Victorian London - Districts - Seven Dials and St. Giles

   Look at the construction of the place. The Gordian knot was all very well in its way: so was the maze of Hampton Court: so is the maze at the Beulah Spa: so were the ties of stiff white neckcloths, when the difficulty of getting one on, was only to be equalled by the apparent impossibility of ever getting it off again. 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 inconsiderable time. From the irregular square into which he has 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 at 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 itself into the narrow alleys around, are groups of people, whose appearance and dwellings would fill any mind but a regular Londoner's with astonishment. On one side, a little crowd has collected round a couple of ladies, who having imbibed the contents of various 'three-outs' of gin and bitters in the course of the morning, have at length differed on some point of domestic arrangement, and are on the eve of settling the quarrel satisfactorily, by an appeal to blows, greatly to the interest of other ladies who live in the same house, and tenements adjoining, and who are all partisans on one side or other. 
    'Vy don't you pitch into her, Sarah?' exclaims one half-dressed matron, by way of encouragement. 
    'Vy don't you? if MY 'usband had treated her with a drain last night, unbeknown to me, I'd tear her precious eyes out - a wixen!'
    'What's the matter, ma'am?' inquires another old woman, who has just bustled up to the spot.
    'Matter!' replies the first speaker, talking AT the obnoxious combatant, 'matter! Here's poor dear Mrs. Sulliwin, as has five blessed children of her own, can't go out a charing for one arternoon, but what hussies must be a comin', and 'ticing avay her oun' 'usband, as she's been married to twelve year come next Easter Monday, for I see the certificate ven I vas a drinkin' a cup o' tea vith her, only the werry last blessed Ven'sday as ever was sent. I 'appen'd to say promiscuously, "Mrs. Sulliwin," says I - '
    'What do you mean by hussies?' interrupts a champion of the other party, who has evinced a strong inclination throughout to get up a branch fight on her own account ('Hooroar,' ejaculates a pot-boy in parenthesis, 'put the kye-bosk on her, Mary!'), 'What do you mean by hussies?' reiterates the champion.
    'Niver mind,' replies the opposition expressively, 'niver mind; YOU go home, and, ven you're quite sober, mend your stockings.' 
    This somewhat personal allusion, not only to the lady's habits of intemperance, but also to the state of her wardrobe, rouses her utmost ire, and she accordingly complies with the urgent request of the bystanders to 'pitch in,' with considerable alacrity. The scuffle became general, and terminates, in minor play-bill phraseology, with 'arrival of the policemen, interior of the station-house, and impressive DENOUEMENT.'
    In addition to the numerous groups who are idling about the gin-shops and squabbling in the centre of the road, every post in the open space has its occupant, who leans against it for hours, with listless perseverance. It is odd enough that one class of men in London appear to have no enjoyment beyond leaning against posts. We never saw a regular bricklayer's labourer take any other recreation, fighting excepted. Pass through St. Giles's in the evening of a week-day, there they are in their fustian dresses, spotted with brick-dust and whitewash, leaning against posts. Walk through Seven Dials on Sunday morning: there they are again, drab or light corduroy trousers, Blucher boots, blue coats, and great yellow waistcoats, leaning against posts. The idea of a man dressing himself in his best clothes, to lean against a post all day! 
    The peculiar character of these streets, and the close resemblance each one bears to its neighbour, by no means tends to decrease the bewilderment in which the unexperienced wayfarer through 'the Dials' finds himself involved. He traverses streets of dirty, straggling houses, with now and then an unexpected court composed of buildings as ill-proportioned and deformed as the half-naked children that wallow in the kennels. Here and there, a little dark chandler's shop, with a cracked bell hung up behind the door to announce the entrance of a customer, or betray the presence of some young gentleman in whom a passion for shop tills has developed itself at an early age: others, as if for support, against some handsome lofty building, which usurps the place of a low dingy public-house; long rows of broken and patched windows expose plants that may have flourished when 'the Dials' were built, in vessels as dirty as 'the Dials' themselves; and shops for the purchase of rags, bones, old iron, and kitchen-stuff, vie in cleanliness with the bird-fanciers and rabbit-dealers, which one might fancy so many arks, but for the irresistible conviction that no bird in its proper senses, who was permitted to leave one of them, would ever come back again. Brokers' shops, which would seem to have been established by humane individuals, as refuges for destitute bugs, interspersed with announcements of day-schools, penny theatres, petition-writers, mangles, and music for balls or routs, complete the 'still life' of the subject; and dirty men, filthy women, squalid children, fluttering shuttlecocks, noisy battledores, reeking pipes, bad fruit, more than doubtful oysters, attenuated cats, depressed dogs, and anatomical fowls, are its cheerful accompaniments. 
    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 one's first impression. Every room has 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. The man in the shop, perhaps, is in the baked 'jemmy' line, or the fire-wood and hearth-stone line, or any other line which requires a floating capital of eighteen-pence or thereabouts: and he and his family live in the shop, and the small back parlour behind it. Then there is an Irish labourer and HIS family in the back kitchen, and a jobbing man - carpet-beater and so forth - with HIS family in the front one. In the front one-pair, there's another man with another wife and family, and in the back one-pair, there's 'a young 'oman as takes in tambour-work, and dresses quite genteel,' who talks a good deal about 'my friend,' and can't 'a-bear anything low.' The second floor front, and the rest of the lodgers, are just a second edition of the people below, except a shabby-genteel man in the back attic, who has his half-pint of coffee every morning from the coffee-shop next door but one, which boasts a little front den called a coffee-room, with a fireplace, over which is an inscription, politely requesting that, 'to prevent mistakes,'customers will 'please to pay on delivery.' The shabby-genteel man is an object of some mystery, but as he leads a life of seclusion, and never was known to buy anything beyond an occasional pen, except half-pints of coffee, penny loaves, and ha'porths of ink, his fellow-lodgers very naturally suppose him to be an author; and rumours are current in the Dials, that he writes poems for Mr. Warren.
    Now anybody who passed through the Dials on a hot summer's evening, and saw the different women of the house gossiping on the steps, would be apt to think that all was harmony among them, and that a more primitive set of people than the native Diallers could not be imagined. Alas! the man in the shop ill-treats his family; the carpet-beater extends his professional pursuits to his wife; the one-pair front has an undying feud with the two-pair front, in consequence of the two-pair front persisting in dancing over his (the one-pair front's) head, when he and his family have retired for the night; the two-pair back will interfere with the front kitchen's children; the Irishman comes home drunk every other night, and attacks everybody; and the one-pair back screams at everything. Animosities spring up between floor and floor; the very cellar asserts his equality. Mrs. A. 'smacks' Mrs. B.'s child for 'making faces.' Mrs. B. forthwith throws cold water over Mrs. A.'s child for 'calling names.' The husbands are embroiled - the quarrel becomes general - an assault is the consequence, and a police-officer the result.

