The Seven Dials13 minute read

Seeing London as a metaphorical body is one way in which we can analyse change over time in the city. Cultural geographers can use a body as a metaphor in a number of ways. Seeing London as a body gives us a way in which to see all of it’s processes and parts as connected, the roads as veins, with traffic as the blood, the parks as lungs, and pollution and poverty as disease. This lens provides a view of how London functions as well as how it fails. Other academics such as Daniel Defoe view the city as a monster, consuming everything and everyone it can reach, using them up to feed its ever-growing hunger and greed (Ackroyd 2001). Perceiving London as a monstrous being is obviously cynical, but can also be useful, especially when considering how the city may be harmful to those who use it and are used by it. This is a far more advanced cultural view of London than approaching the city as a machine, with predictable and emotionless functions. Unlike a machine, the body regenerates itself, it sheds its skin, fights off disease and reproduces- so in what ways can London be seen to do the same? London has fought off various ‘diseases’ and ‘skirmishes’, in both subtle and openly violent ways, much like white blood cells attacking infections. These diseases include poverty, homelessness and crime, and London’s immune system uses laws, policing and relocation to purge these infections. This essay will examine how London as a body can be seen in a specific area of London, and how the change of the area over time links to the metaphor of the immune system.

Located between Covent Garden and Soho, the complex design of the Seven Dials was proposed by Neale in 1690, who aimed to create a fashionable area for the wealthy to wine and dine (Trainor 2012). The design proposed seven roads converging, centred by an intricate monument, unusual in its design not only in a historical context but also by todays standards. From the outset, this endeavour was purely financial for Neale, driven by the want to capitalise on the greed of London’s wealthy and their need for fashionable housing and shops. This avarice drove him to design a housing layout that maximised rentable units by using a complex star road layout (Trainor 2012), targeted at specialised trades who served the wealthy. Neale was relying on absorbing the health and economic success of Central London in the late 16th century to create a new centre of activity.

Until the mid 1700s the area was relatively empty, with the only occupied buildings rented out by skilled traders and businessmen. The remainder of units stood uninhabited for years, with London’s wealthy showing a striking ambivalence to the design that Neale had hoped would be seen as ‘revolutionary’. This state of semi-abandon only changed when the units were sold to new owners in the 1730s, owners who consequently divided and sold blocks individually (Weir 1842). The lack of an overseeing body to manage businesses in the area led to the arrival of many unfavourable trades such as gambling and alcohol production (Baer 2010). This was however only one of three reasons that Baer gives for Seven Dials’ initial decline, the others being the overly confusing and cramped living conditions, and the decline of surrounding areas with little space for development.

Baer proposed that these reasons caused the grandeur and intricacy of Neale’s planning to fail entirely in its mission to mature into a highly desirable location, instead declining into one of London’s most infamous rookeries and criminal centres. John Keats described Seven Dials as a place where “…misery clings to misery for a little warmth, and want and disease lie down side-by-side, and groan together.” This kind of description in modern day London is very rare, and is much more reminiscent of an account of slums in Mumbai or Rio de Janeiro. Much like in these cities today overcrowding was common, due to mass subletting of property and housing divided into as many lodgings as would fit (Mayhew 1861), the Seven Dials area became popular not with the rich, but with the extremely poor. Slum like conditions were rapidly joined by criminal activity and violence. Gin shops and pubs moved into each of the seven units facing the central monument, encouraging mass gatherings of what Booth would describe as the ‘vicious semi criminal class’ (Booth 1889). By the 1750s, Trainor found that to maintain order at night around 39 watchmen were needed (Trainor 2012), however the watchmen rarely ventured further than the periphery of the Dials. Maintaining control over the infection of crime and poverty in Seven Dials was considered necessary, but rarely did this control move towards helping or healing the area, it merely tried to contain it.

