Looking around the busy and bustling streets of Covent Garden, it is hard to imagine it once as being a quiet and large stretch of greenery for the Convent or Abbey of Saint Paul at Westminster. In the thirteenth century, the plot of land between (what is today) Saint Martin’s Lane, Drury Lane, Floral Street, and Maiden Lane was a 40-acre kitchen garden for the Convent, where the monks would grow their own fruits and vegetables.
It was only in 1540 that most of the convent’s garden land was given to the 1st Earl of Bedford, John Russell, by King Henry VIII after he dissolved all the country’s monastic properties – it remained in the family until 1918.
In 1630, the Earl commissioned Inigo Jones (who also redesigned parts of Somerset House) to build houses on the site for aristocracy. Jones had spent much time travelling through Italy and was greatly influenced by the piazzas and palaces he had seen in its beautiful cities. He thus created Covent Garden’s large piazza (also the first open square in England) and the straight, grid-like streets surrounding it, with Italian architecture and town-planning in mind. The focal point of Jones’ piazza development was Saint Paul’s Church, completed and consecrated in 1638, in front of which (in the central piazza) was held the fruit and vegetable market – a continuation of Covent Garden’s long standing relationship with fruits and vegetables. With the Great Fire of London in 1666 destroying many smaller, rival markets in the city, Covent Garden market quickly became one of the most important fruit, vegetable, and flower markets in the country, with produce arriving by boat from the river Thames.
Interestingly, as today entertainers line the streets of Covent Garden, so they also did in the 1600’s. Punch & Judy shows first began showing in the area in 1642 (documented by Samuel Pepys), and they continued to be staged there through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As the market grew in size and the area became more and more linked with the thespian world and bohemian society, many of the aristocrats living in Jones’ houses began to move to more fashionable developments – such as Mayfair – in the eighteenth century. Their slow exodus saw the opening of more theatres – such as the Covent Garden Theatre in 1732 – and taverns, and the area became more associated with prostitutes.
The market, as it is today, was rebuilt in the nineteenth century due to rapid commercial growth. Between 1828 and 1830, Charles Fowler was called upon to clear the old stalls and sheds making up the market, and design a neo-classical building for the site of the new market, the glass roof added later in the 1870’s. When in 1974 Covent Garden was acquired by the Greater London Council and the market traders moved out, the site fell into disrepair. Fowler’s central building saw through a massive restoration project the following year, reopening in 1980 as Europe’s first speciality shopping centre.