If these streets could speak, what tales they would tell...
A settlement has existed in the Covent Garden area since Roman times - the first century AD, when London was known as Londinium. The area around Covent Garden and the Strand was, in the 7th century, a busy Saxon trading port called Lundenwic. Lundenwic was abandoned once the Viking invaders became too dangerous in the 9th century.
13th Century King John
Covent Garden's name has its origins in the mists of time - dating back to the reign of King John in the 13th century. It was a 40 acre site and formed the large kitchen garden for the Convent or Abbey of St Peter at Westminster. For the benefit of modern day visitors, the land lay between St Martin's Lane in the west, Drury Lane in the east, Floral Street to the north and Maiden Lane to the south.
The monks' 'convent garden' became a major source of fruit and vegetables in London and, for the next 700 years, Covent Garden became inexorably linked with fresh 'fruit and veg'.
1540 Convent Garden
In 1540, following his dispute with the Roman Catholic Church, King Henry VIII dissolved all the country’s monastic properties. Much of the Abbey’s ‘Convent Garden’ land was granted to John Russell – the 1st Earl of Bedford – and would remain in the same family until 1918.
King Edward VI bestowed the remainder of the Convent Garden to Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset.
1552 4th Earl of Bedford
Seymour was beheaded for treason and the land came once again into royal gift. ‘Le Convent Garden’ and ‘The Longacre’ were granted in perpetuity to the 4th Earl of Bedford.
In 1630 the fourth Earl of Bedford commissioned the architect Inigo Jones to build houses on the site that would be ‘fit for the habitations of gentleman’. Jones had travelled widely and was greatly inspired by the grand Piazzas and buildings in Italy. He created Covent Garden’s Piazza – the first open square in England. It was essentially an ‘experiment’ in town planning as he also designed the perfectly straight grid of streets surrounding the Piazza. Londoners at the time were used to a much more disorganised road system so this was a welcome change.
Many of the original street names from Jones’ time survive: King Street, Charles Street and Henrietta Street were all named in honour of Charles I and his Queen. Bedford Street, Russell Street, Southampton Street and Tavistock Street all owe their names to associations with the Russell family.
The Lamb & Flag pub on Rose Street is the oldest in Covent Garden. Bare-knuckle boxing fights were staged here in the 17th century with fights taking place on the cobbled front yard and in the back room, which was known as The Bucket of Blood.
Rose Street itself dates back to 1630. Notorious in its time, poet John Dryden was once violently attacked on here in 1679.
In 1638, St Paul’s Church – the centrepiece of Jones’ Piazza development – was consecrated and completed. The building of the church cost £4,000 and in 1645 Covent Garden was made a separate Parish and the church was dedicated to St. Paul.
Covent Garden has always been synonymous with entertainment, and in 1642 Samuel Pepys wrote about the first Punch and Judy shows being staged in the area. These shows continued in the 18th and 19th centuries and the area became a magnet for Bohemian society attracting many writer and artists.
The first 'fruit and veg' markets were being held regularly in Covent Garden's Piazza. It was around this time that pineapples were first being grown in greenhouses around England and for the next 250 years the pineapple became synonymous with wealth and generous hospitality. It was adopted as a motif by architects, artists and craftsmen, and became the emblem of the market.
When you are in Covent Garden Market - look up. On top of each light you will see a pineapple. It is an integral part of the building's fabric - and a key link to the Market's incredible history.
The Actors' Church 1663
London's preeminent "patent" house was founded by Thomas Killgrew (who lived on the Piazza) in 1663 under a charter granted by Charles II that conferred upon him a monopoly on legitimate drama. Today, the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane remains the oldest functioning London theatre.
Acting and opera became intrinsically linked with Covent Garden, and as well as the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, the area boasts many other theatres including the Aldwych, the Lyceum, the Duchess, the New London, the Coliseum, the Fortune and the Donmar.
Over time, many well-known actors lived and worked in the area. David Garrick's house on Southampton Street survives and many streets take their names from actors of the time: Betterton, Macklin, Garrick, Kemble and Kean. St Paul's Church became known as ""the actors' church"" and on the inner walls and in the garden are numerous plaques as memorials to famous personalities of the performing arts.
1666 The Great Fire of London
The Great Fire of London in 1666 destroyed many smaller and rival markets in the east of the city and - almost overnight - Covent Garden became the most important fruit, vegetable and flower market in the country. Exotic items from around the world now arrived by boat from the River Thames.
