Posted by: krisinhawaii | May 20, 2008

History of Covent Garden.

The history of Covent Garden Market is a fascinating story. Now one of London’s most popular tourist attractions, for much of its existence Covent Garden served as a fruit and vegetable market, the largest in England. The market used to cover the whole of the square and occupied many of the buildings, but has since been transformed beyond all recognition.

By John Richardson

The modern story of Covent Garden began in the 1630s when land formerly belonging to Westminster Abbey, ‘the Convent Garden’ was redeveloped by the 4th Earl of Bedford.

But there is a much earlier story that has been discovered only in recent years. In archaeological digs, especially near the Strand, in Shorts Gardens and on the site of the Jubilee Hall, significant Saxon remains have been found. They point to a new theory of what happened in the London area once the Romans abandoned England and the walled city of Londinium in about AD410.

Our knowledge of events once the Saxon invaders took their place is very scant for at least three hundred years. There is little evidence that the Saxons settled within the walls of the city the Romans left behind. And what happened to the Britons who lived in Londinium under the Roman administration? We don’t know much. What we do know now is that the Saxons established a trading port to the west of the city, along Fleet Street and the Strand, up Aldwych (the name itself probably meaning old port) and covering today’s Covent Garden. This new settlement, which was abandoned once the Viking invaders became too dangerous in the 9th century, was called Lundenwic.

The Covent Garden area then reverted to agricultural land until the 17th century. It was then the scene of the first experiment in London of town planning, and the creation of the first public square in the country. It was the work of three men – the Earl of Bedford the developer, Charles I, who gave his strong support to the scheme, and Inigo Jones the most important architect of the day.

St Paul’s Church and the Piazza, by Wencelaus Hollar

“Londoners must
have been amazed
by this watershed
in English

The enthusiasm of Jones for classical, especially Palladian, architecture was to have an enormous effect on London’s later buildings. Having seen and studied the many public squares in Italy, he brought the idea to London and he also surrounded it with a perfectly straight grid of streets. Londoners, used to the random and haphazard arrangement of winding streets, alleyways and courtyards, must have been amazed. Architecturally, it was a watershed in English architecture.

The Piazza was designed by Jones with arcaded houses to the north and east. (These are now all gone but more modern developments have sought to remind us of them.) To the west was the church of St Paul, flanked by two houses, and to the south there was at first no development because the Piazza backed on to the mansion of the Bedford family, which faced the Strand, the main artery of London connecting City and Court at Westminster.

Architect Inigo Jones

This new square was a public one – and meant to be so. But this imaginative approach was, socially, to lead to its downfall. For the distinguished people who occupied the houses around the square soon began to tire of their lack of privacy and the intrusion of all sorts of London underworld beneath their windows. Once the private Bloomsbury Square and others were built, with bars across them to prevent undesirables, the rich went there instead, leaving Covent Garden to a different kind of tenancy, much of it artistic.

There was too the matter of the fruit and vegetable market in the square. This began in a very small way in 1649 but, no doubt, expanded quite a lot when the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed the markets in the City. By the 1760s the market occupied much of the Piazza. What with this, the nearby theatres in Drury Lane and Bow Street and the many public houses, the neighbourhood acquired an extremely dubious reputation, though it was still popular.

Eventually the area was dominated by the market. The main building in the Piazza we see today was erected in 1830 by Charles Fowler, but did not then have a glass roof – that came in the 1870s. Gradually, other market buildings were added. The first part of the Flower Market was put up in 1872 – it is now used by the London Transport Museum and the National Theatre Museum. More significantly, the market extended into the houses and shops in the streets around, especially up to the lower-priced premises in Seven Dials, then a notorious slum. In these premises traders operated outside of the market proper, or else just used them as warehouses.

Even before the last war it was evident that the country’s principal fruit and veg market could not remain where it was in a very congested part of London. But it was long after the war had finished that the decision to move it to Nine Elms was taken. It was relocated there in 1973, leaving empty market buildings and numerous vacant premises in the hinterland.

“A vigorous campaign by local residents prevented plans to knock most of it down”

The planners wanted to knock most of it down and build a new metropolis of through highways, hotels and conference centres. But a vigorous campaign by local residents and the general public prevented this vandalistic plan from going through. Instead, the market was renovated to become the popular shopping centre it is, and gradually the streets around became a mecca also for shoppers and for niche businesses. It was an amazing transformation.

The Covent Garden area has long been associated with theatre. The oldest established is the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, which had its origins in a patent granted on the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. A small theatre was established off Drury Lane in 1663 and this has evolved via several auditoria to the present famous building. Covent Garden theatre began in Bow Street in 1732.

“Covent Garden is a pleasure to explore but we should remember that it was a close-run thing to save it”

The kernel of the present theatre was built in 1858 after a disastrous fire had destroyed the old one. It was designed by E.M. Barry in classical style. He also built for the theatre’s management the Floral Hall next door in glass and iron, meant to be a straightforward rival to the Bedford’s flower market. Both of Barry’s buildings are now part of the rebuilt Royal Opera House complex completed recently in a storm of bad publicity about the running of the enterprise. There are other theatres in the area – notably at the Aldwych and in the Strand: the Lyceum, Aldwych, Strand, Duchess, New London, Coliseum, Fortune plus of course, more recently, the Donmar.

Covent Garden has traditionally been a centre of small businesses. Once, it was a hive of coachmakers, especially in Long Acre, premises which later became car dealers; there have been lots of famous publishers and printers, notably Odhams Press. Sainsbury’s began in Drury Lane. Moss Bros. began on the site of the Tesco store in Bedford Street. Samuel French, the theatrical publishers began in Wellington Street. Sotheby’s, the auctioneers began in the same road.

Despite its throngs of tourists, Covent Garden is still remarkably intact and attractive. Much of it is fairly traffic-free and the area is therefore relaxed and a pleasure to explore. But we should all remember that it was a close-run thing to save it.

Pasture and gardens of the Convent of St Peter of Westminster
Henry VIII takes over after his destruction of the monasteries
4th Earl commissions Inigo Jones to design Piazza and Square.
5th Earl grants licence for fruit and vegetable market
Market grows, aristocracy move west to Mayfair.  Coffee houses, gambling dens and brothels move in
The first ballet staged at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, even though the Manager Colley Clibber has doubts that this new type of dance would catch on.
6th Duke secures Act of Parliament regulating market
C Fowler designs and builds the present market
Mid 18th Century
Many homes in Covent Garden converted into seedy lodging houses and Turkish baths.  Several doubled as brothels.  The area becomes so renowned for prostitutes that magistrate Sir John Fielding calls it the Great Square of Venus
London’s main fruit and vegetable market employing over 1,000 porters
Market is sold to the Beecham family (Beechams Powders)
Sold to the GLC for redevelopment
Secretary of State creates 250 listed buildings in Covent Garden overnight to stop mass development
Market finally moves
Market area restored and basement opened up.
Market opens with 26 shops and six restaurants
Market is sold to Guardian Royal Exchange but GLC set up the Covent Garden Area Trust to preserve its character.
Buy this book now and save 20%
John Richardson has written books on various areas of London, including Highgate, Hampstead, Camden Town and Islington. He is chairman of the Camden History Society. His book Covent Garden Past (published by Historical Publications/ ISBN 0 948667 27 3) is in print and generally available at bookshops in central London.
Buy this book
To read more about the history of Covent Garden, the Piazza and Jubilee Hall Market
click here


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