 Charles Dickens, Sketches by Boz, 1839


    SITUATED at the northern extremity of St. Martin's-lane, having the Broker-row for its eastern, and Monmouth-street for its western boundaries, in longitude nothing, and lat. 0? 5', is a singular conformation of country, radiating from a common centre and an illuminated clock, known - from the number of its rays - as "Seven Dials." These rays are formed by several habitations built of burnt bricks and mortar in regular rows, or streets, all diverging from the above-named apex.
    The geology of this district is peculiar. The superficial strata consist of granite rhomboids placed closely together, the whole forming a compact surface, or carriage-way. On each side is a smoother formation of flags, which, from their worn appearance, are supposed to be those which "braved a thousand years."
    In the department of Natural History, Seven Dials is peculiarly productive. Dogs, cats, and a great variety of insects, together with donkeys, abound. The last are used for conveying from one part of the district to another the vegetable productions which form a large article of import from Covent Garden-market. The indigenous vegetation consists of boxes of mignonette, picturesquely laid out on the window-sills; together with large quantities of mustard and cress, cleverly grown upon flannel in exposed situations. Cabbage-leaves are thickly sown in every gutter.
    The trade of Seven Dials is extensive, it being the entrep?t for glass bottles, rags, old iron, left-off clothing, and second-hand toothbrushes. An enlarged commerce is also carried on in lollypops, and other sweet articles affecting the Colonial sugar-markets.
    But the most important feature of the country is that presented by its inhabitants - a brave and affable race, whose manners and customs are more worthy of observation than emulation. The ladies are peculiarly easy in their deportment. This trait is doubtlessly imparted to them by the free intercourse which has taken place from the earliest ages between the Seven-dialers and foreign immigrants. The Irish particularly abound in every direction of the dials, and have introduced many of their national customs, especially the use of whisky and the shillelah, in the employment of both which the hospitable natives are highly proficient.
    Amongst so enlightened a people it may be expected that education has made rapid progress: and such is the case; the younger branches have a celebrity all over the kingdom for their proficiency in marbles, and boxing is nowhere so scientifically or so frequently practised. But it is the literature of Seven-dials which gives it a proud pre-eminence over the surrounding districts. Within its precincts are situated two printing and publishing establishments of a high character. The balladography daily issuing from Messrs. Pitt and Catnach's toy and marble warehouses finds an immediate circulation throughout the neighbourhood, and also forms a considerable article of export to St. Giles's, and other colonies.
    The government of Seven Dials is conducted upon republican principles, except when interfered with by the New Police. The basis of its social economy is community of goods, that is to say, whenever property is so situated as to be abstracted without the owner's knowledge.

