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Chapter 5

SEVEN DIALS

We have always been of opinion that if Tom King and the Frenchman
had not immortalised Seven Dials, Seven Dials would have
immortalised itself. Seven Dials! the region of song and poetry--
first effusions, and last dying speeches: hallowed by the names of
Catnach and of Pitts--names that will entwine themselves with
costermongers, and barrel-organs, when penny magazines shall have
superseded penny yards of song, and capital punishment be unknown!

Look at the construction of the place. The Gordian knot was all
very well in its way: so was the maze of Hampton Court: so is the
maze at the Beulah Spa: so were the ties of stiff white
neckcloths, when the difficulty of getting one on, was only to be
equalled by the apparent impossibility of ever getting it off
again. But what involutions can compare with those of Seven Dials?
Where is there such another maze of streets, courts, lanes, and
alleys? Where such a pure mixture of Englishmen and Irishmen, as
in this complicated part of London? We boldly aver that we doubt
the veracity of the legend to which we have adverted. We CAN
suppose a man rash enough to inquire at random--at a house with
lodgers too--for a Mr. Thompson, with all but the certainty before
his eyes, of finding at least two or three Thompsons in any house
of moderate dimensions; but a Frenchman--a Frenchman in Seven
Dials! Pooh! He was an Irishman. Tom King's education had been
neglected in his infancy, and as he couldn't understand half the
man said, he took it for granted he was talking French.

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 denouement.'

In addition to the numerous groups who are idling about the gin-
shops and squabbling in the centre of the road, every post in the
open space has its occupant, who leans against it for hours, with
listless perseverance. It is odd enough that one class of men in
London appear to have no enjoyment beyond leaning against posts.
We never saw a regular bricklayer's labourer take any other
recreation, fighting excepted. Pass through St. Giles's in the
evening of a week-day, there they are in their fustian dresses,
spotted with brick-dust and whitewash, leaning against posts. Walk
through Seven Dials on Sunday morning: there they are again, drab
or light corduroy trousers, Blucher boots, blue coats, and great
yellow waistcoats, leaning against posts. The idea of a man
dressing himself in his best clothes, to lean against a post all
day!

The peculiar character of these streets, and the close resemblance
each one bears to its neighbour, by no means tends to decrease the
bewilderment in which the unexperienced wayfarer through 'the
Dials' finds himself involved. He traverses streets of dirty,
straggling houses, with now and then an unexpected court composed
of buildings as ill-proportioned and deformed as the half-naked
children that wallow in the kennels. Here and there, a little dark
chandler's shop, with a cracked bell hung up behind the door to
announce the entrance of a customer, or betray the presence of some
young gentleman in whom a passion for shop tills has developed
itself at an early age: others, as if for support, against some
handsome lofty building, which usurps the place of a low dingy
public-house; long rows of broken and patched windows expose plants
that may have flourished when 'the Dials' were built, in vessels as
dirty as 'the Dials' themselves; and shops for the purchase of
rags, bones, old iron, and kitchen-stuff, vie in cleanliness with
the bird-fanciers and rabbit-dealers, which one might fancy so many
arks, but for the irresistible conviction that no bird in its
proper senses, who was permitted to leave one of them, would ever
come back again. Brokers' shops, which would seem to have been
established by humane individuals, as refuges for destitute bugs,
interspersed with announcements of day-schools, penny theatres,
petition-writers, mangles, and music for balls or routs, complete
the 'still life' of the subject; and dirty men, filthy women,
squalid children, fluttering shuttlecocks, noisy battledores,
reeking pipes, bad fruit, more than doubtful oysters, attenuated
cats, depressed dogs, and anatomical fowls, are its cheerful
accompaniments.

If the external appearance of the houses, or a glance at their
inhabitants, present but few attractions, a closer acquaintance
with either is little calculated to alter one's first impression.
Every room has its separate tenant, and every tenant is, by the
same mysterious dispensation which causes a country curate to
'increase and multiply' most marvellously, generally the head of a
numerous family.

The man in the shop, perhaps, is in the baked 'jemmy' line, or the
fire-wood and hearth-stone line, or any other line which requires a
floating capital of eighteen-pence or thereabouts: and he and his
family live in the shop, and the small back parlour behind it.
Then there is an Irish labourer and HIS family in the back kitchen,
and a jobbing man--carpet-beater and so forth--with HIS family in
the front one. In the front one-pair, there's another man with
another wife and family, and in the back one-pair, there's 'a young
'oman as takes in tambour-work, and dresses quite genteel,' who
talks a good deal about 'my friend,' and can't 'a-bear anything
low.' The second floor front, and the rest of the lodgers, are
just a second edition of the people below, except a shabby-genteel
man in the back attic, who has his half-pint of coffee every
morning from the coffee-shop next door but one, which boasts a
little front den called a coffee-room, with a fireplace, over which
is an inscription, politely requesting that, 'to prevent mistakes,'
customers will 'please to pay on delivery.' The shabby-genteel man
is an object of some mystery, but as he leads a life of seclusion,
and never was known to buy anything beyond an occasional pen,
except half-pints of coffee, penny loaves, and ha'porths of ink,
his fellow-lodgers very naturally suppose him to be an author; and
rumours are current in the Dials, that he writes poems for Mr.
Warren.

Now anybody who passed through the Dials on a hot summer's evening,
and saw the different women of the house gossiping on the steps,
would be apt to think that all was harmony among them, and that a
more primitive set of people than the native Diallers could not be
imagined. Alas! the man in the shop ill-treats his family; the
carpet-beater extends his professional pursuits to his wife; the
one-pair front has an undying feud with the two-pair front, in
consequence of the two-pair front persisting in dancing over his
(the one-pair front's) head, when he and his family have retired
for the night; the two-pair back will interfere with the front
kitchen's children; the Irishman comes home drunk every other
night, and attacks everybody; and the one-pair back screams at
everything. Animosities spring up between floor and floor; the
very cellar asserts his equality. Mrs. A. 'smacks' Mrs. B.'s child
for 'making faces.' Mrs. B. forthwith throws cold water over Mrs.
A.'s child for 'calling names.' The husbands are embroiled--the
quarrel becomes general--an assault is the consequence, and a
police-officer the result.

Charles Dickens