11 February 2014

Covent Garden Market - before and after

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.


Andrew said...

Respect for architectural history is so good in London, and England generally. We are usually so bad at it.

Hels said...


that is so true. I wonder if it is because citizens don't care here and so developers can destroy just about any important architecture with impunity or because citizens do care but they are defeated by local councils and VCAT.

Mind you even the Cleveland St Workhouse (1775) in London, made famous by Dickens, is still in great danger of being destroyed by developers.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Covent Garden was on my short list my last trip to London, but I never made it. Taipei has many market buildings, although a lot have been torn down and rebuilt in the ugliest manner possible.

For a nicely restored and still active market, check out Cleveland's classic West Side Market:



Hels said...


The West Side Market in Cleveland looks as if it was laid out in an architectural design not unlike Covent Garden. Cleveland is an open, functional space with great glass windows at the ends and a very smart clock tower. I am assuming from the photo that MANY citizens could buy and sell food there each day.

I don't know Taipei so this is not a specific criticism. But I am so annoyed when important market buildings are destroyed.

Trainman said...

We also visited the Royal Opera House on the same day. Great day of sight seeing.

Hels said...


perfect. The original Royal Opera House in Covent Garden opened in 1732 so the timing was exactly right for gentlemen and men with abil­ity. The tiers of boxes and balconies, covered in gold leaf, must have knocked their socks off.

Kirk Dale said...

An interesting post Hels. I enjoyed reading it while having my breakfast! I am finding that reading interesting blogs is much better for my disposition than reading the daily news!
I will be fortunate enough to be in London next week and am going to search out that plaque because although we go to Covent Garden when we are there I have never had a 'proper' look around it.

Hels said...


I would give my eye teeth to live in Germany, on the French border, as you do. You can drop into London for the weekend and be back at work on Monday morning. (Joe and I lived in Europe for 5 years, so I DO know).

If I want to get to London or Paris or Tel Aviv, I have to check with the bank manager 12 months in advance, negotiate with Qantas for the tickets I want, get the TAFE college to cover me in July, my husband has to find a locum to cover his practice for a month etc etc.

If you take a photo of you in Covent Garden next week, send me a jpg to include in the post.

marc aurel said...

In 1968 I used to walk to work past the market every morning. I was a second assistant film editor in an old stone warehouse. I was young enough not to notice decrepitude and thought the market was wonderfully vibrant. I was as happy as a clown to be working at last in my chosen profession.

Hels said...


true true... young people just want cold beer, hot food and loud music. What the architecture looks like is probably of a lesser concern.

You probably saw the very last years of the old market. It moved away totally in 1974, and didn't reopen in its current elegance until 1980.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Covent Garden always evokes many personal memories for me. I walked past the market every day in the early 1980s, when I worked in a publisher's office nearby and my wife was one of the people who organized the entertainment in the piazza. She was also involved in organizing the annual celebrations of Mr Punch's birthday - these take place on the second Sunday in May each year, in the churchyard of St Paul's Covent Garden, where a couple of dozen Punch 'Professors' set up their booths and take it in turns to perform. It's a wonderful, if somewhat surreal occasion.

Hels said...


preserving old architecture is important, but not enough. How the space is used becomes even more important over time.

I had not heard of the birthday celebrations for Mr Punch in May each year, but I think using the churchyard of St Paul's Covent Garden is inventive and very cool.

Lord Cowell said...

Inigo Jones supposedly based the square of Covent Garden on the Place des Vosges.

Hels said...

Lord Cowell,

yes indeed...that would make perfect sense. Not only would Place des Vosges been a very satisfying model, but the timing is right.

The Place des Vosges was built in the 1605-12 era. The church of St Paul's was started in 1631 next to the square. The last house was completed 5 or 6 years later.