Punch, Jan-Jun. 1842

see also The Sinks Of London Laid Open - click here

George Cruikshank (in 'Sketches by Boz') 1836

SEVEN DIALS. An open area in th parish of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, on what was once "Cock and Pye Fields", from which seven streets, Great Earl-street, Little Earl-street, Great White-Lion-street, Littl White-Lion-street, Great St. Andrew's street, Little St. Andrew's-street, Queen street, radiate, and so called because there was formerly a column in the centre, on th summit of which were seven sun-dials, with a dial facing each of the streets.

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850

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[-229-] CHAPTER XV.


BY way of contrast, we will stride from splendour to squalour - from St. James's to St. Giles's, whose names Douglas Jerrold has rendered inseparable in his fearless and life-like novel.
    As St. Giles's folds within its arms a portion of the fashion-frequented neighbourhood of Oxford-street, so do the low alleys of Tothill-fields hem in the palaces of Westminster, creeping up to the very walls of the grey old abbey, and dipping down to the rim of the river; while, eastward, the city of merchants is bounded by the wretchedness of Whitechapel on the one hand, and deep behind again by the thickly-inhabited parish of Shoreditch. Wealth cannot wholly seclude itself; to wheresover it moves poverty follows for companionship, for without its dependents it is useless: riches cannot dwell apart, without looking worse than the gold on gold in bad heraldry. The fungus and the lichen cling to the sound gigantic oak, the same as to the trunk of the decayed pollard. True, the wedge has been driven into the rotten heart of the old Rookery of St. Giles's, and New Oxford-street has sprung up from the corruption; but what has become of the inhabitants who battened on the core of the decayed tree? Like a nest of ants, they are turned loose to overrun other neighbourhoods. The new houses and splendid streets which have risen above the old sites of sorrow, misery, and wretchedness, have but driven them from their ancient haunts, and compelled them to seek shelter in other quarters, where the poverty-stricken populace 
        "Most do congregate,"
[-230-] where misery clings to misery for a little warmth, and want and disease lie down side by side, and groan together; where
        "But to think is to he full of sorrow,
        And leaden-eyed despair. -Keats.
Let us look these evils steadily in the face for a moment or two without bleaching. The air which now blows through the open windows of the emblazoned carriage in which the diamonded duchess is seated, a few seconds ago swept over the poisonous avenues of Church-street and Carrier-street, and is laden with odours from the sink and sewerage of St. Giles's. Yes, the self-same breeze which now uplifts those dark ringlets, a minute ago filled the lungs of Wiggins; those parted lips inhaled the poison that arose from the rotten garbage of these streets, the gases arising from the churchyard, and every other smell that is born of death and decay. How essential is it, then, fair lady, for thy own sake, to aid us in cleansing these Augean stables, in purifying these pest-houses of poor humanity. You may build yourself a fine house, my lady, and hem it round with a lofty wall; but you must, while in town, still breathe the poisonous air which they breathe, until these grievous evils are remedied.
    We will enter these streets and peep into those dark, close, tin- healthy, and forbidding-looking rooms. In this narrow alley a dusky twilight reigns throughout the sunny noon of day. We have to feel for the noisome staircases which open on either hand; and now we have found one, we will grope our way through this land of gloom and shadows. What a dead smell floats around us! a close noisome air, such as arises from an overcrowded vault, even more death- smelling than many a vault we have in our day visited. The staircase is encrusted with dirt, a kind of black greasy mud, which has been trampled into toughness, not unlike what covers the City streets after rain or snow in winter; but "that" is "clean" dirt in comparison to this, for here we tread upon old filth, the accumulation, it. may be, of years; for by the side of the staircase, where it is least trodden, it is mildewy and mouldy. The smoke of our cigar is the only wholesome aroma that rises amid these stifling roams. The perfume of flowers could never pierce through the weight of this dense atmosphere, but would fall back again and die amid the petals whence it arose; even the strong sweet-smelling May-blossoms would struggle in vain to disperse the poison of this motionless air.
    Now we have reached the room, we cannot see what forms are before us, so little light streams in through that "dirt-ditched and cobweb-covered casement, which appears as if it were never opened, [-233-] as if they knew that the noisome air was better kept out than in. There is no ventilation, no "thorough-draft" through any of these miserable rooms; the walls are damp through so many breaths, for where the moist air falls there doth it rest, hanging like cold beaded drops on the brow of one who wrestles sternly with death. 
    It must have been many years since these apartments were either painted or whitewashed; a black grey hue pervades every thing, as if the very atmosphere had itself grown dark through hovering here so long and motionless, as if it were compelled to stand and sicken between the stench from below and the black vapours above - the one arising from the foetid cellars, the other hurled down by the rain from the soot-covered roofs-exhalations of the earth earthy - of the sewer sewery - of the filth filthy - poison ever propagating poison - gutters ever generating deadly gases, and creeping into the blood of the inhabitants; and yet strange, in spite of its filth, this neighbourhood was passed over lightly by the "fell destroyer," compared to others which He ravaged during the last dreadful epidemic.
