Covent Garden is popular with both locals and visitors but it wasn’t always the way. The area was home to aristocracy before it became a centre of commerce. And while it is a cool hangout today, there was a time when you wouldn’t want to stop here day or night.
The elegant piazza and market with street cobbles and the arched market buildings hint at the rich heritage. From being an orchard garden of Westminster Abbey to London’s first residential square to London’s wholesale fruit and vegetable market, Covent Garden has a fascinating history.
Covent Garden is a sprawling central London neighbourhood reaching Charing Cross Road in the west, Shaftesbury Avenue in the north, High Holborn in the east and Strand in the south.
Long Acre is the main thoroughfare, running north-east from St Martin’s Lane to Drury Lane. Shelton Street, running parallel to the north of Long Acre, marks the London borough boundary between Camden and Westminster.
The Romans left the walled City of London by 400 AD and the area was abandoned for some time. Gradually the remaining inhabitants of Londinium returned to a life of agriculture producing food for their families. Life was the same in Covent Garden and other urban areas with thatched roof homes and livestock kept in the open fields.
Anglo Saxons and Vikings
By the 7th century farming techniques had improved and there was surplus produce to sell. A new Anglo-Saxon village and harbour called Lundenwic (meaning in old English ‘London trading town’) emerged in the Covent Garden and Strand area. (For a long time, historians didn’t know the exact location of Lundenwic, but in the late-1980s archaeologists found evidence of a 600,000 sq m settlement stretching from the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square to Aldwych.) In the 8th Century it was described by the Venerable Bede as a “trading centre for many nations who visit it by land and sea”. In the 9th century, the Vikings invaded Britain and Lundenwic was abandoned and returned to fields.
By the 13th century, the 40-acre area was walled off by the Abbots of Westminster Abbey (the convent of St Peter’s, Westminster) as arable land and orchards. The monks tended the vegetable garden. It was soon referred to as ‘the garden of the Abbey and Convent’ and later as ‘the Convent Garden’. It is also supposed the site was used as the burial-place for the convent, as being at a convenient distance for “burying their dead out of sight”.
In 1536, King Henry VIII seized the land as part of the dissolution of the monasteries. His young son, King Edward VI granted the land to John Russell, the first Earl of Bedford in 1552. The land wasn’t touched and the third Earl of Bedford tried and failed to sell the land in 1619.
Formation of the Piazza
It was Francis Russell (1587–1641), the 4th Earl of Bedford, who commissioned the royal architect Inigo Jones (1573–1652) to design a square with houses “fit for the [habitations] of Gentlemen and men with ability”. (Inigo Jones is considered to have been the first significant architect of the early modern period.) The Earl had won approval to develop the site from Charles I on the condition that he maintained Long Acre, which ran through his land. (It’s noted that there were shady elms along this route plus country lanes with green fields on either side.) The Earl agreed to “pave and keep it as well as any street in London”.
Jones decided to base his designs on observations he had made in Paris and a piazza he had seen at Livorno (Tuscany) in northern Italy, creating something similar to the recently completed Place des Vosges in Paris. By 1630, London’s first piazza was designed and laid-out.
The north and east sides were lined with grand ‘portico’ houses with continuous arcades running underneath. The five-storey stuccoed and pilastered houses had the top three floors of each house extended beyond the ground floor creating a public arcade at street level along which people could walk in all weathers.
Known as the Great Piazza and the Little Piazza respectively, the houses sold quickly to aristocrats and court society. Each house contained a large basement plus the luxury of water piped through conduits to the back yard of each building. Wealthy tenants were happy to pay £150 a year to live in the tall terraced homes with gardens, coach houses and stabling.
These dwellings were unusual in that middle-class people lived side by side rather than individual premises of varying sorts as they had previously. They were more typical of Dutch towns such as Antwerp and Amsterdam than anything that had previously been built in England and set a new standard that would be followed in London and other British cities during the following centuries.
Initially, only a single tree was planted in the square but that was later replaced with a column. The Piazza became a place for Londoners to take a stroll and for open-air public entertainment.
The Russell family are commemorated in two Covent Garden street names: Russell Street and Bedford Street.
No.8 Russell Street was the site of the bookshop where James Boswell first met the great lexicographer and biographer, Samuel Johnson in 1763, thus beginning a significant literary friendship. Thirty years after this first meeting, Boswell wrote ‘The Life of Samuel Johnson’ which is generally considered to be one of the greatest of all biographies.
Henrietta Street is named after the wife of Charles I. The novelist Jane Austen lodged at no.10 during her visits to London; she remarked that the area was “all dirt and confusion, but in an interesting way”. And Alfred Hitchcock used the street as the setting for his 1972 thriller ‘Frenzy’ and he lived at no. 3.
On a personal note, I worked in Covent Garden for six years for the book publishers Dorling Kindersley. The company had many offices across Covent Garden including much of Henrietta Street. Not every building number could be entered from the street as I think we used to go in at the small shop/office at no.9 to get to nos. 10 and 11. Some floors were connected and for others you had to go down to the basement to move over or up to the top floor. It was a true warren.
