To the visitor at the beginning of the 21st century the name ' Covent Garden ' may mean the collection of shops around the traffic-free Piazza. Others may think of it as streets of designer-label boutiques and, in the evening, a place for eating and drinking. In reality, it is home to more than 6,000 people who, in the last 20 years, have had to learn to live with an explosion of retail and drinking outlets.
The history of the area can be traced back to AD 600, when the Anglo-Saxons established a trading town on most of present-day Covent Garden . When they moved into the old Roman town nearby for safety, it reverted to a market garden until the 17th century. Over the centuries since then it has developed as a residential, commercial and entertainment area. For most of the time it was the main fruit, vegetable and flower market for the fast-growing Capital.
Covent Garden occupies a sloping location to the north of the river Thames . It is located between the City - the commercial centre of London , and Westminster - the political centre. This has determined the commercial, residential and entertainment role of our neighbourhood.
There have been three distinct periods in the history of the area: an Anglo Saxon trading centre, a medieval monastic farm and market garden, and finally, in modern times, a mixed residential, commercial and entertainment area.
Little is known about the pre-history of the area. In Roman times it was probably farm land crossed by roads and tracks to the thriving, fortified, colonial outpost of Londinium to the east. The Romans left Britain at the beginning of the 5th century. Two hundred years later the first commercial development of our locality began. The Anglo Saxons did not occupy old Roman sites; they established a trading town of modest buildings, called Lundnwic, in what is now Covent Garden . Current archaeological evidence suggests that for about 300 years, from 600AD, the town thrived. However, it was easily attacked by Vikings and finally abandoned for the remains of the more secure old Roman town.
The buildings quickly disintegrated and the foundations of the town disappeared under fields. From 1200 much of the area became the property of St Peter's Convent - Westminster Abbey. For over 300 years the land was used for the production of food for the Abbey, with the surplus sold. It was a kitchen garden and mixed farm with animals, cereals and fodder. Over time, the convent's garden was called Covent Garden . The years of political and religious turmoil from 1530 to 1550 saw the end of church ownership. Through the dissolution of the religious houses and the intervention of the Crown, much of the land eventually became the property of the Bedford family, who retained it for the next 350 years.
At this time, the Strand was a country road along the much wider river Thames, linking London and Westminster . Both Queen Elizabeth and King James the First limited development around London . For the next 70 years, the only buildings were large mansions along the Strand, including the London home of the Bedford family. These controls could not survive the pressures to expand and develop the capital. In 1630 the fourth Earl of Bedford successfully obtained a licence from the crown to build a speculative residential development on part of his Covent Garden estate. In modern terms, the 'planning gain' was the first London Square , the Piazza, St Paul 's Church and much of the street pattern of the southern part of the area. This was the largest development London had seen. It was devised by the leading architect of the day, Inigo Jones. He was also architect to the Crown, so there was considerable control over the design.
The high-class residential area did not survive the upheavals of the Civil war. The original residents did not return, as the new squares in Bloomsbury were more attractive. Lucrative commercial ventures soon appeared. Shops opened at street level and market traders appeared in the Piazza. In 1670 the fifth Earl was granted a charter for a market - in modern terms 'retrospective planning permission' and the arrival of the modern mix of commercial and residential uses. Entertainment also came as coffee and ale houses opened. The first Theatre Royal opened in 1663 and the first theatre on the Opera House site in 1732. These became the resort of the new, affluent middle class, artists and local craftsmen. The remaining area of the present Covent Garden quickly became built over, often with poor quality developments. There was a wide range of craftsmen and small workshops such as engravers, printers, bookbinders and carriage makers. Many lived and worked in the area, while many others from Samuel Pepys and William Hogarth onwards sought out the area for their pleasure or inspiration.
The 18th and 19th Centuries
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and well into the 20th, the area retained this rich mix. The area had the largest wholesale flower, fruit and vegetable market in London . It moved outwards from the Piazza, taking over streets and buildings. The present market buildings appeared in the Piazza in 1830 and were joined by roofs in 1870. There was severe overcrowding in the poor quality slum housing. It was rarely quiet, with the market working most of the night and the places of entertainment open late.
Covent Garden in 1923
As the 19th century drew to a close, the entertainment industry expanded and changed with the building of many more theatres. Printing became a major employer in the area. Housing began to improve, as major road schemes around the perimeter, such as Kingsway and Shaftesbury Avenue , resulted in some slum clearance and the erection of workers' housing. The Peabody Trust also built two estates. These developments were accompanied by a general quietening down of the area, as it ceased to be the fashionable place to find entertainment.
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