Changing London

Covent Garden’s rise, fall and re-birth – Discovering the hidden history of a fascinating market

When Francis Russell licensed the development of land in Covent Garden he declared that it needed to be “fitt for the habitacions of Gentlemen and men of ability.” It was most ambitious of West End projects in the first half of the 17th century, with Inigo Jones being asked to design a grand piazza, surrounded by residential terraces on three sides (now sadly demolished) and a church (St Paul’s, which remains) on the fourth.

The Covent Garden development – built on land once owned by Westminster Abbey which established a convent garden (and at once stage this was the centre of London) – quickly proved popular, attracting numerous wealthy tenants who were happy to pay £150 a year to live there. Modelled on Renaissance architecture which Jones had seen on a visit to Italy, the tall terraced homes boasted gardens, coach houses and stabling.


St Paul’s church, Covent Garden

Today, Covent Garden is overwhelming dedicated to shopping, but given the presence of brands such as Burberry, Chanel and Opening Ceremony, it’s clear that it’s increasingly being aimed at high end customers. There are also numerous plush eateries around the old market, with names such the Ivy and Sushisamba making their presence felt. And of course on the cobbles outside, street entertainment continues to draw in the crowds, just as it has done for the last four centuries.

However, alongside Covent Garden being a place where those with money to spend come to have a good time, in recent years a number of new expensive residential developments, including The Beecham (on a site formerly occupied by Lloyds Bank and Pizza Hut) and The Southampton, have sprung up – in many ways an attempt to return to the area’s origins. When The Henrietta development came on the market in 2012 its apartments set a new price record, with four homes selling from between £4m and £6.25m.

But between the time when the area was established and the glitz and glamour of today, there is a fascinating history worth exploring. This is a story of the rise, fall and rise again of Covent Garden.

“From pasture to piazza; a den of vice, and then a hive of trade; still later the planners’ dream almost come true; and now the picturesque delight of tourists – Covent Garden has won numerous guises, some planned, some accidental,” wrote historian Roy Porter. “Its history has been shaped by the Crown, by grandees, by local government and by the will of the people.”

Earl’s estate

John Russell, the first Earl of Bedford, was granted the land by the Crown in 1552, but it was the third Earl, some 30 years later, who built himself a house there to replace the family mansion on the Strand. The aforementioned Francis Russell was his successor who commissioned Inigo Jones to design a square. He had won approval to develop the site from Charles I on the condition that he maintained Long Acre, which ran through his land. The Earl agreed to “pave and keep it as well as any street in London.”

One of my favourite parts of Covent Garden is the setting of St Paul’s church, the first incarnation of which was built between 1631 and 1633. Wanting Jones to keep costs under control for the chapel, the Earl of Bedford asked for “nothing much better than a barn.” And in response was told “you shall have handsomest barn in England.” It was London’s first classical building and the first new Anglican church to be built in one hundred years.

Later, in 1716, John Gay wrote about the church in Trivia: “Where Covent Garden’s famous temple stands / That boasts the work of Jones’s immortal hands.” It originally had an altar at the western end so the façade could face the piazza, but that annoyed the clergy so it was moved to the eastern end and the main entrance was reached from Bedford Street (as is the case today).

Sadly most of the original St Paul’s was destroyed in 1795, however it was largely re-built to Jones’s original design, so the fabulous building seen today is what people in the 18th century would also have witnessed. Over the years it has become known as the actor’s church and numerous stars are either buried or have memorials here.

During the summer months, St Paul’s churchyard is a great place to be able to sit and eat a sandwich. It is so peaceful here that the busy Covent Garden piazza on the otherwise of the church, feels miles away. And you often find theatrical productions, such as works of Shakespeare, performed in the grounds as well when it is warm enough to spend an evening sitting in the open air.

District of sin

The time of Covent Garden as a classy address was relatively short lived however because as a central fruit and vegetable market (which the fifth Earl had won a lucrative license for) grew in the 1650s, some started to move to new fashionable developments, further west, in Soho and Mayfair.

That said, the historian John Strype observed that around 1700 Covent Garden was “well inhabited by a mixture of nobility, gentry and wealth tradesmen… scarce admitting of any poor, not being pestered with mean courts and alleys.”

