Chapter 5. Seven Dials

by Charles Dickens

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and of Pitts—names that will entwine themselves with costermongers, and barrel-organs, when penny magazines shall have superseded penny yards of song, and capital punishment be unknown!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.’

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