Dudley Street, Seven Dials by Gustave Doré from Douglas Jerrold's London, a Pilgrimage (1872). [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Seven Dials, the British equivalent of Paris's St. Antoine

. . . where misery clings to misery for a little warmth, and want and disease lie down side-by-side, and groan together. — John Keats on Seven Dials.

The notorious warren known as "The Seven Dials" was a breeding ground of vice, disease, and crime at the junction of seven roads in the area of Covent Garden. Thomas Neale, a Member of Parliament and real estate developer, originally laid out the area in the early 1690s. He intended the Seven Dials to be a fashionable address, in much the same manner as Place Vaugeois (originally, Place Henri IV) in Paris, but the housing development deteriorated quickly into an Anglo-Irish slum. The only revenant of Neale's original intention is the neoclassical Sundial Pillar erected in 1693-94, designed by architect Edward Pierce as the centrepiece for the conjunction of the streets, with six sundial faces, the seventh 'style' being the column itself. In the early nineteenth century, the availability of cheap lodgings caused an influx of poor Irish labourers, who patronised a legion of gin-shops in the vicinity, an area celebrated in a comic song by Moncrieff. Even poor wine is expensive for the working poor in the Defarges' Wine Shop in Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, rendering the suburb of St. Antoine a breeding ground for vice and revolution. In contrast, the cheap gin of London seems to act as a soporific, encouraging petty crime but nullifying the possibility of the concerted action necessary for a revolution.

The Irish had settled here from Elizabethan times. And by the beginning of the nineteenth century, St. Giles became the dirtiest slum of London with a lot of the Irish living in filth and poverty, and it was often called 'little Dublin'. By the time Dickens wrote Sketches by Boz, Seven Dials was no longer a place for pardonable merry-making of old England, but a noisy, riotous place where the Irish either idled about the gin-shops, or scolded, drank, squabbled, fought and swore on the street. — Takao Sajjo.

Left: Seven Dials. George Cruikshank. 1839. Right: Seven Dials. Sol Eytinge, Jr. 1867 [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Dickens on brawling women in Seven Dials

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 dénouement." — "Scenes," Chapter 5, "Seven Dials," p. 51-52.

The original Seven Dials column. Jacqueline Banerjee, who took this photograph, explains that the original monument there was removed in 1773 and placed at a grassy junction in Weybridge. It was not until 1989 that a replica of it was erected in Seven Dials, so neither Dickens nor Cruikshank would have known it in its London setting.

Michael Slater notes that this "comic reportage" (53) of is one Dickens's earliest Tibb's-narrated accounts of life on the London streets, from Bell's Life in London for 27 September 1835 as "Scenes and Characters No. 1." The "all-female brawl" has not yet fully broken out, but the verbal sparring (centre) is a humorous prologue to a scene that might result in something more disturbing — and, indeed, the adherents on either side have already begun to pull each other's hair (left) as four men look casually upon the scene, regarding the altercation as essentially funny, while the two children (lower left) are genuinely concerned that their mother is not faring well. In contrast to the crude, bellicose posturing of "Mary" and "Sarah" in the irregular square resulting from the conjunction of two alleyways are the twin gas-lamps and the ornate cornice with a lyre motif, producing a harmonious neoclassical architectural setting for the rowdy "hussies." "Belzoni-like" (that is, like the Egyptian explorer and professional raconteur Giovanni Battista Belzoni , 1778-1823) we are positioned by Cruikshank so as to view the entire fray objectively, seeing both adversaries and their adherents equally, but perhaps siding with the commentator carrying two loads of pots. Even though the name "Belzoni" conjures up an exotic setting far away on the desert sands (the explorer of Egyptian antiquities was the first to penetrate into the second pyramid of Giza), the picture opposite prepares the reader for a confrontation in a section of the metropolis utterly foreign to Dickens's middle-class readers, so that the picture does not merely prepare the reader for the brawl; it also undercuts the classical allusion of "The Gordian knot" (51), the historical allusion to "the maze at Hampton Court" and the topical allusion of "the maze at the Beulah Spa" which opened in August 1831, its neoclassical gardens having been laid out by Decimus Burton, the noted architect, who also designed the Spa House and The Lodge. The erudite allusions appealing to the well-informed and well-educated reader who is about to penetrate the mysteries of the Dials contribute to the narrator's sophisticated tone and verbal posturing, which the brawling Irish women sharply undercut simultaneously (the text on page 51, right, and the contrasting Cruikshank image, left). The two alleyway entrances on either side of the open door (centre rear) imply a certain theatricality or staged quality to the scene, as if the reader is watching the action unfold on stage, in a "real-life" drama whose principals are neither aristocrats nor bourgeoisie; although representative of the lowest elements of London society, Dickens and Cruikshank render them worthy of our attention.

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Bibliography

Ackroyd, Peter. Dickens: A Biography. London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1990.

Bentley, Nicolas, Michael Slater, and Nina Burgis. The Dickens Index. New York and Oxford: Oxford U. P., 1990.

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Dickens, Charles. "Scenes," Chapter 5, "Seven Dials." Christmas Books and Sketches by Boz, Illustrative of Every-day Life and Every-day People. Illustrated by Sol Eytinge, Jr. The Diamond Edition. Boston: James R. Osgood, 1875 [rpt. of 1867 Ticknor & Fields edition]. Pp. 267-269.

Dickens, Charles. "Seven Dials," Chapter 5 in "Scenes," Sketches by Boz. Illustrated by Fred Barnard. The Household Edition. London: Chapman and Hall, 1876. Pp. 32-34.

Dickens, Charles. "Seven Dials," Chapter 5 in "Scenes," Sketches by Boz. Illustrated by Harry Furniss. The Charles Dickens Library Edition. London: Educational Book Company, 1910. Vol. 1. Pp. 65-69.

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Hawksley, Lucinda Dickens. Chapter 3, "Sketches by Boz." Dickens Bicentenary 1812-2012: Charles Dickens. San Rafael, California: Insight, 2011. Pp. 12-15.

"On the Geography of Seven Dials." Punch, Jan.-June, 1842, quoted by Lee Jackson in Dirty Old London. New Haven: Yale UP, 2014. Accessed 23 April 2017. http://www.victorianlondon.org/districts/sevendials.htm

Slater, Michael. Charles Dickens: A Life Defined by Writing. New Haven and London: Yale U. P., 2009.

Sajjo, Takao. "T. W. Hill and ‘Tom King and the Frenchman'." Accessed 23 April 2017. www.dickens.jp/archive/sb/sb-saijo.pdf

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Last modified 11 May 2017