Life in the time of John Williamson
By Tom Williams
John Williamson is the fictional narrator of three of my books set in the mid-19th century. He was born in Devon in 1819, but we meet him as a young man working as a sailor in the coastal trade carrying goods between Newcastle and London. The ships he worked on probably carried coal south and urine north. Yes, you did read that right: urine was easily collected in London and used in the wool industry in the north.
Williamson leaves England and travels to Borneo and India, returning to his home country in 1859 for the conclusion of the trilogy, Back Home. There he visits London and, particularly, Seven Dials. It is Seven Dials I want to write about now.
Seven Dials in 1857
Seven Dials was an early housing development, built on the west of the City of London in the early 1690s and intended as an upscale residential neighbourhood. It was laid out on a series of streets radiating out from a central point where a sundial with six faces stood in the middle of the road. (The seventh “dial” was the pillar itself.) Unfortunately for the developers, the 18th-century saw the building of the new West End with its fine squares and wide carriage roads. Seven Dials, with its narrow streets, was just not fashionable enough to attract kind of tenants the developers had hoped for. It fell into decay, abandoned to squatters. The once-fine houses were taken over by the lowest class of people who could find nowhere else to live. The area became a slum, known in those days as a "rookery".
Dickens (in his ‘Sketches by Boz’) describes it in terms that suggest almost a waking nightmare.
“… 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 … are groups of people, whose appearance and dwellings would fill any mind but a regular Londoner’s with astonishment. … [There are] 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.”
A significant reason why the place was a slum with an "unwholesome vapour" is that it was built in the days before mains sewerage. Waste would have drained into cesspits, but once the landlords had given up on these properties as a viable source of profit they didn't empty the cesspits. Sewage flowed in the streets. The condition of the cellars must have been utterly repulsive, yet whole families lived in them.
“Cellars serving whole families for kitchen, parlour bed-room and all are to be found in other streets of London, but not so numerous and near to each other. ... it is curious and interesting to watch the habits of these human moles when they emerge or half-emerge from their cavities.”
The place was well supplied with public houses. These ‘gin palaces’ were well-lit, cheerful places, which offered a stark contrast to the dwellings of the poor who used them. Drink was cheap and offered a brief respite from the awfulness of daily life there. An advertisement in the Monthly Advertiser in November 1860 offered gin at 11 shillings per gallon. Little wonder, then, that, if you had the money, you could buy gin over the bar by the pint.
Crime was endemic. Donald Shaw, writing of the 1860s, said that: “The walk through the Dials after dark was an act none but a lunatic would have attempted.” There are references (for example in Dickens) two constables venturing in to force some sort of law and order, but I have my doubts. In Disraeli's novel (set around 1840) Sybil is attacked in Seven Dials and it takes a troop of soldiers to save her. In Back Home, when the police to arrive they come in force, provoking a massive riot. I think this is probably a realistic view, at least if you believe Donald Shaw's account: “… the half-dozen constables within view would no more have thought of entering it than they would the cage of a cobra.”
Seven Dials is adjacent to Soho, where my grandfather was a policeman not that long after the time of Back Home. My father used to insist that Soho had “more vice in a square mile than anywhere else in England”. Nowadays, of course, Soho has been cleaned up to the point where coffee shops are outnumbering brothels and (unlike friends living there not so long ago) young women don’t need to put signs on street doors to warn that “No prostitutes work on these premises”. Seven Dials has become a very chic shopping area alongside Covent Garden. The sundial itself, which was removed in 1773, was replaced with a replica in 1989. The old street plan remains, though, as do some of the old public houses, though the cheap gin has gone: a measure is likely to cost you close to £5 nowadays.
I visit Seven Dials quite regularly. (There’s a rather lovely club where you can dance tango to a live band for a tenner.) Late at night, walking the narrow cobble streets I can, for a moment, imagine what it must have been like in 1859. It’s a lot safer (and less smelly) nowadays, though.
Charles Dickens (1868) Sketches by Boz
Charles Knight (1842) London
Donald Shaw (1908) London in the sixties, with a few digressions, by One of the old brigade
If you enjoyed this post, you may enjoy a visit tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk, where Tom rambles on about history on a regular basis.
Back Home concludes the trilogy of books about John Williamson, though it can be read as a stand-alone novel.
Returning to England after over a decade living in the Far East, John Williamson finds a London he scarcely recognises. Following the footsteps of a friend who has mysteriously disappeared in the capital, Williamson finds himself sucked into the world of vice and degradation that is Seven Dials.
Caught up in a scheme to flood London with forged five pound notes, Williamson finds the intelligence services on his trail, convinced that the French are behind the plot
In a mid-19th century world with surprising parallels to today, can Williamson manage to save his friend from the gallows – and survive himself, in a world that condemns him for his sexuality?
Back Home was runner-up in the Historical Fiction category of the 2016 RBRT Book Awards.
If you enjoyed this post, you may enjoy a visit to tomwilliamsauthor.co.uk, where Tom rambles on about history on a regular basis.
Have you ever noticed how many authors are described as ‘reclusive’? I have a lot of sympathy for them. My feeling is that authors generally like to hide at home with their laptops or their quill pens and write stuff. If they enjoyed being in the public eye, they’d be stand-up comics or pop stars.
Nowadays, though, writers are told that their audiences want to be able to relate to them as people. I’m not entirely sure about that. If you knew me, you might not want to relate to me at all. But here in hyperspace I apparently have to tell you that I’m young and good looking and live somewhere exciting with a beautiful partner, a son who is a brain surgeon and a daughter who is a swimwear model. Then you’ll buy my book.
Unfortunately, that’s not quite true. I’m older than you can possibly imagine. (Certainly older than I ever imagined until I suddenly woke up and realised that age had snuck up on me.) I live in Richmond, which is nice and on the outskirts of London which is a truly amazing city to live in. My wife is beautiful but, more importantly, she’s a lawyer, which is handy because a household with a writer in it always needs someone who can earn decent money. My son has left home and we never got round to the daughter.
We did have a ferret, which I thought would be an appropriately writer sort of thing to have around but he eventually got even older than me (in ferret years) and died. I’d try to say something snappy and amusing about that but we loved that ferret and snappy and amusing doesn’t quite cut it.
I street skate and ski and can dance a mean Argentine tango. I’ve spent a lot of my life writing very boring things for money (unless you’re in Customer Care, in which case ‘Dealing With Customer Complaints’ is really, really interesting). Now I’m writing for fun.
If you all buy my books, I’ll be able to finish the next ones and I’ll never have to write for the insurance industry again and that will be a good thing, yes? So you’ll not only get to read a brilliant novel but your karmic balance will move rapidly into credit.
Can I go back to being reclusive now?