SINCE the 17th century, the narrow streets and alleys on the northern fringe of Covent Garden have been the lair of seers, psychics, stargazers and all manner of occult devotees.
The theory is that they were drawn there by the mystically star-shaped junction of Seven Dials where seven streets converge at a Doric obelisk topped by six sundials. The column itself served to cast the shadow of a seventh dial. The local French refugee community dubbed it La Pyramide.
The entrepreneur and MP Thomas Neale had opted for the novel street layout in the 1690s for the very unmystical reason that he wanted to maximise the frontages, and hence the rent of the properties he was building there for prosperous new residents.
The more expansive Covent Garden square nearby had been built some years earlier “fitt for the habitacions of Gentlemen and men of ability” and the developers were moving to cash in on the adjacent farmland.
It was only in recent decades that archaeologists determined that the neighbourhood was built on the site of the ancient settlement of Lundenwic, founded by the pagan Anglo-Saxons in the 7th century. Perhaps the invaders brought their witches with them.
Seven Dials and Covent Garden in general have had a chequered history since Neale’s time but the area never shed its association with the occult.
Wealthy 18th century Londoners didn’t really take to it – maybe it was the spooky vibes. Within a century, Seven Dials had become the city’s most notorious gin-sodden slum where street vagrants now rubbed shoulders with the diviners and the astrologers.
There’s a myth that a mob of local toughs tore down the obelisk in 1773 in search of hidden gold. In fact, London’s Paving Commissioners ordered its removal because the central island it occupied had become “a rendezvous for blackguards and chimney-sweepers”. A replacement copy of the original was unveiled only in 1989.
At around the time the obelisk came down, the nearby Freemasons’ Hall was just opening up as heaquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England. Its modern fortress-like 1930s replacement still surveys the neighbourhood like an all-seeing eye.
For decades Seven Dials mouldered in obscurity on the fringe of Covent Garden market and London’s theatreland.
Our wrinklier readers will remember when Covent Garden was the city’s central fruit, veg and flower market until its closure in 1974. In its dying days, Alfred Hitchcock filmed Frenzy there, a contemporary thriller set among the potato sacks and the apple crates. Barry Foster plays wholesale merchant and serial killer Bob Rusk, known as the “necktie murderer” for his favoured method of dispatching his women victims.
Mercifully, the planners preserved the market infrastructure of Covent Garden square, declaring it a “piazza”. Designer shops, bars and cafes were soon to replace the old wholesale stores.
The gentrification seeped into Seven Dials, with the arrival of boutiques and cocktails and artesan coffee.
But the old ways perist. Tucked between the shoe shops and the parfumeries are occult bookshops and others that offer healing crystals and astrological paraphenalia. There are meeting rooms where clairvoyants and mediums ply their trade.
In an eerily quiet Covent Garden, they’re all shut down now by a pandemic none of the fortune-tellers appears to have predicted. They are offering virtual sessions via Zoom, although surely telepathy would be more appropriate.
It’s all very New-Agey and harmless these days. But the once notorious neighbourhood has had reminders of its darker occult past.
In the late-1990s a troubled and homeless drifter became one of the many street-sleepers camped out on the city streets. In his early fifties, he had grown up suffering delusions and had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
He had such an obsession with Aleister Crowley, the notorious 20th century occultist known as The Great Beast, that he had officially changed his surname to Crowley.
In Covent Garden he was befriended by a bright and sympathetic 12-year-old boy, half-Spanish, who lived in the neighbourhood. They used to hang out in Phoenix Gardens to play and chat.
But for Crowley, the friendship became an ever more demanding obsession. The boy, Diego Piniero-Pillar, became wary and took to avoiding his new friend. The police became involved but, although a harassment charge was pending, the drifter was out on bail.
One evening in May 2000, Crowley stalked Diego and his older brother while they were running an errand. He caught up with them by the obelisk on a corner of Seven Dials. He pulled out a kitchen knife and, with more than 20 blows, stabbed the younger boy to death.
A crumpled paper in Crowley’s bag bore scribblings about child sacrifice and the Latin inscription “Delendus est D. Piniero” – Piniero must be destroyed.