Soon real social decline would set in for Covent Garden however, with Porter, writing in his excellent book, London: A social history, noting that “it grew raffish and disreputable, pockmarked with taverns and brothels.”  One gang of criminals became known for assaulting elderly women and then throwing them in empty barrels, which were then rolled down the road.

By the 18th century, the area was popular with actors and artists, and over the years many theatres including the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane (licensed by Charles II in 1660) were established. The Royal Opera House opened in 1732 and, after being re-built a number of times, was refurbished in the 1990s at a cost of £200m. And since the very early days, there has been street entertainment as well, with Samuel Pepys recording it in his diary in May 1662. Today, performers need to audition for timetabled slots for fixed spots around the market.

Many of the pubs which are today popular with Londoners and tourists alike date back to when the market first started trading. There is said to have been a Nag’s Head in James street since the 1670s (although the current building hails from the 20th century). Meanwhile, the Lamb and Flag in Rose Street, was first mentioned as a pub in 1772 (it was however originally called the Cooper’s Arms – the name changing to Lamb & Flag in 1833). And acquired a reputation for staging bare-knuckle prize fights during the early 19th century when it earned the nickname “Bucket of Blood”.

Covered market

Covent Garden thrived in Victorian times as the capital’s chief fruit and vegetable market, with some one thousand porters working in the wonderful neo-classical 1830s covered market (designed by Charles Fowler, which survives to this day) and surrounding area. As I’ve noted in a previous blog, it was an extremely hectic place when everything was in full swing.

By the 1850s, the market had spread far beyond the main Piazza and stretched “From Long Acre to the Strand…from Bow-street to Bedford-street”. Some five thousand costermongers stocked up at the market to purchase fruit and vegetables which they would sell from carts on the streets over the following week.

It was noted in a contemporary account that “along each approach to the market… nothing is to be seen, on all sides, but vegetables; the pavement is covered with leaps of them waiting to be carted; the flagstones are stained green with leaves trodden underfoot… sacks full of apples and potatoes, and bundles of broccoli and rhubarb are left… upon almost every doorstep; the steps of Covent Garden Theatre are covered with fruit and vegetables; the road is blocked up with mountains of cabbages and turnips.”

While there were three official market days (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays), for most of the time it operated it traded every morning. “In the main square were the flower, fruit and vegetable sellers,” wrote historian Judith Flanders in The Victorian City. “Potatoes and ‘coarser produce’ were on one side, with more delicate fruit and vegetables set apart, and potted plants also given their own section. Cut flowers were displayed separately, where ‘walls’ (wallflowers), daffodils, roses, pinks, carnations and more could be found in season. The size of the market and the variety of colour were dazzling.”

Tourist mecca

For decades Covent Garden was condemned as an unsuitable place for a market given the congestion it faced, but it wasn’t until 1974 when it was finally moved to a 60 acre site on disused railway land at Nine Elms in Vauxhall. The Greater London Council had wanted to demolish the disused Victorian market buildings and build new high-rise offices and roads at different levels. But people power won and Covent Garden was saved from the bulldozer. And it was eventually opened as a speciality market, which has developed into the place that people see today.


The development was sold long ago – it passed from the Bedford family to the Covent Garden Estate Company in 1918 and in 2006 the estate was bought by Capco. But while the current owners are clearly investing in area, not all are happy as shop rents have hit record highs. The high fees may be manageable for luxury fashion brands selling premium products, however for independent traders they are more prohibitive (although it’s not all bad news as The Covent Garden Area 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). For me, having an array of traders, including those selling crafts from small counters, is what gives the place its edge.

More is planned for Covent Garden in the coming years following the recent announcement that Capco has raised £175m of debt from five US investors to help support its ongoing re-development of the estate. As well as attracting more luxury shops and restaurants, Robert De Niro is hoping to open an 83-bedroom boutique hotel called The Wellington. The value Covent Garden estate increased 3% in the first half of this year, to £2.1bn, the company said in July 2016. Let’s hope with all the planned changes that there is still a place for independent traders.


Street entertainer in Covent Garden




Inside St Paul’s church


Independent traders at Covent Garden market

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