Spitalfields Life blog was discussing the markets of Old London and noted that only Smithfield, London’s oldest wholesale market, continues trading from the same building. Leather Lane, Hoxton Market and East St Markets still operate as street markets, but Clare Market, Whitechapel Hay Market and the Caledonian Rd Market have gone forever. Meanwhile, Billingsgate, Covent Garden and Spitalfields Fruit & Vegetable Market have moved to new premises, and Leadenhall retains just one butcher selling fowl in this former cathedral of poultry.
So what happened to Covent Garden? Covent Garden Memories was very helpful. It was not until the 1630s that Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford (1593–1641), built a house for himself in Covent Garden, north of the Strand.
Plus the good Earl commissioned Royal Architect Inigo Jones to design and build a church and three terraces of fine houses around the site of a former walled garden belonging to Westminster Abbey. Presumably they wanted an Italian-style piazza/square, so the houses were designed with arcaded portico walks organised in clusters on each side of the square. These houses HAD to be “fit for the [habitations] of Gentlemen and men with ability” !!
Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market, 1926
Covent Garden today
Bedford’s square, completed in the early 1630s, was the first in London; its construction marks the true beginning of Covent Garden’s history. It is one of architecture’s great tragedies that not a single one of Inigo Jones' houses remains. However the very impressive St Paul’s Church has remained at the centre of Covent Garden life ever since. And appropriately the Russell family’s hand in the creation of the square is still commemorated today in two streets, Russell Street and Bedford Sts.
William Russell the 1st Duke of Bedford (1616-1700) thought the area half-way between Westminster in the west and the financial activities in the City was a perfect spot for trade. He somehow obtained a market charter from King Charles II and his market went from success to success. But it wasn’t until John Russell (1766-1839), the 6th Duke of Bedford’s time, that Covent Garden became an impressive piece of neo-classical architecture specialising in fruit and vegetables. What a family! Francis Russell (1819–1891) 9th Duke of Bedford did the family proud when he put a stunning roof over the building in the 1870s, making it look like a busy Victorian railway station.
Well into the Inter-War era, this market operated alongside the business and cultural heart of the City.
It was only in 1961 that the Covent Garden Market Bill was passed. And by the time I moved to London in 1972, the market that had provided the capital city with its fresh produce was starting to look very tacky. Lorry traffic was such a problem that by Novermber 1974, the market had to be totally relocated across the river to the New Covent Garden Market 5 kms away.
Covent Garden Piazza today
Normally developers would move in to an old marketplace and destroy 300+ years of bustling city life. Fortunately the good citizens of London did not want more concrete car parks and more nasty MacDonald’s shops. Reluctantly or otherwise the Greater London Council poured restoration money into the project; in 1980 they reopened the old market as a speciality shopping centre, with permanent shops, temporary stalls, cafes, pubs and a craft market.
The tradition of street entertainment seems long established. In May of 1662 at London's Covent Garden, the diarist Samuel Pepys
observed a Punch & Judy Show performed by a noted Italian performer. Pepys described the event in his diary: "...an Italian puppet play,
that is within the rails there, which is very pretty, the best that I ever saw,
and great resort of gallants." A plaque in Covent Garden commemorates the
event and can be seen today.
Covent Garden is still licensed for street entertainment, but would-be entertainers have to go through an auditioning process before they are given a fixed time in any of the venues around the market. The courtyard space is, I am delighted to say, set aside solely for classical music.