of the parish has ever since 'worn its dirt with a difference.'...

In Monmouth Street we find one of the great ateliers from which the milk-shops, ginger-beer stalls, green-groceries and pot-houses of the suburbs are supplied with sign-boards. Theatrical amateurs appear to abound... in no part of town do we find singing-birds in greater number and variety; and as most of the houses being of an old fashion, have broad ledges of lead over the shop windows, these are frequently converted into hanging gardens....

The bulk of the permanent population seems composed of Hebrews and natives of the Emerald Isle. The former preponderate in Monmouth Street (and this being the case it is a favourable account of their practical tolerance that there is a flourishing pork and sausage shop near one end of the street, and an equally flourishing Roman Catholic booksellers at the other); the Irish abound most in the lanes and courts...

Plan of St Giles in the Fields - illustration from Knight�s �LONDON� 1842

Illustration from Knight's London, 1842.

The classical reader may possibly retain from his schoolboy days a recollection of a race of people called Troglodytes -  dwellers in caves, an intermediate species between man and the rabbit. Their descendants still flourish in great force in Monmouth Street. Cellars serving whole families for kitchen, parlour bed-room and all are to be found in other streets of London, but not so numerous and near to each other. Here they cluster like cells in the Order of La Trappe.... it is curious and interesting to watch the habits of these human moles when they emerge or half-emerge from their cavities...."

  The full text from Knight's London, 1842 (PDF)


John Gay in Trivia, 1716

"Thames Street gives cheeses, Covent Garden fruits, / Moorfields old books, and Monmouth Street old suits."

John Gay

John Gay in Trivia, 1716

"Where famed St. Giles' ancient limits spread / An inrailed column rears its lofty head; / Here to seven streets, seven dials count the day / And from each other catch the circling ray; / Here oft the peasant with enquiring face / Bewildered trudges on from place to place; / He dwells on every sign with stupid gaze, / Enters the narrow alley's doubtful maze, / Tries every winding court and street in vain, / And doubles o'er his weary steps again."

M. Grossley - French visitor, 1765

"Happening to go one evening from the part of Town where I lived, to the Museum, I passed by Seven Dials. The place was crowded with people waiting to see a poor wretch stand in the pillory, whose punishment was deferred to another day. The mob, provoked at this disappointment, vented their rage upon all that passed their way, whether afoot or in coaches and threw at them dirt, rotten eggs, dead dogs, ordure, which they had provided to pelt the unhappy wretch according to custom."


Charles Dickens at his desk by Watkins 1858

Charles Dickens at his desk in 1858, by Watkins.

Many writers refer to Seven Dials, particularly in Victorian times, when St Giles to the north and Seven Dials were infamous as the two most notorious 'rookeries' in London. Charles Dickens was one of the area's most prominent chroniclers.

Charles Dickens Sketches by "Boz," (1868 edition), Seven Dials

"Seven Dials! The region of song and poetry - first effusions and last dying speeches: hallowed by the names of Catnac and of Pitts - names that will entwine themselves with costermongers and barrel-organs, when penny magazines shall have superseded penny yards of songs, and capital punishment be unknown!

But what involutions can compare with those of Seven Dials? Where is there such another maze of streets, courts, lanes and alleys? Where such a pure mixture of Englishmen and Irishmen, as in this complicated part of London?...

The stranger who finds himself in 'the Dials' for the first time and stands Belzoni-like, at the entrance of seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity and attention awake for no considerable time. From the irregular square into which he was plunged, the streets and courts dart in all directions, until they are lost in the unwholesome vapour which hangs over the house-tops, and renders the dirty perspective uncertain and confined; and lounging in every corner, as if they came there to take a few gasps of such fresh air as has found its way so far, but is too much exhausted already to be enabled to force its way into the narrow alleys around, are groups of people, whose appearance and dwellings would fill any mind but a regular Londoner's with astonishment....

If the external appearance of the houses, or a glance at their inhabitants, present but few attractions, a closer acquaintance with either is little calculated to alter ones first impression. Every room has either its separate tenant and every tenant is, by the same mysterious dispensation which causes a country curate to 'increase and multiply' most marvellously, generally the head of a numerous family....

....shops for the purchase of rags, bones, old iron and kitchen stuff, vie in cleanliness with the bird fanciers and rabbit dealers.... Brokers' shops which would seem to have established by humane individuals, as refuges for destitute bugs, interspersed with announcements for day-schools, penny theatres, petition writers, and music for balls or routs, complete the 'still life' of the subject; and dirty men and filthy women, squalid children, fluttering shuttlecocks, noisy battledores, reeking pipes, bad fruit, more doubtful oysters, attenuated cats, depressed dogs, and anatomical fowls, are its cheerful accompaniments."

Charles Dickens � Sketches of Boz (1868 edition), �Seven Dials�

'Seven Dials' Sketches by Boz, by Charles Dickens.

Frontispiece of 'Sketches by Boz' first edition, Feb  1836. Illustration by George Cruikshank

Frontispiece of Sketches by "Boz," first edition, Feb, 1836. Illustration by George Cruikshank.


  The full text from Sketches by "Boz," on Seven Dials by Charles Dickens, 1836 (PDF)


Charles Dickens Sketches by "Boz"(1868 edition), Monmouth Street

"We have always entertained a particular attachment towards Monmouth Street as the only true and real emporium for second-hand wearing apparel. Monmouth-street is venerable from its antiquity, and respectable from its usefulness...

We have hinted at the antiquity of our favourite spot. A 'Monmouth-street laced coat' was a by-word a century ago; and still we find Monmouth-street the same.... Through every alteration and every change, Monmouth-street has still remained the burial place of the fashions; and such, to judge from all present appearances, it will remain until there are no more fashions to bury...."