The central square in Covent Garden is simply called “Covent Garden”, often marketed as “Covent Garden Piazza” to distinguish it from the eponymous surrounding area. Designed and laid out in 1630, it was the first modern square in London—originally a flat, open space or piazza with low railings. From about 1635 on wards there were many private residents of note, including the nobility, living in the Great Piazza. A casual market started on the south side, and by 1830 the present market hall had been built. The space is popular with street performers, who audition with the site’s owners for an allocated slot.
Covent Garden had played host to markets for centuries before anybody even thought of building a structure to house them. The first written reference to “the new market in Covent Garden” dates from 1654. More a hotch-potch of food sellers than any kind of formal market, it grew rapidly, taking over more and more of the grand square. By 1667, the commissioners for highways and sewers were discussing what to do about the “great ffylth” generated by the traders in the Piazza.
In May 1670, the Piazza’s owner, the 5th Earl of Bedford, secured a grant of letters patent which formalized the presence of the market, giving him and his heirs the right to gather traders every day except Sundays and Christmas Day and, more importantly, charge those traders for the privilege. The two key rules in the grant were that only fruit, flowers, roots and herbs could be sold and that the market could not extend beyond the Piazza. The annual income achieved by selling the lease rose from £5 in 1670 to £2,500 in 1798.
By the mid-18th century, the market was becoming a victim of its own popularity. In 1748, a group of local residents compiled a petition to complain about “the nuisances of the market”. They were concerned about the noise, the stench, the obstructed streets and the unauthorized selling of booze.
In 1828, Whig politician John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford, flush with money from the sale of land near The Strand, petitioned for a government bill “for the improvement and regulation of Covent Garden Market”. The bill allowed the duke to knock down the Piazza’s ramshackle stalls, erect a proper market building and institute a regulated system of rents. The architect he chose – Charles Fowler, took what was then a revolutionary approach to his craft—rather than making his buildings look like fairytale castles or Gothic cathedrals, he concentrated instead on making them fit for purpose.
The market opened in May 1830. With the space more economically organised and the rents for stallholders now clearly established, Bedford was able to stop contracting the market out and instead start collecting rents himself. Crowds flocked to the attractive and well managed new market and the duke reaped the dividends. Charles Fowler went on to become something of an expert in markets, building some of the finest examples of the era.
Further buildings were added—the Floral hall, Charter Market, and in 1904 the Jubilee Market for foreign flowers was built by Cubitt and Howard.[
By the end of the 1960s, traffic congestion was causing problems for the market, which required increasingly large lorries for deliveries and distribution. Redevelopment was considered, but protests from the Covent Garden Community Association in 1973 prompted the Home Secretary, Robert Carr, to give dozens of buildings around the square listed-building status, preventing redevelopment. The following year the market relocated to its new site, New Covent Garden Market, about three miles (5 km) south-west at Nine Elms. The central building re-opened as a shopping centre in 1980, with cafes, pubs, small shops and a craft market called the Apple Market. Another market, the Jubilee Market, is held in the Jubilee Hall on the south side of the square.
The first time I visited Covent Garden I had the pleasure to see flower show on display. It was magnificent and like nothing I’ve seen before.
If you are in London in November or December be sure to include Covent Garden in your itinerary. You’ll see one of the best Christmas decorations in the town, no matter if you visit during the day or at the evening.
Here’s the location and you can combine your visit with the Transport Museum or the Royal Opera House .