Covent Garden - History and Facts | History Hit

Covent Garden

Amy Irvine

28 Jul 2022
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Covent Garden

One of London’s most famous markets, Covent Garden is a district in London close to the West End. It’s divided by Long Acre, with independent shops to the north (around Neal’s Yard and Seven Dials) and the central square to the south.

The market itself was initially a place to buy fruit and vegetables, but over the centuries has become a popular shopping and tourist site, famous for its street performers.

History of Covent Garden

The area was briefly settled in the 7th century by the Anglo-Saxons as a trading town (Lundenwic) then abandoned. Then in 1200, the Abbot of Westminster Abbey walled 40 acres off for use by the convent of St Peter’s, Westminster, who maintained a kitchen garden there. This “Convent Garden” became known as Covent Garden.

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the site was granted to John Russell, the 1st Earl of Bedford, in 1552. His descendent, the 4th Earl, later commissioned the famous architect Inigo Jones to build a residential square on land to attract wealthy tenants – the first ‘square’ in London. Jones did so inspired by the Italian piazza of Livorno.

As part of the square, Jones also designed the church of St Paul in 1630, the first wholly and authentically classical church built in England, inspired by Palladio and a Tuscan temple. Now known as the Actor’s Church for its links to London’s theatre, it was here where Samuel Pepys watched England’s first Punch and Judy show in 1662. (Indeed opposite St Paul’s church is the Punch and Judy pub, built in 1787 and named after the puppet shows performed in the piazza to entertain the flower-sellers’ children).

The market began in 1654 after the Earl of Bedford allowed several temporary open-air fruit-and-vegetable stalls to be built in the gardens of Bedford House. By 1670, a licence was granted to hold a market every day except Sundays, and by 1700 the market was held three times a week, with permanent shops being built against the garden wall. (Pineapples were very popular at the time, and were adopted as the symbol of Covent Garden Market).

Gradually the area fell into disrepute as taverns, theatres and brothels opened, leading to an Act of Parliament being drawn up to bring the area under control, raising the tone of the market once more. Still, the area around Covent Garden became synonymous with theatre, with the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane and the Royal Opera House close by. (Rules Restaurant on nearby Maiden Lane was established in 1798, and is now the oldest restaurant in London).

In 1828 the entire complex was rebuilt to a neo-classical design by Charles Fowler to cover and organise the market. It was later expanded with the Floral Hall, Charter Market and Jubilee Market.

Bombs fell on Covent Garden during World War Two, yet most structures were unharmed. Traffic congestion at the end of the 1960s prompted the market to relocate to the New Covent Garden Market in 1974 at Nine Elms, and the original market’s central building re-opened as a shopping centre in 1980.

Covent Garden today

The square and surrounding area have now become predominantly a tourist destination, with craft markets, cafes and pubs – and Covent Garden’s notorious street performers. Small shops have increasingly been surpassed by high-end, designer or more established retail giants such as the Apple Store, though there are still many tourist-friendly souvenir markets and independent craft stalls.

It is close to an array of other famous sites including the Royal Opera House, London Transport Museum, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, St Paul’s church, the London Transport Museum (housed in a building built in 1871 as part of Covent Garden’s old flower market) and the Apple Market (selling antiques and crafts). Covent Garden’s street performers remain, from busking musicians to magicians.

Getting to Covent Garden

The market is around a 2-3 minute walk from Covent Garden underground station on the Piccadilly Line. As the market gets busy, it’s easier to walk here from other nearby underground stations such as Leicester Square, just 275 metres away.