Monday, May 31, 2010

“Seven Dials – This locality is celebrated as the heart of one of the poorest districts in London. Of late years various improvements have been made in the neighbourhood and the Dials are now traversed by omnibuses and have made considerable progress towards civilisation. But the locality is still a singular one, and as it lies in close proximity to the West End can be easily visited by those curious to see one of the seamier sides of the inner life of London. The readiest approach to it is from St. Martin’s Lane, crossing between Cranbourne Street and Long Acre. Turning up northwards here the stranger finds himself in a street altogether unique in its way. It is the abode of bird fanciers. Every variety of pigeon fowl and rabbit (rabbit?) can be found here, together with hawks and owls, parrots, love birds and other species native and foreign. There is a shop for specimens for the aquarium with tanks of water beetles, newts, water spiders and other aquatic creatures. Others are devoted to British song birds, larks, thrushes, bull finches, starlings, blackbirds etcetera. Here and there are shops filled with cages of every kind and one or two dog fanciers have also settled there. Passing through this lane we are in the Dials, a point where seven streets meet. If it be desired to see poor London it is better not to go straight on but to turn up any of the side streets. Here poverty is to be seen in its most painful aspects. The shops sell nothing but second or third hand articles – old dresses, old coats, old hats and at the top of the stairs of little underground cellars, old shoes, so patched and mended that it is questionable whether one particle of the original material remains in them. These streets swarm with children of all ages engaged in every type of game without the addition of expensive apparatus. Children sit on doorsteps, they play in the gutter, they chase each other in the road and dodge in and out of houses. It is evident that the School Board has not much power in the neighbourhood of the Dials. Public houses abound and it is clear that whatever there may be a lack of in this territory of St. Giles, there is no lack of money to pay for drink. At night the public houses are ablaze with light and on Saturday evenings there is a great sound of singing and shouting through the windows while the women stand outside and wait, hoping against hope that their husbands will come out before the week’s money is all spent. Nowhere within reach of the West End of London can such a glimpse of the life of the poorer classes be obtained as on a Saturday evening at the Dials.”
I note Mister Dickens refrains from mentioning that the seven Dials always had a reputation as a hotbed of criminality. Maybe he didn’t want to put off those more fortunate who came to ogle the poor. I did find it fascinating though.

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