    Behold! the curtain is at last uplifted, and those are living and breathing forms that sit or stand before us, and such - however much we may shun them here - as we shall be doomed to dwell amongst hereafter. That poor girl is tying up her water-cresses in bunches, ready for to-morrow's sale; she has no other place but the floor to lay them on before she puts them into her little basket ready bunched. The green bunches at her feet will be sold and eaten on the morrow by those who never bestow a thought on the filthy floor on which they now lie. In that room they will be kept all night, amid the breathing of above a dozen sleepers. Those cabbages which the man is piling up in the corner are the unsold remainder of to-day's stock; he will strip off the outer leaves in the morning to give them a fresh look: they will also be eaten on the morrow, in spite of the poisonous exhalations they are steeped in. He will sleep beside them all night; the man with the three dogs will share his bed, and perhaps the dogs themselves may find a couch amongst the cabbages. The woman who has just brought in that bundle of filthy rags (too late to be sold to-day in Monmouth-street) is also a lodger, and will no doubt make a pillow of her dirty burden. That pile of shavings, sacking, straw, and rags will be dragged out of the corner when they feel disposed to sleep, and one will lie down here and another there, and for a few hours bury their miseries in forgetfulness. How so many manage to sleep in one apartment, especially in hot weather, is only known to themselves. In the bleak bitterness of the chilling winter we can picture them crowding together for warmth. But we must retreat; for we find a difficulty in breathing, [-234-] and pant like a robin that has flown by mistake into a baker's oven while it was gradually heating.
    Here we are again in the filthy street; for they have no backyards into which to throw their refuse, so must either keep it to putrify and decay in the overheated rooms, or throw it out, and let their neighbours go "share and share alike" in the sights and smells which pervade the uncleansed neighbourhood. True, there is a man employed to clear away the garbage; but, when this is done, they have no water, saving what they beg, and not a drop can they spare to wash down the gutters. Wherever a sunbeam alights, you see it steaming with the filth, and behold the golden ray dimmed with the vapoury and deadly exhalations.
    Yet these poor people are not naturally dirty. From many of the windows you see their tattered garments hanging out to dry, though, from the colour, you have a difficulty in persuading yourself that they have ever been washed, and come to the conclusion that they are only hung there to be aired. The colour is not their fault; such an atmosphere would turn a root of milk-white daisies to the hue of parchment in a month, if it were possible that they could live so long in those breathless and airless alleys, where not a green leaf has grown for years.
    Sometimes little Jack, or his half-clothed sister, when playing about the room (for children play even here), catch the end of the prop on which the rags are suspended, when down comes the whole washing into the gutter; and, unless the poor washerwoman is pretty nimble in looking after them, the first dishonest passerby will be likely enough to pick up the whole wardrobe, and to see what it weighs at the nearest rag-shop. They have not the means of keeping themselves clean; like the Israelites of old, they cannot complete the task without the straw; and in many places what little water there was, has, like other conveniences, been cut off while the new buildings were proceeding. Baths and wash-houses will no doubt in time supply these deficiencies; but until they are opened, we suppose the inhabitants must be left to shift for themselves as they best can, for the "improvements" as they are called have subjected many of the people in this poor neighbourhood to such privations as they never before experienced.
    Let us lift up the flap of this cellar, and see what is going on below; for that gleam of fire, or candlelight, shews that these underground regions are inhabited-that the habits of the ancient Britons are not wholly abandoned, but that the descendants of those old burrowers of hill and rock have but changed the twilight of their dry caverns for the damp and darkness of these sewer-like habitations. Here we behold another human hive busily preparing for dinner, although it is so late in [-235-] the day; for, like our wealthy merchants, they must get through whatever business they may chance to have on hand before they have (the means Or) time to eat. Saw you ever such a medley as is now frizzling in that capacious frying-pan? Parings of a loin of mutton, two beef sausages, a thin rasher of pickled pork, ditto of bacon, the scrag-end of a neck of mutton, a piece of beef-skirt, a small steak, and a kidney. That old fellow with the wooden leg quite enjoys the job of cooking, and has got a jug of water in readiness to make "gravy" for the whole community, who have clubbed towards the contents of the frying-pan. Those who sit on the unboarded and unpaved floor beside the wall, and who look on so wistfully, have nothing to cook - nothing to eat; they paid the last penny or twopence they possessed to be allowed to sleep on the floor of that cellar until morning. When those dinners or suppers are over, the broken table, the bottomless chairs, and old butter-tubs which are used for seats, will be set aside, and the whole of the naked cellar strewn over with straw or shavings, on which they may (if they can)
