Today (October 5) in London History – “wild prodigies of wickedness”

The famous Seven Dials obelisk went up on October 5th, 1694. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

The great thing about London is that nothing adds up. It’s like a shell game. The pea isn’t under the thimble you think it is. What you see isn’t what you expect to see. The classic example is the Thames. You’re standing in Victoria Tower Gardens looking across the river that’s south London over there on the other side of Lambeth Bridge. Everybody knows that. So you’re standing on the north side of the river. So east, well, that’s the direction in which the river’s flowing. Downstream. To your left. And west is upstream. To your right. Now let’s say it’s late afternoon. Where’s the sun setting? Oops, it’s setting behind you. The sun sets in the west. You’re not on the north side of the river, you’re on the west side. You’re not looking across the Thames at south London. You’re looking across the Thames at east London. It’s a great party trick. Tell people you’re standing in those gardens beside Parliament and ask them, where are you standing compass-point-wise? They’ll be wonderfully condescending. “You are a bumpkin, don’t be daft, you’re on the north side of the Thames – what were you born yesterday?” And then you spring it on them. The reason of course is that the Thames is swinging through an enormous bend right there and at that point, London’s river, which basically flows west-to-east, is flowing due north. Making Victoria Gardens the west side of the river. More food for thought in that same vein, you take a train from Waterloo Station running parallel with the river towards Vauxhall all four faces of Big Ben – North, South, East, West will come into view in sequence. 

There you see, you’ve already learned something.

But anyway, the general point is the place is wonderfully disorienting. Keeps you on your toes. Is full of surprises.

And that brings us to this day in London History. October 5th, 1694. The Obelisk in Seven Dials is brand new. Everybody knows that English Literature’s great diarist was Samuel Pepys. But if you want to advance from kindergarten to first grade in your London studies, you better get across the fact that 17th century London produced another great diarist: John Evelyn. And John Evelyn was like a hawk. If something new came to London John Evelyn was across it. So on October 5th, 1694 John Evelyn records in his diary “I went to see the building beginning near St Giles’s, where seven streets make a star from a Doric pillar placed in the middle of a circular area.”

Now here’s the thing – here’s the London pea-and-thimble trick, the area’s called Seven Dials, you got seven streets radiating out like points of a star from the hub where they meet, so naturally you’re going to have an obelisk with seven faces. Right? What could be more obvious than that? Well, fine maybe for a predictable, ho-hum places like New York or Paris or Milton Keynes, where things make sense, but this is London. This place is a shell game. So sure enough, the obelisk only has six faces. You’ve just been London’d. But don’t despair. It’s no bad thing.

And if you want to know the reason,  the original 1691 plan for the development of the area showed only six streets radiating. The obelisk was built with that plan in mind. And of course in that quintessentially London way of muddling through and making it up as they go along, a seventh street came along as an afterthought. 

As for the original obelisk, the one Evelyn saw, it came down in 1733 and was removed to Weybridge. I always feel for those bits of London – famously London Bridge of course – that have been uprooted and exiled. Do they get homesick?

The original stone blocks though are still there. They were used as a horse block. You know, a step up to help you get into the saddle. The obelisk we’ve got today went up in 1989 and, yes, it has just six faces. Tradition… as Tevye, the Fiddler on the Roof, puts it. Tradition rules in London. Teams nicely with illogicality.

But as long as we’re there – at Seven Dials – let’s do a little bit with the area.

Maybe begin – this is what you of course should from me, David, maybe begin by saying Dickens was haunted by Seven Dials. It was, in the words, of Dickens specialist Elisabeth James, “a notoriously unsavoury maze of narrow passages lined with gin shops and dingy straggling houses teeming with squalid, half-naked children.” Or as Dickens himself put it, “Good heavens. What wild visions of prodigies of wickedness, want and beggary arose in my mind out of that place.”

Love that phrase, “prodigies of wickedness.” Well, that’s Dickens. That’s the 19th century. Let’s do a core sample. Let’s drill down deeper.

The 18th century first. 1751 to be exact. William Hogarth’s famous print, Gin Lane. It’s set in that terrible slum, St Giles.

Here’s art historian Alastair Sooke’s description of what Hogarth shows us.

Gin Lane thrusts us into the abyss of the slum of St Giles north of Covent Garden, where alcoholic mothers pour gin into the mouths of their offspring. The central figure, a crazed, half-naked prostitute with syphilitic sores on her legs, is oblivious of her baby tumbling to its death.

