The sundial column at Seven Dials

This post was written by Peter de Clercq

As I live in central London, I often pass through Seven Dials, an area between the districts of Covent Garden and Soho where seven streets meet at a roundabout. In its centre stands a pillar or column with six vertical sundials at its top.

1. The monument at Seven Dials, looking to the northeast. To tell the time, you have three options: the sundials (if the sun shines and makes it over the surrounding houses), the clock on the left (if you can make sense of it) and the clock on the right.

The area resulted from a building scheme of the politician-entrepeneur Thomas Neale MP (1641–1699), whose name lives on in nearby Neal’s Street and Neal’s Yard. He commissioned the architect and stonemason Edward Pierce to design and construct a sundial pillar in 1693-94 as the centrepiece of his development. Pierce’s drawing is in the British Museum and shows six sundial faces.

Why six, not seven? We are told that the column itself was the seventh, so it would act as style or gnomon, casting its shadow on the ground. If so, there must have been a noon mark somewhere. One thing is certain: the column never ‘supported a clock with six dials’, as the London Encyclopaedia tells us.

2. Close-up of the clock above the public house, The Crown. The dial is out of kilter. I asked the publican if this was an art installation, but he knew nothing about it. Perhaps the clock is drunk.
3. The pillar at Seven Dials, London, drawn by Edward Pierce II (1635-1695). British Museum, Prints and Drawings, registration number 1881,0611.177, with text ‘A Stone Pillar with Sun-Dyals, to which are directed 7 streets in St Giles's Parish, commonly called the Seven Dyals, formerly a Lay stall. designed & drawn by Edw:Pierce sculpto’ and notes concerning scale and measurements.

The column that we now see is not Edward Pierce’s original. That was removed in 1773 (in my next blog I will discuss what happened), and for two centuries there was nothing on the roundabout.

In 1984 a charity was set up (the Seven Dials Monument Charity, now Seven Dials Trust), who managed to raise funds to restore what it called 'one of London’s great public ornaments'.

Five years later the new column was unveiled, complete with six new sundial faces in a striking blue colour. There is much explanatory information on and around the pillar. Do have a look when you are next in London’s West End.

4. An inscription on the pedestal gives a potted history of the monument from 1694 to 1989.
5. The monument was unveiled in 1989 by the Queen of the Netherlands to mark the UK finale of the year-long William & Mary Tercentenary celebrations.
7. A plaque explaining how to tell the time on the sundials. Not recommended if you’re in a bit of a rush!
6. The dials on the top were designed, carved and gilded by Caroline Webb. Each dialstone face enables different hours of the day to be read. Cooperation with the astronomer Gordon Taylor ensured that each of the six faces is accurate within ten seconds (so they assure us).
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