Back then, the area was mainly residential, although there was a large brewery nearby.
Seven Dials was built in the early 1690s. It was intended as an affluent residential district, but the development of the new West End in the eighteenth century left it passed by. People wanted the fine squares and wider carriage roads of areas like Cavendish Square (which started development in 1717). Seven Dials, with its narrow streets and triangular road layout (designed to maximise the residential space while minimising taxes associated with frontage onto the road), was just not fashionable enough to attract the kind of tenants the developers had hoped for.
Seven Dials fell into decay, abandoned to squatters. The once-fine houses were taken over by the lowest class of people who could find nowhere else to live. The area became a slum, known in those days as a "rookery".
The first time I ever saw a reference to Seven Dials was in Disraeli’sSybil, in which the heroine is rescued from a mob there. It is depicted as a place of utter lawlessness. Reading about it in other works of fiction and non-fiction, different people seem to describe it very differently. To some, it is just a noisome slum, to others an unspeakably vile place. Williamson’s version veers towards the negative, but his Seven Dials is by no means the worst you can find in literature. Dickens and Mayhew both wrote about the area. Neither, it is fair to say, were impressed.
Here's my take on what the place was probably like. Here, John Williamson, our narrator, is seeing it for the first time.
I suppose the first thing to remark was the stench. The density of humanity crammed together in London means that there is inevitably some olfactory evidence of the crowds of people inhabiting every street. Unfortunately, the development of a system for the removal of effluvia below ground has not kept pace with building work at street level and above. For anyone who has spent time in the East, the sanitary arrangements in London seem remarkably civilised, although the great men of the city are always demanding that ‘something should be done’ to improve things. At Seven Dials, however, matters had reached a completely different level. As the landlords had abandoned their properties, it seems likely that there were no arrangements for sewerage at all. Even where I stood, I could see, looking at the roads to my left, that the streets themselves were being used to carry human waste away from the buildings. I have remarked on it being an unusually warm summer. Presumably cold, wet weather brought its own problems, but it’s certain that dry, warm days accentuated the foul smell wafting from this slum. The broken windows and battered doors – some seemingly no longer attached to their frames – provided visual confirmation of what my nose had already told me. These were no longer houses or homes – they were mere hovels in which the dregs of society subsisted.
That people did subsist there was all too obvious. At the end of the road where I was standing, there was hardly anyone about, but looking down toward the centre of the rookery I saw, it seemed, hundreds of figures. Many were huddled on the pavement, apparently oblivious of the filth around them. Some were lying – whether sleeping or dead I had no idea – while children skipped over their bodies as they ran in and out of the doorways. I can not say what it was about those children that repelled me. It should have been a sight of happy innocence – I could even hear occasional laughter – but there was something about the way they moved that was utterly malevolent.
I do not know how long I stored looking down that street. I think that my sudden exposure to the reality of Seven Dials was so overwhelming that I could not think sensibly for a while. Certainly there was no question now of my visiting Queen Street that afternoon.
I was suddenly aware of somebody approaching me. I was by now so nervous that I turned on my heel ready to strike out to defend myself. Just in time, I recognised the reassuring uniform of a Metropolitan policeman.
‘You weren’t thinking of going down there, were you?’ He nodded his head in the direction I had been staring.
I assured him that I was not.
‘Best be off than,’ he said. His attitude did not seem unkindly. He nodded his head again, this time in the direction of George Street, which ran North. ‘I’d head up that way, sir, if I were you.’
I mumbled my thanks and set off back toward Oxford Street and civilisation.
Nowadays, it's a smart shopping and entertainment area. I'm a regular visitor to the Seven Dials Club, one of the few places in London where you can dance tango to live music every week.
People there tell me about the warehouses that dominated the area in the 20th century. Apparently the club where I dance was once a paper warehouse and there was a printers nearby. The brewery has long gone, replaced in part with another dance studio. The musical, Matilda, plays in a theatre at the end of the road and the area is full of coffee houses and smart restaurants. John Williamson would not recognise it. But at night, when the rain glistens on the cobbles, you can still imagine what it must have been like 150 years ago: a world of costermongers and crooks, beggars and whores, confidence men and forgers. That's the world that Back Home is set in.
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Back Home has had astonishingly good reviews (like THIS ONE and THIS ONE). It's available on Kindle for £2.82/$3.99 or in paperback for £9.99/$15.99. This link should take you straight to it: mybook.to/BackHome