Covent Garden

Brief History of Covent Garden

The area around Covent Garden stretching down to The Strand was, in mid Saxon times, a thriving trading settlement known from contemporary charters as Lundenwic. The exact extent of the Saxon settlement is calculated to be up to 60 hectares and this figure is based on evidence from archaeological excavations, chance finds of artefacts during development and research. The trading port was established along the Thames foreshore at the foot of The Strand and stretched back at least as far north as Short’s Gardens. By the late Saxon Period, possibly as a result of the threats of Viking raids, the settlement moved back to the walled Roman city leaving Lundenwic a derelict waste that was soon used as farmland. Much of the evidence for Saxon Lundenwic comes from “rescue” excavation where archaeological remains are recorded during development. Important remains have been found at Jubilee Hall and Maiden Lane or from watching renewal of sewer pipes. More recently at Bruce House, Kemble Street, the developers have worked with English Heritage to ensure that remains are preserved beneath the current development.

Covent Garden derives its name (“Convent Garden”) from the presence there in the Middle Ages of a garden belonging to Westminster Abbey. In the sixteenth century this land was acquired by Henry VIII and granted to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford. The Bedford interest was to determine the development of the site, which remained in family possession until 1918. Bedford House and its garden occupied the southern side of the site, the rest remaining as mainly pasture until the succession of the 4th Earl in 1627. The framework of the Piazza which he built survives to dictate the modern appearance of the site.

The Piazza was laid out in 1631 by Inigo Jones. Its layout owed much to his knowledge of the formally-designed piazzas of Italy, particularly the market square at Leghorn, and to the Place des Voges in Paris; Summerson has described it as ‘the first great contribution to English urbanism.’ Some of the original street names have been retained: King Street, Charles Street, Henrietta Street were named in honour of Charles I and his Queen Henrietta Maria; Catherine Street, from the consort of Charles II. Bedford Street, Russell Street, Southampton Street and Tavistock Street derive their names from the titles of the Russell family.

The Tuscan portico of St. Paul’s Church forms the principal focus on the west side of the Piazza. Although many famous people were interred within the church and churchyard their monuments were destroyed in a fire which wrecked its interior in 1795, and by subsequent development around the site; however, the historic significance of the burials at St. Paul’s can still be appreciated from church records. St. Paul’s was restored shortly after the fire at the expense of the parishioners by Thomas Hardwick.

On its north and east sides, the Piazza was bounded by Inigo Jones’ ‘portico houses’, raised on continuous arcades creating a passageway at ground level. The central area was gravelled, and marked off with timber fencing rails. The north and east sides came to be known as the Great Piazza and the Little Piazza respectively, and the houses were quickly occupied by court society. None survive today, although Bedford Chambers is an 1878 rebuilding on the lines of the old facade. In 1700 Bedford House was demolished and new houses were built on the site of its garden along the Piazza’s southern boundary; during this period market stalls previously situated against its garden wall gravitated towards the centre of the Piazza.

The stalls of market traders hawking fruit and vegetables gradually became an established feature of the square, and the Earl of Bedford, recognising the potential of a market sited between the City and Westminster, obtained the right to hold a market there by Letters Patent from Charles II in 1670. Itinerant shows were held in the Piazza, and the central square became a recreation ground for apprentices and local children.

In the eighteenth century, as the aristocracy moved to more fashionable new developments such as Dean Street in Soho and Mayfair, Covent Garden developed into a more bohemian resort for the artists, journalists and writers who frequented its many coffee houses and taverns. The painters John Zoffany and Richard Wilson lived in the Piazza and Tavistock Row (now demolished) respectively, while numerous references to the district appear in the pages of Otway, Killigrew, Shadwell, Congreve and Fielding.

