Going Places, Meeting People – Dickens’ Guided Tours of London

Reviewed by Kim Hapgood.

The first of Sketches By Boz that I chose to read was “Seven Dials”: I should have chosen otherwise! It took me a very long time to read this very short story – but that’s exactly what I love most about reading Dickens!

Let me devote this article to just the title: “Seven Dials” was the first of the series of Sketches called “Scenes and Characters” submitted for publication in “Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle” September 27, 1835, under the authorship, not of “Boz”, but of “Tibbs”. Dickens’ Sketches had most recently appeared in the Evening Chronicle but he switched to Bell’s for, among other reasons, front-page status. It is debatable why he wrote these Sketches as “Tibbs”: perhaps with reference to the character Mr Tibbs in his 1834 Sketch “The Boarding House”, but I prefer the suggestion that the name derived from Oliver Goldsmith’s character Beau Tibbs (noted for his finery, vanity and poverty) in “The Citizen of the World – Letter 55”. Peter Ackroyd in his biography, notes that Dickens was familiar with the writings of Goldsmith: “…my good master (Chatham schoolmaster, William Giles) came flitting in among the packing-cases to give me Goldsmith’s Bee as a keep-sake. Which I kept for his sake, and its own, a long time afterwards”. “Seven Dials” was later included in Volume One of Sketches by Boz as number V, in the collection of “Scenes”, published in February 1836.

In the early 1500s the future site of Seven Dials was part of the fields and marshlands that separated London from the contagion of the leper colony within St Giles Hospital (St Giles being the patron saint of lepers). Leprosy abated in England in the mid-16th century and the colony began to care for indigents. St Giles-in- the-Fields parish was known for generous charitable relief with a great influx of poor people and refugees (particularly Irish and French) and black servants reduced to begging drawn to the area. A Parliamentary Act of 1606 condemned the area for being deeply foul and dangerous. The southern part of the parish was a wasteland. However, after the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire of 1666, housing gradually appeared and development continued over the next three decades under a grant given to politician and entrepreneur Thomas Neale. Neale devised a development plan to maximise his profits: a star-shape of six radiating streets (the seventh was added later in lieu of the estate church) because at the time, rents were charged by width of frontage – an imaginative and financially ingenious solution. Although originally inhabited by respectable gentlemen, lawyers and prosperous tradesmen, by the mid-1700s it was the most notorious rookery in London – an impoverished criminal slum requiring 39 night watchmen to keep the peace.

The sundial pillar at the centre of the star was completed in 1694 and regarded at the time as one of London’s “great public ornaments”. Sundials were not uncommon in the 17th century and a walk of about one mile between Whitehall and Seven Dials would have taken you past twenty of these features. Urban myth had it in 1773 that a mob pulled it down looking for buried gold, but in fact it was removed at that time by order of the Paving Commissioners in an attempt to rid the area of undesirables who congregated around it. To no avail it would seem, for although the Sundial Pillar was not standing in Dickens’ day he despairs that “every post in the open space has its occupant, who leans against it for hours, with listless perseverance”.

Albeit that the area has always been known as Seven Dials for its seven radiating streets, the sundial tells the time by six dial faces. The reconstructed sundial unveiled in 1989 is now London’s only pillar sundial and to the credit of the practitioners of the art of gnomonics, all six faces tell the time accurately to within ten seconds. The names of the radiating streets, originally chosen to attract affluent residents, have changed over the years: the original Little and Great Earl Streets now traverse the centre as one street – Earlham; Little and Great White Lion Streets – Mercer; Little and Great St Andrews Streets – Monmouth; and Queen Street terminates at the Pillar now as Shorts Garden. Seven Dials is the only quarter of London remaining from late Stuart England; it remains almost unaltered with many of the original houses and the greatest number of 18th century and early 19th century shop fronts in London.

This article merely skims the surface of the depths of knowledge I have unearthed from this two-word title. Delving into the first paragraph I meet Tom King and the Frenchman, James (Jemmy) Catnach and “Johnny” Pitts: another story unto themselves.

Dickens predicted in his Sketch of 1835 that “The stranger who finds himself in the Dials for the first time … at the entrance of Seven obscure passages … will see enough around him to keep his curiosity awake for no inconsiderable time”. He was right – this stranger found herself in the Dials some 181 years later, courtesy of Dickens’ Sketch, and her curiosity remains insatiable.

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