        "Look round and take their rest.
And right glad will those foodless and moneyless creatures be when all the cooking and eating, in which they cannot become partakers, ceases, and when, amid sound asleep on the unboarded and unpaved floor, some kindly vision may come through the mysterious murmurs of the night, and
        "Cloy the hungry edge of appetite
            By bare imaginations of a feast."
In wet weather the inhabitants of these subterranean dwellings sometimes stand peeping through the open cellar-lights at the feet which pass over the pavement; and, while doing so, their faces are spotted like leopards with the mud. They seem as if they were ever looking at other people's steps instead of taking heed of their own ways. Happy might they be if like the long-tailed field-mouse, they could, in their burrows, store up provisions for the winter, while in summer they nibbled the herbage or fed on the acorns which fell from the broad hoary oak, quenching their thirst at the woodland brook; and, like the old barbarians who first landed on our island shore, have no care, beyond what they should eat and drink, about the morrow. Yet even they have something to be proud of; for they have only to issue out of their black and breathless courts through the breezy thoroughfares which open into Oxford-street, and there the same window, which the dandy shopman in the "white choker and neat black suit "dressed' to allure the wealthier classes, is open for their inspection; and more than one merry laugh have we heard while [-236-] passing by, as some half-drunken Pat pictured his (far-from-sober) Biddy in a long Cashmere shawl and bonnet, plumed with the bird of paradise.
    Sometimes you may see one of the inhabitants halting outside the huckster's shop, and endeavouring to squeeze a penny out of the six- pence (which has to purchase tea, sugar, bread, butter, tobacco, and a candle) for gin; and so accommodating are some of these shopkeepers, that they make halfpenny-worths of every thing they sell, and are ready to cut either a candle or a penny-loaf in two with the same knife.
    We well remember passing through the Rookery of St. Giles's when the work of demolition first commenced; when those who had found no other residence were allowed to remain until the workmen began to pull the houses down. Many of the inhabitants who were then old were born in those tumble-down houses, then doomed to stand no longer. There they had tended the sick couch, and through those dilapidated doorways carried out their dead; smiles and tears had brightened and fallen in those apartments, which to them bore the endearing name of home. We looked up, and through the broken lattices saw the faces of little children-dirty images of innocence- dear to the hearts of their poor mothers. And many houses similar to these are still standing in St. Giles's, with leaning door-posts and windows all awry; some propped up with beams, on which they rest, as if they had a stitch in their sides, and had placed their hands there to relieve the pain. Many of the door-posts are worn smooth and bright, through the idle loungers, who have rubbed and rested against them while smoking and looking out into the streets, hour after hour, and day after day,-men who seem to have no business upon earth, having to smoke and sleep, and when they awake, to smoke and lean against the self-same doorways until it is time to sleep again. On the steps, and on the edges of the pavement, or at the entrance of those unexplored courts, withered old women sit with folded arms scowling at you as you pass, and proclaiming by their looks that you are an intruder. And fortunate may a decently-clad man consider himself if he meets with nothing more serious than black looks while passing through the still dangerous neighbourhood of St. Giles's.
    All are not idle, be it remembered, who frequent such haunts as these; many have seen "better days," and only fell because they possessed not fortitude enough to struggle against unfortunate circumstances. Others had never been taught any trade, and when they lost such situations as ten thousands were capable of taking, they never raised their heads again, although they went many a weary day, week, and month afterwards in quest of employment, returning at [-237-] night to sleep in such dens as we have here described, sick and sad at heart. At length their attire became too shabby for their admission into respectable houses only to ask for employment, and then they sank with a kind of sullen recklessness amid the filth and squalor of St. Giles's, and from that wretched state never emerged again. But these are the exceptions; the majority of the inhabitants are "to the manner born."
    Glancing at the remote past, it was in St. Giles's where the criminal stopped in ancient times, and drank his last draught of ale on his way to Tyburn tree; and about the time when Chaucer died, the gallows was removed from Smithfield into this parish, probably because here it was more frequently needed. In the reign of Charles II. an attempt was made to improve this neighbourhood by a better class of houses, and for years some of the streets wore a look of respectability; then a change took place, and the old primeval dirt and darkness settled down again. Our modern improvers have commenced by rooting out the inhabitants; may we not expect a new St. Giles's to rise up in some other corner of this vast metropolis?

