Seven Dials, in the parish of St Giles-in-the-Fields, is one of the oddest and most interesting parts of London. Tucked away between Covent Garden to the south and Bloomsbury to the north, it miraculously escaped wholesale redevelopment in the 1960s and now bears only a few scars from that unenlightened period.
The name Seven Dials comes from the place, in the southern part of the district, where seven small streets meet to form a star. The obelisk at the centre of the star where the seven streets meet is a modern replacement, but from here narrow streets of the 18th century and one or two earlier houses radiate towards Covent Garden, Charing Cross Road, Shaftsbury Avenue and Long Acre. There is still a small market here every weekday, which has been here for more than a century. Charles Dickens (1812-70) called the area Tom-All-Alone’s in his novel Bleak House, and something of the atmosphere Dickens must have known still lingers.
The old road to Oxford (now Oxford Street) runs along what is now the northern extremity of the district, and it passes close by the parish church of St Giles, patron saint of lepers. For centuries church officials paid for a last drink at the Resurrection Gate inn for the condemned who passed the church and pub as they took their journey by cart from Newgate Prison in the east to the gallow at Tyburn (now Marble Arch) in the west.
The inn (rebuilt in the 19th century and renamed the Angel Inn) still stands next to St Giles Church. This was completed in 1712 after the earlier church began to collapse. St Giles is one of a tiny number of London churches that escaped Victorian ‘improvements’ and bombing in the Second World War.
The plague of 1665, probably the worst outbreak in the whole of history of that terrible disease, began in this area. By the 18th century, when William Hogarth (1697-1764) depicted the area in his famous engraving Gin Lane, this was a place avoided by anyone the least bit respectable. It was also considered beyond the reach of the authorities.
Gin shops abound, and poverty and desperation made the inhabitants widely feared. If a criminal from the area was being taken from Newgate to Tyburn, extra soldiers were often drafted in to guard him because, as likely as not, his friends would mount a rescue operation as he stopped for his last drink at the Resurrection Gate; and once he’d been carried off into the Rookeries, as Seven Dials was then known – the name deriving from all the tiny rooms filled with families, likes a rooks’ nest – he would never be found.