It was at this point that the area began to be seen as a threat to surrounding areas. The rapid growth in poverty can be seen as an infection, rapidly taking over the Seven Dials streets with negative and illegal activity. Ackroyd refers to the area around Seven Dials, also known as St Giles, as an abscess, capable of infecting and poisoning the whole of the body of London (Ackroyd 2001). The attitude of London began to turn from ambivalence to hostility, making Seven Dials an internal enemy of London’s body. Donald Shaw wrote that ‘the walk through the Dials after dark was an act none but a lunatic would have attempted.’ (Shaw 1908, pp77), suggesting that there was a widespread recognition of the Dials as poisonous, reaching far further than Covent Garden. Shaw implies that walking through Seven Dials would mean being consumed by the evil that dwelled within, either by being drawn in and ‘turned’ by it, or poisoned and killed by it. This reflects the general attitude towards the area, which was ‘avoid at all costs’, and only act to suppress or clear the area when it threatened the success that London was feeling.

The threat of Seven Dials spreading its poison throughout the city and into its future was first addressed in 1773, at which time the Seven Dials sundial was dismantled. David Bieda argued that the monument’s downfall symbolised the destruction of the area by crime and gang activity. Contrary to popular belief that it was torn down by the mob, archival sources prove that the monument was actually removed by authorities, as it attracted ‘unfavourable characters’ (Civic Design Partnership 1998) such as the Mohock gang of the 1700s. By removing the symbolic centre of the ‘infestation’, the wealthy in neighbouring Covent Garden aimed to eradicate the infection before it could spread into their healthy and successful community. This action was futile, as criminal and mob activity was already deeply embedded in the streets of Seven Dials. Crime persisted and authorities left the area to fall into further disregard. The unsuccessful endeavour to ‘cure’ the criminal Dials was consequently followed by another century of rookeries and criminal disobedience controlling the area almost uncontested.

The next defensive attack that London launched on it’s internal ‘enemy’ was an attempt at slum clearance in the 1870s; the construction of Shaftesbury Avenue (Wohl 2001). This was aimed at forcing the settlements of the ‘vicious class’ out of central London, replacing it with ‘productive’ and wealthy settlements. The road sliced through the outer rookery, using direct and violent force to carve out poverty where it was not welcome. This drastic measure of physically removing the ‘abscess’ was far more active than the previous treatment that London had attempted. Wohl argues that without this measure London would have ‘suffocated and stagnated’ (Wohl 2001, pp.27), suggesting that London could have been poisoned and that slum clearance was a legitimate need in order to keep London ‘alive’. Referring to slum clearance as ‘surgical removal of cancer’ (Wohl 2001, pp.28), it is clear that there was a dominant conviction at the time that these actions were for the greater good of London, and that those who were harmed in the process were the ultimate threat that London faced. Purging poverty on mass is a pattern that can be seen throughout London’s history, even with the recent movement of people residing in Stratford to make way for the Olympic Park.

The construction of Shaftesbury Avenue was successful in clearing much of the St Giles slums, and began a process of gentrification and a movement of wealth into the area. Despite surrounding rookeries beginning to clear, the view of Seven Dials as an abscess continued for 200 years (Baer 2010), with no real attempts at reconstruction and development until the 1970s. Treatment was withheld, and the area was left in isolation, as if under quarantine to protect the rest of London. Private investors steered clear of the area, as they believed that it was dangerous and ‘poisonous’ to businesses. The poverty and illness of the area soon made it unappealing to even the most criminal of activities, leaving it abandoned apart from the ‘sickly slum dwellers’. By the 1970s, ninety percent of dwellings were abandoned or used as shelter by the homeless according to the Seven Dials Trust (Civic Design Partnership 1998). This can be seen almost as a death of Seven Dials. Instead of helping during it’s most infected, authorities didn’t step in until the corpse of the rotting Seven Dials stopped being an active threat.

