Seven Dials, peacocks, and Tallulah Bankhead upside down

But first, one of the many rambling tangents (skip this paragraph if you want to avoid said ramblings). I have been rereading a charming book called London’s Secret History by Peter Bushell. Apart from providing many useful titbits, the author was partly responsible for the aforementioned rambling tangents: he will often mention something in passing that makes the reader (or this reader, at any rate) wonder what the rest of the story is. For instance, Bushell mentions Cleopatra’s Needle and states that two earthenware jars were sealed into its base. The jars contained, among other items, “the photographs of six of the most beautiful women in England”. Yes – and? Who were they? As I’ve stated on different occasions, that’s what this blog is all about – seeking out the rest of the story.

The pillar at Seven Dials

And now to the main event. Mr Bushell also refers to the actress Tallulah Bankhead and her famous quote: “They used to photograph Shirley Temple through gauze. They should photograph me through linoleum.” He tells the story that one day Bankhead was strolling in the Seven Dials area with Sir Patrick Hastings, a King’s Counsel, who was approached by an urchin demanding sixpence to stand on his head. Bankhead declared she could do it herself for half that price – and did. She was, it seems, known for cartwheeling through hotel lobbies unencumbered by underwear, which makes this anecdote plausible.

The area now called Seven Dials once belonged to a leper hospital. It was known as Marshland, from an ancient watercourse, and then as Cock and Pye Fields (from an inn of that name). The name Cock and Pye is, according to A Dictionary of Pub Names, thought to be a reference to peacock pie, a concept that now deserves its own tangent.

According to English Heritage, peacock pie was a common mediaeval Christmas dish: “Unlike the modern turkey, the peacock was the preserve of the well-off, and was not simply roasted whole. Rather, the skin of the animal was carefully removed, preserving its ostentatious feathers, and this was set aside. The carcass was then skewered for roasting, its neck being fixed upright during the roast to allow for a life-like presentation at service. When the dish was served, usually by a woman, its skin and feathers were re-attached to convey the full impressive array of the living bird. The dish appears to have been as important for its display as for the flavour of its meat.”

However, the pub name authors go on to say, ‘by Cock and pie’ was a common oath in Elizabethan times, cock being a euphemism for God, and pie referring to the ordinal of the Catholic Church.

But I digress. (See opening paragraph.)

Henry VIII took over the land in 1537 and there was a series of lessees before William III granted Thomas Neale freehold of the land in 1690. Neale held, among many titles (Master of the Mint, Member of Parliament, Groom of the Bedchamber…), the distinction of organising England’s first lottery.

The freehold came with a sting in the tail: Neale had to purchase the remainder of the lease and continue to pay ground rents for buildings on the land. This meant making the land earn its keep by building a development that would show a profit. Neale came up with the idea of a star-shaped plan with six radiating streets, increasing the number of houses that could be built on the site. According to the Seven Dials Trust, “Plans submitted in 1692 to Sir Christopher Wren, the Surveyor General, for a building licence, show at least 311 houses and an estate church. At the time rents were charged by the length of the frontage. Neale’s clever layout generated more rental income than that yielded by the squares which were then the fashion.”

Construction began in 1693 (with seven streets laid out) and Neale commissioned a sundial pillar at the centre of the development; the pillar had seven faces, giving the development its name. (In 1773 the Sundial Pillar was pulled down by order of the Paving Commissioners who hoped to rid the area of undesirables who congregated around it. The popular theory, cited in many books on London, is that it was pulled down by a mob looking for buried treasure that was rumoured to be at the base of the pillar.)

John Gay wrote a poem in 1716 called ‘Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London’, in which he mentions 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

(Incidentally, Gay was one of the victims of the ‘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.)

By the middle of the 18th century the area had declined to the extent that 39 night-watchmen were needed to keep the peace. The area had become known as a squalid centre of crime as well as a centre for street literature, which included ballads, political tracts, and various pamphlets, the printers of which occupied many of the buildings in and around Monmouth Street. Among these pamphlets were the Victorian gallows ballads, which were written up in time to be sold at the foot of the gallows when there was a sensational hanging. One of these relates to Lizzie Vickers, who was accused of a murder in Acre Lane, which is a story for another time.

A 19th-century writer, John Thomas Smith, wrote a book wordily called Ancient topography of London; containing not only views of buildings which in many instances no longer exist, and for the most part were never before published; but some account of places and customs either unknown, or overlooked by the London historians. In it he discusses the novelty of women barbers, and his desire to experience said novelty by visiting the Seven Dials area.

 “On one day, that I might indulge the humour of being shaved by a woman, I repaired to the Seven Dials where, in Great St-Andrew’s-Street,” he reports, “a slender female performed the operation, whilst her husband, a strapping soldier in the Horse Guards, sat smoking his pipe.”

Another London street with a Bankhead connection is Farm Street in Mayfair, where the actress lived while she was acting on stage and screen.

According to a profile in The New Yorker magazine (7 October 1972), while Bankhead was in London, she made a film for which, “her salary was five hundred pounds a week—according to the newspapers, the highest salary ever paid to a movie star in England. She had a tiny house in Farm Street, decorated by W. Somerset Maugham’s wife, Syrie, and through it poured an unceasing flood of Americans on their way to and from the Continent.”

Farm Street, where building began around the 1740s, does take its name from a farm in the area: Hay Hill Farm. The farm did not have anything to do with hay, however; the name was a corruption of Ayehill, from the nearby Aye brook. There are also Hay Hill, Hay’s Mews, and Hill Street nearby.