Thomas Miller, Picturesque Sketches of London Past and Present, 1852


... How I would long, in times gone by, to commit them to memory, and set them down on paper. But all these fine notions, like cage-birds escaped, had such a pertinacious habit of flying away, that I devised a trap for them in the form of an exciseman's ink-bottle secured to the buttonhole of my coat by a string - a trap, I may say, fatal to the liberty of any notion which chances to come heedlessly in my way ; for down it goes into my common-place book at once, to be mine forthwith.
    Follow me if you like, but do not interrupt my vagaries. I claim the privilege of looking into as many shop-windows as I please ; of wending my way through as many narrow alleys as I please. Assuredly I shah pass thorough the Seven Dials, for this is just the time of year when beasts, birds, and fishes, to say nothing of snakes, snails, and water-newts, do much abound there, and I like to look at them.
    I hope no improving architect will ever take it into his head to demolish the classic streets round about the Seven Dials. Better far demolish that ugly eyesore Trafalgar Square, and give us something worth looking at in the place of it. What Mr. Jamrach's establishment is in respect of foreign beasts, the St. Giles's menageries are in respect of native ones. Yet the distinction is not so fully maintained but that foreign creatures meet the eye at St. Giles's occasionally. Parrots and parroquets are, I find, the chief exceptions to " borne-raised" creatures, if, indeed, the now long acclimated canary-birds be rated as naturalized citizens, which, all things considered, I am sure they ought to be.
    Here we are in the Seven Dials at last ; here, amidst odds and ends of all sorts, which make one smile at the notion that such incongruous things should ever have come together. There, lying across the fingerboard of a Spanish guitar, is a blunderbuss. Strange association of ideas the two beget, do they not? Yet the Spanish guitar, I have read, has before now, with its little twang, stimulated the courage of warriors on the field of a battle. It is related of them in Menagiana, that when the Portuguese lost a certain battle, name left unmentioned, no less than fourteen thousand guitars were picked up on the field! Small wonder, I think, that soldiers should be beaten who sought their inspirations of martial darling from a band of tinkling guitars. Then see that funny-looking instrument lying next the Spanish guitar. What is it? Observe its shape : very much like a par of bellows. Observe its strings : they are wholly of wire: not of silk and catgut, as is the case with the Spanish guitar. What is it ? The instrument is one celebrated enough in its day as the "English guitar ;" not that its use was restricted to England by any means. It was common enough in France and Italy; in point of fact, it was the guitar of Europe everywhere out of Spain. The English guitar is an insignificant thing, and playing it hurts the fingers. . . .   Fiddles and other musical instruments are thickly scattered about. What are we to infer ? Is the public growing less musical than of yore? or is the public changing old instruments for new ones? Appearances may be consistent with either of these notions. There! of still life this is enough:. the shop-keeper seems to fancy we ought not to, have been looking at his wares so long without purchasing something at last. Let us move on to that other shop, where little birds and beasts arc congregated. Parrots? No, I don't want them to-day. I consider parrots rather out of their place here. St. Giles's, in my estimation, should be held apart for real British produce; such as owls and hedgehogs, larks, thrushes, blackbirds,. rabbits, jackdaws, snails, snakes, and such like.
    On the floor I perceive a small sieve. In it there is a little hay, rubbed soft, and moulded into the form of a nest. Observe that circular fringe of strange-looking woolly heads; terminated each with a hooked beak. Each woolly head I discover to be set on an equally woolly body. Now, I am not a stranger to birds ; they are a sort of weakness of mine ; yet I can't tell what sort of birds those woolly fellows are. "Hawks, sir, hawks," says the master, and sure enough hawks they are; the shape of the beak should have been enough to tell that fact to anybody properly observant. I fancy those hawks will grow up a little tame,. not being so scared at the sight of a human race as all hawks that have come under my observation hitherto. There! see how they gape ! Whatever shyness they may have for mankind hereafter, they have none of it at present. Each of the young accipiters takes the bit of proffered meat from the master, with just the same platter-of fact complacency it might have shown if offered by the hawk mamma. I ask the price. "Eighteen pence each." " Exactly, and a very fair profit too," say I to myself. " Perhaps you gave sixpence for the 'whole nest of hawks ; and if they all grow up, the birds now eighteen-pence each will be about three-and-sixpence each." A very fair profit, my man, think I to myself; but I don't consider more than you deserve, taking all things into consideration. Pigeons and turtle doves are there by dozens, all in good condition. A gay-plumaged starling is a veritable merry-andrew in his way, jumping over his cross-bar, crawling under it, hanging by the feet, going through all sorts of fantastical feats and exercises. Squirrels there are, by dozens too: I wonder people don't make pets of squirrels more frequently. To be successful with these little animals, and tame them completely, they should be procured very young directly from the nest, when possible. Once, when a boy, I had a squirrel so very tame that it would run after me and caper about me, never more happy than when on my shoulder. In cold weather it would like to creep between my boot and the trouser, and there go to sleep. A felonious cat killed my pet at last. Here, indeed, lies one difficulty. With uncaged squirrels they fall a prey to cats. I have had many squirrel pets since, but never one quite so tame ; and when they bite, they do it with a purpose. Their teeth, like those of other rodent or gnawing animals, are chisel-like. Through the thickest leather they go with a clean cut, so that gloves are no protection. Nay, it is surprising to see how easily a squirrel can bite through a thick plank of wood, or even a thin piece of metal, if only it can get a small edge into its mouth to begin upon. That is an indispensable condition ; a squirrel cannot gnaw on a perfectly flat surface : hence the philosophy of binding the edges of a squirrel-cage with metal.