By the 1970s, exponential growth in West Central London meant that developers and businesses could no longer overlook Seven Dials as a prospective area for growth to capitalise on. London’s wealthy began to look upon Seven Dials with rose tinted glasses, enthusiastically praising its historic feel. In 1974, the grand architecture that was shunned for so many years was declared a conservation area. Almost overnight, Seven Dials was not separated from Covent Garden, but was a part of it. The first steps towards this reincarnation of Seven Dials began with the re-erection of the sundial monument in its rightful place in 1989 (Baer 2010). There were no longer concerns about creating an assembly point for criminals, who had long since migrated east and southwards. A sense of nostalgia for the past ensued, with a sudden desire to restore the area to the ‘former glory’ that Neale designed. As one of the few areas to have remained in its entirety since the 17th Century, Seven Dials was suddenly celebrated, rather than shunned, for it’s survival. Cobbled pavements and carefully selected historically accurate steel furnishings were installed (Civic Design Partnership 1998), aimed at giving people the ‘authentic experience’ of London’s historical streets. This historical façade was coupled with the wealth and status of modern day central London, as if glazing over the reality of the past entirely with expensive and expansive ‘costume’. Seven Dials criminal and dangerous past is entirely forgotten, the abscess that never was, with most visitors remaining completely unaware of the dark past of the cobbled streets they walk.

This nostalgia combining with economic progress has created a confluence of time in the city, in which the histories of London and its peoples are remembered selectively, in order to fit with the timeline that London wishes to tell. Seven Dials is no exception to this, with a clearly edited history that emits the presence of illness. Seven Dials is now a healthy, flourishing neighbourhood rented out by 200 predominantly independent businesses (Civic Design Partnership 1998). Living in Seven Dials is now an extremely expensive and elusive venture, with housing prices among the highest in London. Present day Dials is exactly what Neale envisaged centuries ago: wealthy residents, independent boutiques and fashionable clientele. Seemingly, unlike in so much of London, the past hasn’t been dismantled and replaced in order to secure a successful future. Instead, it has been preserved, as if the most important future is an extension of the past. And yet, the past that is being preserved was always considered dangerous, threatening and unwanted. The scars of its years as a home to the ‘criminal class’ are long forgotten, paved over with cobblestones and ‘original’ street facings. This false layering of history shows how we value the past only once we have left it, and only in certain contexts. Looking to the future, this past is likely to become more and more romanticised, as we allow ourselves to completely forget the true past of London.

This current romanticised imagining of the body of London was constructed entirely post-mortem. The streets were not paved with gold, nor were the buildings and monuments immaculately conserved. And yet this is exactly what we imagine the body of London to look like at present: constantly growing, harmonious and healthy. External forces such as migration and terrorism are seen as a threat to London’s health, and so they are isolated in a way that is familiar when looking back at Seven Dials. However like the body, London faces internal ailments and infection. Regrettably we are unlikely to learn from the internal diseases London has fought as long as we continue to forge a future based on a false past.

London is growing and changing constantly, layers of time changing the existing culture, architecture and geography of the city in subtle and drastic ways. As a body, it sheds its skin in an almost continuous manner, with buildings being repurposed, demolished and erected in rapid succession. This constant reinvention of the body is part of a survival instinct that London possesses; similar to that of animals it must ‘adapt or die’. When diseased, London must reinvent the rotting limb in order to maintain its status as an economic predator. In the past, isolating the problem and ignoring it was seen as the best medicine that London could or should offer. At present, this medication and recovery is more hands on, with London tackling even preliminary symptoms of disease, such as a rise in homelessness or crime, in order to prevent infection. In this way, one may argue that London has learnt from its past failures and that current strategies are simply a more educated approach. However, I am inclined to think that London has done little in terms of learning its lesson, and continues to be driven by greed and hunger for economic expansion as it always was. London is capitalizing on its false past in order to grow economically in the future. Subtly, the approach to maintaining London’s vitality is still based on isolating the poor and celebrating and catering for the rich, however methods used today are economic rather than force based. Instead of being forced out, poor people are priced out and ‘relocated’. What we are seeing is a shift to a new age in which London still yearns for wealth and growth, but now is coming up with more ‘socially and morally acceptable’ systems of doing so. The monstrous nature of London remains, and continues to rear its ugly head whenever its global economic standing is remotely endangered.


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Wohl, A. (2001). The Eternal Slum: Housing and Social Policy in Victorian London. 2nd ed. London: Transaction Publishers.

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