Just west of Covent Garden, Seven Dials is one of the great architectural set pieces of London. It was laid out c. 1693 by Thomas Neale, MP, ‘The Great Projector’. Neale was a renowned entrepreneur, the organiser of England’s first lottery, a member of no fewer than 62 parliamentary committees, Groom Porter to Charles II, James II and William III, and Master of the Mint and of the Transfer Office. Neale's influence arose from his combining the three key worlds of late Stuart England: the County, the Court and the City. He was described as 'a person of Vaste Estate and of Great Interest as well as Court as in the City and Country.' Neale was one of the small group who met William of Orange at Torbay in November 1688 when he came to take the English Crown. The Trust celebrated this Dutch connection in 1989, when it invited HM Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and Prince Claus to unveil the reconstructed Seven Dials Sundial Pillar as the finale to the William & Mary Tercentenary Celebrations.
In the Middle Ages, the land on which Seven Dials is situated belonged to the Hospital of St. Giles, a leper hospital, 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 freehold of the land known as Marshland or Cock and Pye Fields (named after a public house on the site) in return for favours. Neale raised large sums of money for the Crown through his ‘lotteries in the Venetian style’. However he had to purchase the remainder of the lease and continue to pay ground rents for buildings on the land. This was a substantial financial commitment 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 that could be built on the site. Plans submitted in 1692 to Sir Christopher Wren, the Surveyor General, for a building licence, show at least 311 houses and an estate church. At the time rents were charged by the length of the frontage. Neale’s clever layout generated more rental income than that yielded by the squares which were then the fashion.
Construction began in 1693. As soon as the streets had been laid out, sewers installed and the initial corners developed, Neale chose Edward Pierce, the greatest carver of his generation, to build a sundial pillar at the centre of the development, giving Seven Dials its name.
The first inhabitants were respectable 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. The area became increasingly commercialised as the houses were subdivided and converted into shops, lodgings and factories.
The Woodyard Brewery was started in 1740 and during the next 100 years spread over most of the southern part Seven Dials. Elsewhere there were the architectural ironmongers, Comyn Ching, woodcarvers, straw hat manufacturers, pork butchers, watch repairers, wigmakers and booksellers as well as several public houses. In the 1790s there was considerable re-facing or reconstruction as leases were renewed. The façades of many of the older houses are now of that date as are several of the painted timber shop fronts. 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 eighteenth century the area had declined to the extent that 39 night-watchmen were needed to keep the peace. By the early nineteenth century the area became infamous, together with St Giles in the north, as the most notorious 'rookery' in London, with many incidences of mob violence. ['Rookeries' were impoverished slum areas known for criminality]. The Sundial Pillar was pulled down by order of the Paving Commissioners in 1773 in an attempt to rid the area of undesirables who congregated around it, though every book on London says it was pulled down by the mob looking for buried treasure.
Shaftesbury Avenue was cut through the north-west side of Seven Dials in 1889 as a combined work of traffic improvement and slum clearance. The Woodyard Brewery moved out to Mortlake in 1905 and its old premises were converted into warehouses serving the wholesale fruit and vegetable market in Covent Garden.
Covent Garden Market was relocated to Nine Elms in Vauxhall in 1974 which led to many changes of ownership and uses, and to widespread dereliction. In that same year Seven Dials was declared a Conservation Area with Outstanding Status and a Housing Action Area.
Research Paper The Seven Dials: ‘freak of town-planning’, or simply ahead of its time?
By William C. Baer, Department of Policy and Planning, University of Southern California, Los Angles, CA, USA.
Publication Journal of Urbanism, International Research on Placemaking and Urban Sustainability. Volume 3, Issue 1, 2010.