    I once had two squirrels, Dick and Peter by name. They had a round-about cage, into which they might go for their amusement when they pleased, but in which they were never confined. On the contrary, they used to run about my bed-room, just wherever they pleased; so what I am going to relate must have been done for sheer amusement. One morning, waking from my night's rest, I heard a strange grating noise, like that of a rat working on timber. Directing my eyes to the cage of Dick and Peter, I saw the table on which it rested covered with small wood chips, and a hole established in the wooden side of the cage, through which the two squirrels were briskly skipping. Having found out a rough surface on the timber, convenient to begin working upon, they had improved on the occasion, and perforated a hole. Here I may remark, that to be gnawing away hard substances is occasionally more than amusement or mischief either to a rodent animal. Unlike the teeth of you or me, their teeth are continually growing, and if not proportionately worn away by contact with hard bodies, the consequences would be injurious to the animal, perhaps fatal. In the anatomical museum of the Royal College of Surgeons there is a curious specimen, illustrative of what I write. The shill of a rodent animal is seen, in which, owing to the loss of an upper tooth, the corresponding lower tooth has grown, out of all proportion, long, having turned circularly over the animal's upper lip, and (if I truly remember) even begun to perforate the skull. Moral. Let your pet squirrels crack their own nuts, my young squirrel fanciers, and don't, out of any presumed kindness, offer them the kernels. Nut-cracking does them good : their teeth would grow too long else. Give them a fig or a date now and then; they like that sort of food ; but what is strange, they don't like any of the out-of-the-way sort of kernels, such as those of Brazil nuts, almonds, and so forth. Tea leaves they have a great partiality to. My poor Dick was clever enough to lift up the lid of a tea-pot with his paws, and help himself.
    Next to the squirrels I see a cage of guinea-pigs, clean and well-conditioned enough for London and a cage ; but the guinea-pig is an animal which likes to be always nibbling, and that of the very freshest provender. Wherefore, though usually caged, they thrive far better if allowed to run loose on a bit of lawn, which they will save you the trouble of mowing. Attached to the small lawn spot of my back garden I have a guinea-pig, very fat, very industrious, and I should think, as far as a guinea- pig is susceptible of happiness, very happy. Its great delight is to hide away amongst the stalks of my raspberries, emerging now and then to nibble a blade or two of grass, then popping away again. When the weather is hot and dry, my guinea-pig never thinks of going under a roof, but it is funny to notice the trepidtion a shower causes in his little heart. These little animals come from South America. They can neither stand cold nor wet. No sooner does my pig feel the first rain-drops than up he starts, and, uttering a plaintive unquiet noise, he hastens away to the shelter of the coal cellar a place, by the way, which, being of very cleanly habits, he does not much affect. A curious thing in relation to my guinea-pig is the attachment he manifests to one particular spot in the garden. He never wanders farther from the raspberries than is absolutely necessary to the end of finding a meal. Hence it happens that it instead of being allowed to wander at large, he were, like a Guernsey cow, tethered by a rope, he could not eat away the grass-blades more evenly. To his credit, also, I must aver that, notwithstanding all I read in books concerning his fruit-eating propensities, I never yet discovered him to have appropriated to himself as much as a single strawberry.
    Next to the guinea-pigs I recognise some very old acquaintances of mine, hedgehogs. Rough-looking fellows as they seem, hedgehogs have far more intelligence than guinea-pigs. They are capable of forming friendships, which the others are not. Their black-beetle eating habit is well known, and ms led to their being domiciled occasionally in kitchens ; they are terrible snail-eaters, moreover, end would be admirable fellows to have in a garden, were it not for some little drawbacks. They are decidedly fond of strawberries ; I would look over that : but they are on the hunt for earth-worms all the night long, and they rummage the ground so deeply in quest of them, especially near the roots of flowers and plants, that the good done by them is, I fear, more than compensated by the harm.
    Wanderer! you and I must linger no longer amongst the menageries of the Seven Dials?at least not to-day. Nor matters that much; for we can return and jot down in the pages of our note-book certain other notabilia of this classic region. Going no farther than our present shop I see some fine aquariums, fresh-water and marine. The old clothes shops also merit the spilling of a little ink in their behalf; but for the time present it is almost enough. Let us not leave the bird and beast shop, however, without making our politest bow to the manager. He must have enough to do to consult so many. tastes ; and no one who regards his pets can doubt the excellence of the commissariat. Even the snails, at which those noisy thrushes lick their lips and look so knowing, even they are fat and in good condition.
    On reaching the door, my thoughts are turned to another channel, by over-hearing at my side a dialogue, which recals me to the stern facts of this work-a-day world. A kind, active-looking lady, whom I take to be a district-visitor, is telling a city missionary that " Thomas, poor fellow, is worse to-day," and that he had better look in upon him. The Seven Dials, I need not say, is one of those regions of poverty where such ministrations are much needed. I thought to myself that, while the pursuits of the naturalist or the philosopher are good, and pleasant in their way, they are in dignity and usefulness far below the humble labours of benevolence and charity?humble,. that is to say, in man's view, but honourable and great in the sight of Heaven. "God bless them!" I said, as these ministers of mercy passed on to their holy work. " God bless them and their work," let my readers also say, and help it on as they have opportunity.  