After the opening of the Piazza in the mid 17th century, stalls of market traders hawking fruit and vegetables became an established feature. In 1670, the 5th Earl of Bedford recognised the business potential and obtained the right to hold a market by Letters Patent from King Charles II.
In the 18th century, as the market's popularity and size grew, the aristocracy that had owned and lived in Jones' houses around Covent Garden began to gravitate to more fashionable new developments in Soho and Mayfair.
Opening Covent Garden Theatre
John Harris (a Covent Garden tavern owner) printed and published the first list of prostitutes in Covent Garden. The list included the names of the women along with their addresses, a description of their appearance and their particular talents. More than 8,000 copies of the list were sold.
performed at the
Royal Opera House
The oldest restaurant in London, Rules was established on Maiden Lane. The restaurant is still thriving today and serves traditional English food specialising in game.
6th Duke of Bedford secured an Act of Parliament regulating the market.
In the 19th century, responding to the rapid commercial growth, the 6th Duke of Bedford started works that would rebuild the market. From 1828–30, the old stalls and sheds were cleared and Bedford commissioned architect Charles Fowler to design and build a neo-classical Market to house fruit and vegetables. The Market employed more than 1,000 porters at its peak.
Opera House 1858
The beginnings of the present-day Opera House started after the fire destroyed the old one. It was designed by EM Barry who also built the Floral Hall next door.
A new flower market was constructed on the south east Piazza that now houses the London Transport Museum.
The glass roof was added to the Market Building.
The 9th Duke oversaw the enclosure of the Market with a new roof. It is the building that stands today.
The National Sporting Club was opened on 5 March 1891 at 43 King Street, Covent Garden, in what had previously been Evans' Supper Rooms. The building was established as a mecca for boxing. Boxing at the time was so corrupt that on one particular night one of the boxers feigned blindness and he was awarded the title of winner. The boxing club then realised the farcical nature of the situation and set about gentrifying the sport.
A foreign flower market was opened on the south side – now known as Jubilee Hall.
Ownership of the Market passed from the Bedford family to the Covent Garden Estate Company at the end of the Great War. The Duke of Bedford originally tried to sell the Market to Sir Joseph Beecham but he died during the process and it was therefore sold to the Covent Garden Estate Company where Sir Beecham’s sons were directors.
The Scottish engineer John Logie Baird transmitted the first television picture from a street near the Covent Garden Piazza. The picture was of a head of a ventriloquist’s dummy named ‘Stooky Bill’.
An Act of Parliament was passed that would clear the way to remove the fruit and vegetable market at Covent Garden to new premises at Nine Elms after it had grown-out of the Market at Covent Garden.
Covent Garden was used as the backdrop for the film ‘My Fair Lady’, where the cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, is successfully introduced into high society by the professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins.
The stage version of My Fair Lady premiered in New York in 1956 and at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London in 1958. The reviews heralded the show a triumph and it went on to break all box office records. The film was nominated for 12 Oscars, won eight and remains a classic to this day.
The market traders moved out and the site was acquired by the Greater London Council. When Covent Garden Market closed, the site fell into disrepair and most of the surrounding area was earmarked for complete redevelopment which would have included hotels, conference centres and major roads. However public outcry resulted in the Secretary of State for the Environment listing over 250 buildings to protect them.
In 1974, a Theatre Museum was established as an institution in its own right when the V&A’s collection was combined with the collection held by the British Theatre Museum Association. The Theatre Museum was located in the building on the corner of Russell Street and Wellington Street, and closed in 2007.
The Greater London Council began major restoration work on the central Market Building.
Covent Garden Market re-opened as Europe’s first speciality shopping centre. Its subsequent success story as a major attraction is now part of recent history.
After the abolition of the Greater London Council, the Covent Garden Area Trust (CGAT) was establish which was given special powers under its 150 year lease of the Market Building to ensure the continued long-term architectural conservation and economic success of this important landmark. Annual rent payable by the Trust to the landlord for the lease is one red apple and one posy of flowers! www.cgareatrust.org.uk
Capital & Counties (part of Liberty International plc) purchased the Covent Garden estate from Scottish Widows. The Estate now comprises up to 750,000 sq ft of retail, office and residential space.
Capital & Counties established the Covent Garden London team who are now based in the Piazza. The team’s vision is to improve and regenerate the area.
Capital & Counties de-merged from Liberty International, forming Capital & Counties Properties Group. The regeneration of Covent Garden continues with exciting new shops and restaurants. Covent Garden London organise many one-off and exciting cultural events in the Piazza; this, coupled with the daily street performance and entertainment offers visitors to Covent Garden a totally unique experience.