It was a cold and windy day for our walk to Covent Garden. We set off from Holborn Tube Station as usual with our guide Aly. After crossing Kingsway we walked down towards Aldwych and then turned right into Great Queen Street. We stopped briefly at the corner of Drury Lane and Longacre for a brief history of the area.
Covent Garden was first settled in the 600s when the Saxons established a trading port to the west of the city, along Fleet Street and the Strand and up Aldwych (whose name may even mean ‘old port’) and across the area we now know as Covent Garden. The settlement, called Lundenwic, was abandoned when the Vikings came, and the land reverted to agriculture. In medieval times the monks from nearby Westminster Abbey used the area as their Convent Garden, a name which stuck and eventually was shortened to Covent Garden. With the dissolution of the monasteries by King Henry VIII the land was granted to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford. The Earl lived on the north side of the Strand, an area that boasted numerous mansions built by noblemen and bishops.
In 1586 the 3rd Earl decided to move and built Bedford House, on what was to become Southampton Street. In 1613 the former Convent Garden had a wall built around it and then in the 1630s the 4th Earl of Bedford realised that 17th century fashionable society was moving to the west end, and decided to do some speculative building. He asked the architect Inigo Jones to design him a residential square, based on the Italian piazzas. Jones has studied in Italy and was delighted to have the opportunity to build houses “fitt for the habitations of Gentlemen and men of ability”. It was in effect an experiment in town planning - creating the first public square. The project was supported by Charles II, and the designs Jones created would have a tremendous effect on later buildings in London.
We continued into Longacre which at one time had been the hub of the carriage building trade, and later car dealers. Even today you can still see signs saying ’Carriage Manufactory’ at the top of the building now housing Gap and across the road on the corner of another building Connaughts Coachworks.
We now turned into Rose Street, and came to The Lamb and Flag pub, This pub has been there since the 1600s but was originally called The Bucket of Blood (it was here that bare knuckled boxing took place and no doubt saw copious amounts of blood spilt!) There is also a small plaque which refers to an attack on John Dryden in 1679.
We then walked down to King Street and along to Inigo Place. Here we could see St. Paul’s Church, which was built as part of the new development, and is in fact older than St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was built between 1631 and 1633, the first Anglican church in London since the Reformation, and is now known as The Actors Church and has a number of memorials to actors from stage, screen and television . Its is a very interesting church and well worth a visit. Jones called it “the handsomest barn in England”.
Jones originally designed the church with the entry facing the Piazza but the Bishop of London objected, wanting the altar at the east end, so a new entrance was designed and built, and the church is entered from the rear. Unfortunately none of Jones’ original houses remain, all the buildings are now Victorian.
We then walked down through an archway on the right into Henrietta Street and turning left walked along to the Piazza to look at the front of St. Paul’s Church.
St. Paul's Church - like a 'Roman Temple'
Jones’ passion for palladian and roman architecture is at once evident . It was the first classical style building in London and looks rather like a Roman temple. The poet John Gay referred to the church in his poem ‘Trivia’ - “Where Covent Garden’s famous temple stands, that boasts the work of Jones’ immortal hands, columns, with plain magnificence appear and graceful porches lead along the square..” There is a large plaque on what would have been the main entrance describing how the church was rebuilt after a great fire in 1795 to Jones’ original design. A little to the left is an inscription carved into the stone which commemorates the very first Punch and Judy show witnessed by none other than Samuel Pepys in 1662 and recorded in his diary. This event is also commemorated in a different way, by the Punch and Judy bar in the market just behind us.
The market itself began in a small way in 1649 but expanded, particularly after the Great Fire of London destroyed the city markets in 1666. In 1670 the 5th Earl and now 1st Duke of Bedford decided to profit from the street sellers and obtained a Royal Charter ‘to hold forever a market’ selling flowers, fruit, roots and herbs. As the market expanded, the residents felt their loss of privacy, particularly as various underworld characters came to the square - thieves, hawkers, prostitutes intruding into their world, and as the private gated squares like Bloomsbury Square were built the residents moved out, leaving Convent Garden to less desirable residents.