The district retained its character of fashionable bohemianism for nearly two centuries. Fielding, Goldsmith and Hogarth were members of a gaming club which met in the parlour of the ‘Bedford’. The playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan held court with his associates at the Piazza Hotel and Coffee House at 10-11, Great Piazza (demolished 1858) while at No. 8 lived Thomas Killigrew, the first holder of the Patent of the Theatre Royal, and later, the antiquary James West. After episodes of use as an hotel and as the home of the National Sporting Club, the premises were taken over by a market trader; the building has since been restored. Many well-known actors also lived and worked in Covent Garden, giving St. Paul’s its sobriquet of ‘the actors’ church.’ David Garrick’s house in Southampton Street survives, Nell Gwyn was born in Bow Street, and actors are commemorated by the street names of Betterton, Macklin, Garrick, Kemble and Kean.

The Covent Garden Theatre, now the Royal Opera House, opened in 1733, built by John Rich with the aid of public subscriptions. In 1786 Handel conducted his ’Messiah’ there, however, in 1808 the building was completely gutted by fire, to be reconstructed by Sir Thomas Smirke within one year. Smirke’s building was also destroyed by fire in 1856, to be replaced by E. M. Barry’s Italian Opera House on the same site.

In the nineteenth century, in response to the rapid growth of commercial demand, the Sixth Duke of Bedford obtained a private Act for the reconstruction of the flower market. In 1828-30 the old stalls and sheds were cleared, and Charles Fowler’s neo-classical structure was erected in their place, with space to accommodate wholesaling activities. In 1872 the building was roofed over at the instigation of the Ninth Duke, to improve and enlarge the space available for trading. At the same time, the raffish character of the district diminished as the market trading population continued to expand into the surrounding streets, displacing their earlier residents. During this period the original form of Inigo Jones’ plan was overlaid and lost under piecemeal development and rebuilding.

An Act passed in 1966 provided for the removal of the fruit and vegetable market at Covent Garden to new premises at Nine Elms, Vauxhall, eight years later, and the lands in the freehold ownership of the Covent Garden Market authority were acquired by the Greater London Council and the Department of the Environment. The central Piazza area and its environs have been redeveloped as a mixture of restaurants and cafes, commercial premises and market stalls, catering mainly for tourists following a successful popular campaign to preserve the area and adapt existing buildings rather than comprehensive redevelopment. As a result of this the GLC set up a Special Covent Garden team which masterminded the piecemeal regeneration of the area in co-operation with local interest groups.

The modern layout of the formal Piazza area was defined by Inigo Jones’ ambitious designs for the fourth Duke Of Bedford, executed in the 1630s. Prior to this, much of the site had been pastureland. Jones’ Piazza was based on Italian precedent, and depending on the Tuscan portico of St. Paul’s Church to close the vista from Russell Street along its main, east-west axis. The portico was set between high brick walls with pedimented gateways giving access on to the churchyard, terminating in a pair of pavilion like houses with hipped roofs. Along the north and south sides were uniform arcades of portico houses, their continuity broken only by the street entering centrally in each side, but the Piazza’s southern boundary comprised of the garden wall of Bedford House until houses were constructed there on its demolition in 1706.

Market trading activities became an established feature of the Piazza in the eighteenth century, and were formalised in the nineteenth century by the building of Charles Fowler’s neo-classical Market Building, which transformed the Piazza from open plan square to a solid complex of buildings. Jones’ residential arcades were much altered and redeveloped during this period; none now survive, although the architect Henry Clutton attempted to reproduce their original architectural character in his buildings designed for the ninth Duke of Bedford in the 1870s.

The streets opening off the Piazza never possessed similar coherent architecture and were entirely rebuilt at various dates in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Inigo Jones’ original plans for the Piazza, and the scale of his buildings still prevails, although the focus of the site is now Fowler’s Central Market Building, restored from 1975-80 to accommodate a pub, retail shops and restaurants. The work was done by the GLC Architects Department, the principal job architects being Norman Harrison, Tim Bidwell and Daryl Fowler. The work is a model of ‘scholarly’ restoration and adaptation. In order to meet the demands of fire regulations, the southern glazed hall was excavated at basement level to create a sunken floor of shops. New features include the large lanterns with pineapples on top, a neat reference to the old use of the building.

Covent Garden Area Trust
42 Earlham St, The 7 Dials Club, London WC2H 9LA
Tel: 020 7497 9245 |
Registered Charity No: 299874. Registered at Companies House, Cardiff. Registered No: 02280893.

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