Elsewhere, destitute gin drinkers are reduced to a brutal, feral existence. A carpenter and a housewife wearing ragged clothes desperately pawn their tools and pots and pans in order to fund their habit. Behind the parapet, a boy competes with a dog to gnaw on a bone. The cadaverous ballad-singer slumped in the foreground is in a woeful state of ill health. His black dog symbolises despair.

Meanwhile, in the background, actual corpses are visible – including the hanged barber in the upper storey of a partially ruined house. In this section we are confronted by a frenzied crowd of drunkards, cavorting and causing havoc: one lunatic clutching a pair of bellows to his head even dances a jig while waving a spike upon which a baby has been impaled – a figment from a nightmare. This is a gin-fuelled, topsy-turvy world of mob rule, precipitating the breakdown of society in general – symbolised by the collapsing building at the far end of the miserable vista.

Drill down still further. Wave to John Evelyn in 1694 as we go by him. And we pull up in 1665. The year of the Great Plague. And sure enough, the plague first touched down in St. Giles. The first plague victims were denizens of St. Giles.

And then you’ve got the church itself – St. Giles was the patron St of lepers. 

Well, so far I’ve just been working secondary sources. To finish, how about a couple of primary sources. I went to the Times, the oldest continuously running newspaper in this country. It got started in 1785. The first sightings we get of St Giles in The Times are almost as old as The Times itself. And they are not a pretty picture.

My favourite, The Times, in 1820 described Monmouth Street – it’s really the main street, runs north-south right through the Obelisk – The Times described Monmouth Street as “the object of more sneers than any other street in London.”

Today the street is nothing but extremely upmarket boutiques and jewellers and fashion shops and la di dah private art galleries and cafes and chocolatiers and one of the swishest and most expensive five-star hotels in London. The mischief maker in me would love to see the reaction of some of those business owner’s faces if you said to them, “nice place you’ve got here, old chap, but it must be a worry the Times describing the street you’re on as ‘the object of more sneers than any other street in London.’”

But we can go further back than 1820. The Times got going in January 1785. The very first reference to Seven Dials pitches up a month later. Here’s that very first reference: Wednesday night, between the hours of ten and eleven, Mr Dignam, of Earl Street, Seven Dials, was knocked down and robbed by two footpads in King Street, Seven Dials, of eight guineas in gold besides some silver.

And from there on out, that sort of thing is ninety-nine per cent of the news coming out of the Seven Dials. That’s what Dickens meant by prodigies of wickedness.

Another example or two, in 1788, I’m quoting now, “yesterday morning, as a clergyman was passing by the Seven Dials, he stopped to see a man in the pillory, and had one of his pockets picked of what money it contained, without knowing of the robbery till after he had quitted the spot.”

Or in 1803 two St Giles’ watchmen – the men supposed to be upholding the law – convicted of being disorderly. 

Or this from 1805. The sentencing of a young 24-year-old woman. A resident of St. Giles’s. In the words of The Times, ’The jury at first found her Guilty of stealing to the value of 39 shillings.” 39 shillings got her in just under the wire. As The Times put it,”the value of 39 shillings would have saved the capital issue of the indictment. But the court observed, the Prosecutor had sworn to above four pounds value. The Jury re-considered their verdict, and returned a general verdict – Guilty – Death.  The poor girl. Her name was Mary Johnson. She lived in King Street. She was found guilty of stealing a neckerchief and three yards of linen. On being asked by the prisoner’s Counsel how he could swear so positively to this linen, he answered it was part of a piece of his mother’s webb, sent him from Scotland, and that he had for many years worn no other than his mother’s linen. Mary Robinson, in her defence, said, that she too had a mother in Scotland, who sent her linen, and that this was part of it.”

Poor Mary Robinson. 24 years old. Hanged. That’s done it for me. I shan’t ever walk down King Street without murmuring a prayer for Mary Robinson.

A final point. Seven Dials was what you’d call a behavioural sink. The term comes from looking at the behaviour of rats who are too many for the area they’re crowded into. What happens is two rats will become dominant and they’ll take control of about 90 per cent of the area. The other rats are confined to the remaining 10 per cent. Whereupon their behaviour sinks, deteriorates, degenerates. There’s all kinds of mayhem, there’s fighting, there’s cannibalism. Overcrowded, unsanitary, desperately poor, St Giles was a behavioural sink.

And for a Today in London recommendation. Well, let’s ascend. Like a diver let’s come up from the depths of the behavioural sink. Maybe visit one of the little art galleries in the neighbourhood. Unit 6 for example. Or The Hook. And then treat ourselves at one of the swish cafes in the area.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *