Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered that generations of my nineteenth-century ancestors called this distinctly disreputable parish home. Even better, they were born and brought up in that “hotbed of villainy”, the Seven Dials. The promise of intrigue and criminality haunting the footsteps of the Victorian Brand family immediately caught my eye, but alas!, thus far they have proved a fairly unassuming bunch of saddlers and hatmakers. Nevertheless, I have had great fun researching the streets where my family were raised and practised their trades.
That the parish was dedicated to St Giles – the patron saint of lepers, beggars, cripples, the miserable and the lonely – could perhaps be held to account for the sorrows it has suffered throughout history. However, he was seen as an appropriate choice with the establishment of a hospital for lepers in the twelfth century. As London developed, this ill-defined area attracted not only the foreigners and vagrants expelled from the city itself (with a particularly large Irish community), but also to a handful of notables wishing to settle closer to Westminster. By the 17th century, the contrast between rich and poor was stark. The Booth Poverty map (shown above) was compiled in the late nineteenth century to illustrate the relative wealth of the inhabitants of London, indicated by the colour allocated to their street. It seems that the Seven Dials (the crossroads in the centre) housed those of “ordinary earnings”, peppered with those suffering “chronic want” and the “vicious, semi-criminal”.
The reputation of the parish was little improved by the fact that this was where the Great Plague first reared its ugly head in 1664, and it was generally held that “that one parish of St Giles at London hath done us all this mischief.” By the Victorian era, the Seven Dials could at least boast a bustling (if not exactly high-end) trade in “glass bottles, rags, old iron, left-off clothing, and second-hand toothbrushes”. It was also “the abode of bird-fanciers”, and both Great St Andrew Street and Little St Andrew Street (which have now combined to become Monmouth Street) could boast a number of “bird keepers”, “bird cage dealers” and the occasional “bird and beast preserver.” The image below from Thomas Miller’s Picturesque Sketches of London (1852) suggests that the aforementioned beasts could mean anything from a dog to a pig.
Perhaps the sense of depravity could be brightened by a little birdsong, but the area certainly continued in its inclinations towards crime, poverty and vice of all persuasions. A stone’s throw from the theatre district of Drury Lane, the local area was home to countless bawdy-houses and streetwalkers, conspiring with swarms of thieves to empty the pockets of passers-by. In 1865, one visitor wrote “all about are man whose countenances and general appearance proclaim them to be thieves and cadgers.” Indeed, crime rates were among the highest across the whole of London, and it was widely acknowledged that “the walk through the Dials after dark was an act none but a lunatic would have attempted.” One such booze-fuelled effort in the 1860s was described thus:
A swaggering ass named Corrigan… once undertook for a wager to walk the entire length of Great Andrew Street at midnight, and if molested to annihilate his assailants. The half-dozen doubters who awaited his advent in the Broadway were surprised about 1a.m. to see him running as fast as he could put his legs to the ground, with only the remnant of a shirt on him; after recovering his breath and his courage he proceeded to describe the terrific slaughter he had inflicted on an innumerable number of assailants.
I like to think that Corrigan might have been an acquaintance or friend of the 19th-century Brand family, who at this time had long been living and working on the very street that deprived him of his clothes and money. Or perhaps it is more likely that they numbered among his attackers? The history of London is so cast and well-documented that anyone with a connection to the capital cannot fail to find any number of treasure that lend a personal touch to the lives of their ancestors. The Booth Poverty maps, the etchings of Gustave Doré and the journalism of Henry Mayhew, among countless other commentators, combine to provide a lively picture of times past and those who lived through them. And herein lies the fascination of having a family history in the capital – these ancestors are my own personal connection to the History I know and love.