The Leisure Hour, 1859

see also David Bartlett in London by Day and Night - click here

see also George Sala in Twice Round the Clock - click here

see also James Greenwood in Low-Life Deeps - click here

see also Thomson & Smith on second-hand clothes in St. Giles - click here

see also Thomson & Smith on 'The "Crawlers"' - click here

Seven Dials,?This locality is celebrated as the heart of one of the poorest districts in London.
Of late years various improvements have been made in the neighbourhood, and the Dials are now traversed by omnibuses, and have made considerable progress towards civilisation. The locality is still a singular one, and as it lies in close proximity to the West-end, it can be easily visited by those curious to see the inner life of London. The readiest approach to it is from St. Martin?s-lane, crossing between Cranborne-street and Long-acre. Turning up northwards here, the stranger finds himself in a street altogether unique in its way. It is the abode of bird-fanciers. Every variety of pigeon, fowl, and rabbit can be found here, together with rare birds, such as hawks and owls, parrots, love-birds, and other species native and foreign. Then is a shop for specimens for aquaria, with its tanks of water-beetles, newts, water-spiders, and other aquatic creatures. Others are devoted to British song-birds, larks, thrushes bull-finches, starlings, blackbirds, &c.
Here and there are shops filled with cages of all kinds and sorts, and one or two dog-fanciers have also settled here. Passing through this lane we are in the Dials, a point where seven streets meet. If it is desired to see poor London it is better not to go straight on, to turn up any of the side streets. Here poverty is to be seen in its most painful features. The shops sell nothing but second or third hand articles?old dresses, old clothes, old hats, and at the top of the stairs of little underground cellars, old shoes, so patched and mended that it is questionable whether one particle of the original material remains in them. These streets swarm with children of all ages, engaged in any kind of game which childhood is capable of enjoying without the addition of expensive apparatus. Tip-cat, battledore and shuttlecock, are great favourites about the Dials, and the passer-by must guard his face or take the consequences. Children sit on door-steps and on the pavement, they play in the gutter, they chase each other in the road ,and dodge in and out of houses. It is evident that the School Board has not much power in the neighbourhood of the Dials. Public-houses abound, and it is evident that whatever there may be a lack of in the Dials there is no lack of money to pay for drink. At night the public-houses are ablaze with light, and on Saturday evenings there is a great sound of shouting and singing through the windows, while the women stand outside and wait hoping against hope that their husband, will come out before the week?s money is all spent. Nowhere within reach of the West-end of London can such a glimpse of the life of the poorer classes be obtained as on a Saturday evening at the Dials.

Charles Dickens (Jr.), Dickens's Dictionary of London, 1879

Old and New London, c.1880

see also D. Rice-Jones in In the Slums - click here

    The Clock House on the Dials, now an apparently well-conducted pot-house, was in those days a hotbed of villainy. The king of pickpockets there held his nightly levee, and the half-dozen constables within view would no more have thought of entering it than they would the cage of a cobra.
    If a man lost a dog, the reward was offered there; if one's watch disappeared, it was there that immediate application was desirable; and if the emissary was not "saucy" he might with luck save it from the melting-pot that simmered all day and all night within fifty feet of Aldridge's horse repository.
    The walk through the Dials after dark was an act none but a lunatic would have attempted, and the betting that he ever emerged with his shirt was 1,000 to 60. A swaggering ass named Corrigan, whose personal bravery was not assessed as highly by the public, once undertook for a wager to walk the entire length of Great Andrew Street at midnight, and if molested to annihilate his assailants.
    The half-dozen doubters who awaited his advent in the Broadway were suprised about 1 a.m. to see him running as fast as he could put legs to the ground, with only the remnant of a shirt on him; after recovering his breath and his courage he proceeded to describe the terrific slaughter he has inflicted on an innumerable number of assailants.

'One of the Old Brigade' (Donald Shaw), London in the Sixties, 1908

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Seven Dials, c. 1890s

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 - Seven Dials

Seven Dials


Seven Dials, a very well-known part of St. Giles's, is so called because in the seventeenth century seven roads were laid out at equal angles from a given point, where stood a Doric pillar, furnished with dials. But the dials have long since disappeared, and the pillar supporting them has been removed to Weybridge. The seven streets, however, remain. Not long ago Seven Dials had no high reputation, and the district was regarded as unsafe at night but now it has greatly improved. It is still a favourite locality for dog and bird fanciers and purveyors of gold fish-and fried fish. Our view, taken from Little Earl Street, exhibits a familiar sight - an open-air market, attended by dwellers in the surrounding streets and courts.