Beggars, a Bubble, and the six faces of Seven Dials

This day in London history: on 4 December 1732, John Gay, English poet (Beggar’s Opera), died aged 47. John Gay is perhaps most famous for his satirical ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera, with its central character of Macheath.

John Gay The opera, adapted by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, would later become The Threepenny Opera and one of its songs, Mack the Knife, was recorded by various people including Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra, but was a big hit for Bobby Darin.

Macheath was based on a notorious highwayman of the time, Jack Sheppard, who often sought refuge in what was, at the time, one of London’s criminal quarters and a sanctuary for thieves and debtors. The area, which lives on in Mint Street, was called the Mint, former site of a Royal Mint established by Henry VIII. There is also a character called Matt of the Mint in The Beggar’s Opera.

The Beggar’s Opera had been suggested by two of Gay’s friends, Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, and Swift also provided ideas for another of Gay’s works: Trivia, or the Art of Walking the Streets of London, a poem in three books. One of the places Gay mentions in this poem is Seven Dials:

Where famed St Giles’s ancient limits spread
     An in-rail’s column rears its lofty head
Here to seven streets seven dials count their day
    And from each other catch the circling ray

seven dialsSeven Dials was an early exercise in town planning: in 1693 the Master of the Royal Mint, Sir Thomas Neale, purchased a meadow in what is now the heart of London’s Soho. He planned seven streets radiating from a central point where there was a six-sided column with a sun dial on each face.

Some say the seventh ‘dial’ comes from the column itself; others that the column was commissioned before a change of plan meant there were seven streets instead of six.

The column was taken down 1773 when a false rumour circulated to the effect that money was hidden in the base, and it was re-erected in Weybridge Green.

Gay was one of the victims of the disastrous ‘South Sea Bubble’ scheme, speculation that ruined the purses and lives of thousands of investors. It started with the South Sea Company, given exclusive trading rights first with South America and then the South Seas. The company originally planned to convert the National Debt to a lower rate of interest and then take it over completely.

Money poured into the scheme, resulting in gross over-speculation and the eventual bursting of the bubble. It was not just the unwary investors who were ruined financially: Members of Parliament were shown to have taken bribes and the bubble was a national scandal.

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