“And it's my plan if some great man,
Dies with a broken head, Sirs,
With much bewail I does detail,
His death before he's dead, Sirs!
“And while his friends and foes contends,
They all my papers buy, Sirs,
Without a doubt I sells 'em out,
For there my talent lies, Sirs!”
- Anonymous, quoted in John Aston's Modern Street Ballads (1888)
You wouldn't think so from its trendy shops and restaurants today, but Seven Dials was once one of the worst slums in London. Intended as a smart residential area when its construction was completed in 1710, this cartwheel of streets between Charing Cross Road and Covent Garden quickly declined to become an over-crowded refuge for the city's thieves. It was here that London's thriving trade in gallows ballads made its home.
In 1751, William Hogarth chose Seven Dials as the setting for his infamous Gin Lane engraving, filling its streets with every known form of drunkenness and human degradation. A Frenchman named Grossley failed to take this warning when he strayed into the Dials in 1765, and his recollections give a vivid flavour of what Hogarth had already known. “The place was crowded with people waiting to see a poor wretch stand in the pillory, whose punishment was deferred to another day,” Grossley writes. “The mob, provoked at this disappointment, vented their rage upon all that passed their way, whether afoot or in coaches, and threw at them dirt, rotten eggs, dead dogs and ordure, which they had provided to pelt the unhappy wretch.” (1)
By 1773, the area had become so lawless that the landmark sundial column at its centre had to be removed to discourage criminals from meeting there. Rumours that its foundation stone contained a fortune in hidden cash turned out to be untrue.
Things were no better 60 years later, when Charles Dickens described Seven Dials in Sketches by Boz. “In addition to the numerous groups who are idling about the gin-shops and squabbling in the centre of the road, every post in the open space has its occupant, who leans against it for hours with listless perseverance,” he writes. “The man in the shop ill-treats his family; the carpet-beater extends his professional pursuits to his wife.” Gilbert and Sullivan were pretty unimpressed too, calling the area “soapless Seven Dials” in 1882's Iolanthe, and choosing it to represent everything the elevated Belgrave Square was not. (2)
Making his own visit to the Dials for 1888's Dictionary of London, Dickens' son Charles Jr confirms it is still “one of the poorest districts in London” where “poverty is to be seen in some of its most painful aspects”. He finds just one exception to this austerity: “Whatever there may be lack of in this territory of St Giles, there is no lack of money to pay for drink,” he writes. “At night, the public houses are ablaze with light, and on Saturday evening there is a great sound of shouting and singing through the windows, while the women stand outside and wait, hoping against hope that their husbands will come out before the week's money is all spent.” (3)
The ballad trade began at Seven Dials in the 17th Century, when printers there shared the area with an assortment of quacks, astrologers and psychics. The single-sheet publications they produced were sold for a halfpenny or a penny all around the streets of London, and told of that week's most sensational crimes, workhouse scandals and other events.
“They were the popular journalism of the day, recording, usually with a combination of report and ballad, sometimes with ballad alone, every important or interesting event,” Jonathan Goodman writes in Bloody Versicles. “The crime broadsheets, with their tut-tutting moral tone giving the excuse for a welter of gory details, are the ancestors of our mass-circulation Sunday newspapers.” (4)
A good murder could always be relied on to sell well, and these sheets often included a set of verses describing the killer's crime or claiming to offer his last confession. Rather than printing music alongside the words, these ballads' composers would often copy the structure of an old hymn and suggest their work be sung to that tune. All People That On Earth Do Dwell was a popular choice for this treatment, and one gallows ballad even had the cheek to start with precisely that opening line.
The sellers would pin their stock of ballads up on a board behind them and chant or sing a few choice verses to attract a crowd, sometimes accompanying themselves on a fiddle. Often, the singers were blind men, who would presumably have found it hard to earn a living in any other way. Some sellers worked in pairs, alternating the verses between them to add a little extra drama.
The largest of the papers they sold were about A3 in today's terms, and known as “broadsheets' or “broadsides”, two terms which came to represent the whole trade. Once a song had exhausted its topical value, it could be tagged on to the end of a lengthy strip of other old songs, and sold again as part of a value-for-money anthology called a “long song”. Gallows tales were a big part of every ballad-seller's business, and those specialising in them became known as “death hunters” for their ceaseless pursuit of a new execution story.
Until 1832, English law required that murderers must be executed within two days of their conviction. Faced with this, the ballad-printers had time to produce only a single account, telling the whole story from the criminal's background to his final punishment in one go. “It was sentence o' Friday and scragging o' Monday,” one 1840s ballad-seller recalled. “So we had only the life, trial and execution”. (5)