St Paul’s Church
Built in 1633, St. Paul’s Church was included for the resident aristocrats. It is said that to keep the costs down for the church, the Earl requested nothing more elaborate than a barn. “You shall have the finest barn in London”, replied Jones.
At that time almost all churches in London and elsewhere in England had existed since at least the Middle Ages. This was London’s first classical building and the first Anglican church to be built on a new site in England since the Reformation of the previous century.
It’s somewhat back-to-front as Jones originally designed the church with the altar at the west end and an entrance onto the Piazza. However, the Anglican authorities wanted the altar moved to the traditional east end. Jones stuck with his plan for the neoclassical portico onto the Piazza and even included a false door but the church can only be entered through the churchyard at the opposite end.
The English Civil War (1642–1651) meant there was a delay in getting approval as a parish church but it became official in 1660.
A fire in 1795 destroyed most of the church, but St Paul’s was restored in the original style of a classical Roman temple. Known as the Actors’ Church for its long links to London’s theatre, inside there are memorials to generations of leading actors, actresses, musicians and choreographers. The ashes of Ellen Terry are preserved here. In the late nineteenth century, Ellen Terry became famous for her Shakespearian roles, many of them performed at the Lyceum Theatre on Wellington Street.
The first written reference to “the new market in Covent Garden” in the Piazza dates from 1654. The local residents were all wealthy tenants but we can imagine their servants being sent to the market to buy supplies.
Being a new neighbourhood, Covent Garden was relatively unscathed by the 1665 great plague and the 1666 Great Fire of London only affected the City of London. But both major disasters meant more people moved to the West End including Covent Garden. More people meant the market increased. By 1667, the commissioners for highways and sewers were discussing what to do about the “great ffylth” generated by the traders.
In May 1670, the Piazza’s owner, the 5th Earl of Bedford, secured a royal charter from King Charles II. It gave permission for there to be a market here every day except Sundays and Christmas, and, more importantly, charge those traders for the privilege. Permanent shops were erected against the garden wall of Bedford House, his London home.
(As an aside, King Charles II knew the area well as one of his mistresses, Nell Gwyn had sold oranges there to theatre-goers before she moved on to being an actress.)
The two key rules in the grant were that only fruit, flowers, roots and herbs could be sold and that the market could not extend beyond the Piazza. The dukes of Bedford would regularly auction off the right to run the market and collect the rents. By keeping this lease short—often just a single year—they were able to benefit from the escalating value of the market. The annual income achieved by selling the lease rose from £5 in 1670 to £2,500 in 1798.
This change from a quiet place to stroll with aristocratic neighbours to a busy produce market changed the character of the neighbourhood. By the latter part of the seventeenth century, the grandees were moving further westwards to more gentile environments. In London society, a respectable address was everything.
Two theatres in the area (see below) made Covent Garden London’s theatrical centre, attracting droves of theatre-goers who brought in their wake a flourishing trade in prostitution.
The buildings on the corner of James Street and the Piazza (where the Apple Store is located) are in a block called Bedford Chambers. The Chambers were rebuilt in the nineteenth century, but in the eighteenth century, some were still houses of gentlemen but there were also tenements teeming with prostitutes.
Published from 1757 to 1795, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies was an annual directory of prostitutes working in and around Covent Garden. In lurid detail, the pocketbook described the physical appearance of the Covent Garden Ladies and their sexual specialities.
Miss B of Old Compton is described as:
a mistress of every Manoeuvre in the amorous contest that can enhance the coming pleasure. In bed she is all the heart can wish, or eye admire, every limb is symmetry, every action under cover truly amorous; her price is two pounds two.
As the aristocracy left more and more of the working class moved in, it dragged Seven Dials and the nearby St Giles Rookery into poverty and dilapidation. Vacated homes were converted into taverns, coffee houses, book shops, gambling houses, Turkish baths, drinking dens and, of course, brothels. Street musicians tried to earn some coins from market shoppers and pickpockets made the most of the crowds too.
Street Performers and Theatre
You may well have seen the street performers outside St Paul’s Church. They are there every day except Christmas Day. These performers have to audition to get a coveted slot here and usually attract a large crowd.
Street performances have long been a tradition at Covent Garden. The seventeenth-century diarist Samuel Pepys recorded the first mention of a Punch and Judy show in Britain seen in Covent Garden in 1662 beneath the portico of St. Paul’s Church. And the annual Covent Garden May Fayre and Puppet Festival still takes place each year in May.
Royal Opera House
This is the third theatre on this site as both previous theatres were destroyed by fire, a serious hazard in the era before electricity. It held a Royal Patent allowing it to be one of only two theatres to perform spoken drama in the capital. It was built around the same time as the Piazza to entertain those wealthy residents. The Royal Opera House was most recently refurbished in the 1990s at a cost of £200m so that it can now be entered from the Covent Garden Piazza itself.
Theatre Royal Drury Lane
The other patent theatre was held by the nearby Theatre Royal Drury Lane that opened in 1732. A keen rivalry soon developed between the theatres. In contemporary films, Drury Lane gets a mention in the Shrek movies when the gingerbread man (Gingy) quotes The Muffin Man nursery rhyme.
