The Curse of Falstaff

A curious tale relating to the land known today as Seven Dials and St. Giles exists; it claims that this district will be forever cursed. With modern Oxford Street at its northern boundary, Charing Cross Road to the west.

[E]NDELL STREET AND LONG ACRE are to the east and south respectively, this small area still retains the layout of many of its original medieval streets, which until the mid-19th century was a dense warren of tiny courtyards and alleyways, where large numbers of criminals and prostitutes lived.

A medieval leper hospital existed there amid open fields and the parish church to the north of the neighbourhood – St. Giles – is dedicated to the patron saint of lepers.

Developers erected houses for artisans and skilled tradesman in the 16th century, with Samuel Pepys commentating on the desirability of the area, but within a few years it had degenerated into an overcrowded and dangerous place.

Last drink for the condemned

For years St. Giles church officials paid for a last drink at the Resurrection Gate public house for the condemned on their journey down Oxford Road from Newgate Prison to the gallows and Tyburn. The old Oxford Road now renamed St. Giles High Street follows this route but the Resurrection Gate has been rebuilt by the Victorians and renamed The Angel Inn.

If the condemned man had been a resident of the area extra guards would try to stop any rescue mission as he popped into The Resurrection Gate for a swift half. More often than not the condemned would disappear into the Rookeries, as Seven Dials was known and would never be found.

The start of the plague

London’s plague of 1665 began here before wiping out a quarter of London’s population and 100 years later William Hogarth depicted the area in his famous engraving “Gin Lane”, which depicts the effects of alcohol and poverty. Charles Dickens called the area Tom All Alone’s in Bleak House, and it wasn’t until the 1880s when much the Rookeries were demolished to make way for Shaftesbury Avenue and New Oxford Street that the area became accessible to the visitor.

But the strangest fact about this area is that businesses fail to thrive with a turnover rate far higher than elsewhere.

Those in the theatre business regard the Shaftsbury Theatre nearby as jinxed with a higher number of flops than other West End venues. Centre Point, that large office block at the area’s north-western corner, which is now listed, was a London scandal for a decade because it was regarded as so ugly no one wanted to lease office space in it.

St.  Giles Church completed in 1712, is a rare example that has escaped Victorian “improvements” and the bombing in the Second World War, now has facing it this area’s newest addition – Central Saint Giles – a garishly clad office retail complex, itself standing forlorn almost empty as testament to Falstaff Curse.

220px-OldcastleburningWhy is this small corner of London so unlucky? In 1417 Sir John Oldcastle – reputed to be the model for Shakespeare’s Falstaff – was burned here at the stake on the order of King Henry V. Legend has it that as the flames rose around him Sir John is said to have cursed the land and surrounding area on which he was to die as well as the executioner, the king (who died six years later), and all his descendants.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 29th July 2011

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