The rise and fall... And rise again of Seven Dials
Seven Dials has a remarkable layout with a central monument and streets passing through like spokes in a wheel. However, there is also a remarkable story to be told of its mercurial founder and the area's 300-year struggle for survival.
Seven Dials lies in the heart of London's West End sandwiched between Soho and Covent Garden. Seven Dials is the knowing, hip and streetwise teenager; Soho is the hedonistic party-animal and Covent Garden, of course, is for the cultured, filthy rich, opera-going aristocrats.
But it hasn't always been this way. And the story, going back to the 17th Century, begins with one extraordinary man.
Thomas Neale (1641-1699) led the sort of life that defies easy characterisation. At various points in his life he was the Master of the Mint, an MP, initiated the first ever lottery in England, was the Groom Porter, thereby controlling access to the Monarch, and an entrepreneur whose ventures included a new method of raising shipwrecks.
He also found the time to gamble - both literally and speculatively - away a couple of fortunes, and to marry one of the richest widows in the England. He was, in short, one of the most influential figures of his time.
In 1690, as a reward for raising vast sums of money for the Crown, Thomas Neale was given one of the last remaining undeveloped patches of land in central London. Neale's vision was to establish one of the most stylish areas in the capital.
The street layout remains unchanged to this day
The street plan
Neale submitted a planning application to the Surveyor General, Sir Christopher Wren, featuring an innovative star-shaped street pattern, shunning the grand public squares that were fashionable at the time. The planning application showed six streets, a church and a sundial pillar in the centre.
It is the unusual inter-crossing streets that give Seven Dials much of its character and beauty. However, Thomas Neale's motivation behind the design was not aesthetic, but financial.
In Neale's time, commercial rent was based on the width of the shop front; The wider the shop front, the higher the rent. Ingeniously, Neale knew that he could make more money from his unconventional street layout because it would allow him to have more and wider shop fronts.
Over the following years, as the development progressed in the early 1690s, Neale would drop the plans for the Church and, cunningly, even insert an extra street to make it seven.
"The worst kind of property developer! That's what he was like," says David Bieda, of the Seven Dials Trust and a local historian who was also a Seven Dials resident for some 15 years.
Despite Thomas Neale's best laid plans, the area never did become the smartest address for London’s rapidly expanding middle classes. On the contrary, things started going wrong almost immediately.
"It went downhill partly because Neale didn't have any heirs and partly because of the way the leases were drawn up, the houses became sub-divided and they turned into an enormous slum," explains David Bieda.
The greatest symbol of Seven Dials was the sundial pillar, with its six faces to reflect the original planning application of six streets. When that was demolished in June 1773, it also became symbolic of the area's demise.
"All the books on London say the Monument was knocked down by the mob looking for buried gold," says David Bieda, "But I went to the British Library to look at newspapers from the period and found it was knocked down because the mob used to meet there and it had become one of the most violent streets in London."
Seven Dials had become a rundown area largely populated by immigrants, rather than the businessmen and traders that Thomas Neale had originally envisioned.
It would not be until the latter part of the 20th Century that action would be taken to give new life to Seven Dials.
In 1974, it was declared a Conservation Area: Its unique design and original streets – and some buildings from the 1690s – made it one of the most richly historical areas of London. Today, over 25 per cent of its buildings are listed.
David Bieda has been at the vanguard of much of the conservation work, forming a Housing Action Area Committee and later on the Seven Dials Trust.
"When we started this area was derelict; 90 per cent of the housing had been empty for more than 40 years. Some of the buildings hadn't been done up for about 150 years. We encouraged social and private housing and the population went up by about five times."
The Sundial Monument
With a residential population of approximately 1,500 people and growing, it meant that work could be made on restoring the area.
Over the years, a petrol station was removed; some of the streets repainted and even bespoke lanterns installed.
Plans are currently afoot to restore Earlham Street market and other areas in Seven Dials.
Perhaps most significantly, money was raised to resurrect the sundial pillar in 1989.
It was grandly unveiled by Queen Beatrix of Netherlands during her visit to commemorate the 300th anniversary of William III.
However, the battle for Seven Dials was not over yet. A significant chunk of the area was bought by a property company who proposed knocking down several buildings, half of Monmouth Street and half of Earlham Street.
The proposal had the support of Camden Officers and English Heritage, but was only defeated following a public inquiry and opposition led by David Bieda and his colleagues on the Seven Dials Trust.
Had the demolition gone ahead, says David, 'it would have been the end of this area.'
Over the last 13 years, Seven Dials has become the preserve of Shaftesbury, a property investment company who also has interests in nearby China Town, Covent Garden and Carnaby Street.
They have been much more sympathetic to the history of Seven Dials, working closely with David Bieda and even donating money towards planned restoration works.
"I don't know anywhere else, community-wise, that is like this," says Donna Lambert of Shaftesbury. "It has got a very 'villagey' feel so we try to keep the mix right. It's a nice place to just fumble around and discover things. It's very pretty as well."
Seven Dials is now home to around 200 businesses, two-thirds of which are independently owned, including theatres, offices, restaurants, bars and a plethora of shops.
"We don't want any mainstream brands. We want more kooky brands, something that offers the consumers a unique product that they are not going to get anywhere else. So the retail strategy is quite intense," explains Donna.
A magical place
So it would seem that Seven Dials is finally in safe hands.
"If I take people for a walk around the West End," says David Bieda, "They always comment that Seven Dials looks different and feels different."
One evening in the early 90s, when David was still living in Seven Dials, he was walking past the sundial monument at about 3am horrified to see a bunch of teenagers dancing around it.
"I was very protective of it because it cost about £500,000 and it was a nightmare getting it built. I went up to them asked 'what are you doing?'
They said 'We're laying flowers because it is such a magical place.'
"That kept me quiet," chuckles David.
And maybe, somewhere, Thomas Neale is raising a smile as well.
last updated: 03/09/2008 at 11:34