Do you know the muffin man?
The muffin man, the muffin man.
Do you know the muffin man
Who lives in Drury Lane?
Both the Royal Opera House and the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane are said to be haunted. Apparently, during construction work in 1999, workers were struck by flying debris!
Now home to Disney’s Lion King, The Lyceum Theatre on Wellington Street began life in 1772 as a dance hall and concert room. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, it held the first exhibition of Madame Tussaud’s waxworks. Like many theatrical structures in London, it has been burned, reconstructed and burned again.
First London Police
The Royal Opera House is on Bow Street and the ‘Bow Street Runners’ were the first professional police force. Organised in London by magistrate and author Henry Fielding in 1749, these ‘police’ were replaced in 1829 with the formation of the Metropolitan Police. The Bow Street Magistrates’ Court was built in 1880 and there was much courtroom drama with trials for Oscar Wilde, the Kray Twins, Casanova and Dr Crippen.
Possibly the oldest pub in the area is the Lamb & Flag on Rose Street. The first mention of a pub on this site is in 1772, when it was known as The Coopers Arms (the name changed to The Lamb & Flag in 1833). The pub had a reputation for bare-knuckle prize fights in the early 19th century gaining the nickname “Bucket of Blood”.
I was working in offices on Long Acre opposite The Sussex Arms when an IRA bomb was detonated at 1.30 pm on 12 October 1992. I was on the third floor and we thought our building’s lift/elevator had collapsed. Those of us still inside at lunchtime rushed to look outside and I remember seeing a homeless man going through the bin right outside the pub. And then the police arrived and lots of them as there had been a spate of IRA bombs. Police Officers came inside and got us to move to the other side of the building. When we could leave later in the day, it didn’t look too scary although we later discovered someone had died.
The Porterhouse on Maiden Lane stands on the site of the birthplace of the artist Turner where he lived above his father’s barber-shop. It’s almost opposite Rules, the oldest restaurant in London that opened in 1798.
The Freemasons Arms on Long Acre is linked with the founding of the Football Association in 1896. Also, Charles Darwin attended the annual meeting of the Philoperisteron Society for pigeon fanciers here on 8 January 1856 and became a member later that year.
(Dickens lived in the area soon after as 26 Wellington Street, on the corner of Tavistock Street, were the offices of Charles Dickens’ weekly magazine ‘All The Year Round’. He lived in private apartments above from 1859 to 1870.)
And near to Covent Garden tube station, the two pubs you can see on opposite corners of James Street and Floral Street, The White Lion, and The Nag’s Head, were there for the early morning market workers; there has been a Nag’s Head on the same site since 1673.
The Market Building
In 1828, Whig politician John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford, flush with money from the sale of land near The Strand, petitioned for a government bill “for the improvement and regulation of Covent Garden Market”. This allowed him to commission Charles Fowler to build a neo-classical market building. The market opened in May 1830 with clear designated spaces for each trader. Simplifying this process meant the Duke could start collecting the rent himself. It was, oddly, a place where high society could intermingle with ordinary Londoners, farmers, and flower sellers.
This is the market building we can still see in the piazza today and while we may think it looks impressive at the time it was considered to be quite unadorned and functional.
It was a popular market and it kept on growing, spilling outward from Covent Garden’s square. The market was further expanded into five main areas: Russell Street, the Row, Flower Market, Charter Market and Flower Hall. The Dukes of Bedford sold their interest in the market in 1918.
By the 1930s, there were over 2000 porters in the market who would carry baskets piled up high on their heads as high as lamp posts. I’ve read that the champion could carry 25 stacked baskets.
In 1960, it was decided that the run-down market needed to move and the Covent Garden Market Bill was passed in 1961. The fruit and veg market moved across the river to Nine Elms, near Vauxhall, by 1974.
This plaque was erected in 1974 in memory of the over 100,000 costermongers’ donkeys who worked in the Covent Garden area from 1661 to the present day. It is located on the Piazza side of Jubilee Market Hall.
George Bernard’s Shaw’s 1913 Pygmalion play is set in Covent Garden. The flower girls like Eliza Doolittle sold their wares outside the portico of St Paul’s Church in the Piazza. Pygmalion was adapted to be the 1964 movie My Fair Lady starring Audrey Hepburn.
Debate and deliberation continued on what to do with the Covent Garden site and its historic buildings. Lots of redevelopment plans were fiercely fought by the Covent Garden community, arguing in favour of preserving the area for its historical value and cultural meaning. Their local pride won out and the old market buildings were preserved and opened as a major tourist and shopping destination in 1980.
The London Transport Museum opened in 1980 in the south-eastern corner of the Piazza. It occupies a historic brick and glass building built in 1871 as part of Covent Garden’s old flower market.
The Covent Garden Area Trust was formed in 1988 and was set up to take over the role of the Greater London Council (GLC) after it was disbanded in 1986. It is a charitable Trust that is funded by the properties it protects. It holds a 150-year lease on the main buildings of Covent Garden’s Piazza to protect the historic area. The Trust pays an annual rent of one red apple and a posy of flowers for each of the buildings and market halls, something that’s acted out each year at a ceremony.