During the Cromwellian period theatres had been banned but with Charles II’s restoration theatres were granted licences to open and quickly grew, together with coffee houses and gambling dens. By the 1760s the market occupied most of the Piazza and with the theatres which had sprung up nearby in Drury Lane and Bow Street together with the many public houses, the neighbourhood acquired a rather dubious reputation. The area teemed with all forms of low-life and illicit traders as well as the regular market traders.
When the Fleet market closed in 1826 Covent Garden became even more popular but was very disordered. In 1830 work began on a new market building which was described as ‘a structure at once perfectly fitted for its various uses; of great architectural beauty and elegance’ although at the that time it had no glass roof.
So the market changed character again and was once more a fashionable place. Charles Dickens was genuinely fascinated by the colour and atmosphere of the market and rented apartments on the corner of Wellington and Tavistock Streets where he said “I can slip out at my door in the small hours after any midnight and in one circuit of the purlieus of Covent Garden Market, can behold a state of infancy and youth, as vile as if a Bourbon sat upon the English throne.”
We then walked over to the Jubilee Market which was built in 1985. It was during the excavation of the site that archaeological discoveries were made - the settlement of Lundenwic, with significant Saxon remains, has greatly increased our scant knowledge of the Saxon settlement.
The Jubilee Market
In 1859 Flora Hall was built to house the flower market, but this was converted to a fruit market in 1887 and then in the 1980s became the London Transport Museum.
The Flora Hall now the London Transport Museum
Eventually the market expanded into the houses and shops in the surrounding streets. It became evident even before the second world war that the market could not remain in such a congested part of London but it was not until 1973 that the fruit and vegetable market moved to Nine Elms leaving empty market buildings and vacant premises.
Planners wanted to demolish the whole area but thankfully a vigorous campaign by local residents and the general public prevented this and the market was gradually renovated to become the popular shopping centre it is today. And of course not forgetting the street entertainers who can still be found here daily.
We then walked back towards Russell Street to Bow Street and up to the Royal Opera House. The original theatre, the Covent GardenTheatre was first opened in 1732 by John Rich, who had inherited one of the two royal patents given by Charles II allowing official authorisation for the production of plays. The first patent was granted to Thomas Killigrew who opened the first Theatre Royal on a converted tennis court in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Three years later it moved to it’s present site at the corner of Russell Street and Catherine Street. These two theatres, through fires and riots, held the monopoly of legitimate theatre until 1843.
The first play at the Covent Garden Theatre was ‘The Way of the World’ by William Congreave. In 1807 the theatre was destroyed by a terrible fire in which twenty fireman died, The manager producer at the time was George Frederick Handel, and many of his manuscripts were destroyed by the fire, together with his organ. The theatre was rebuilt but when the prices were increased there were riots by theatregoers who released pigs and pigeons into the auditorium causing chaos. The management admitted defeat and the prices were reduced again.
In 1847 the Covent Garden Theatre was bought by the Italian composer Guiseppe Persian who presented operas and renamed the theatre The Royal Italian Opera House. It wasn’t until 1939 that it became the Royal Opera House. Queen Victoria was a frequent visitor to the theatre and her carriage would be parked in front of the Bow Street Magistrates Court. However, she did not think it proper for her to be seen pulling up outside a Police Station so she had the building disguised by altering the traditional blue lamps with clear glass lamps. The station still retains it’s disguise today so that it may continue not to offend any modern day opera goer.
A further fire damaged the theatre in 1856 so in 1858 the theatre was rebuilt once again, by E. M. Barry in classical style. He also built the Floral Hall next door in glass and iron, which was meant to be a rival to the Bedford’s flower market. Both buildings are now part of the rebuilt Royal Opera House complex, which was recently completed.
This brought to an end our walk for today, which I found fascinating. I have tried to expand on the subjects discussed to give a slightly more in depth history of the area, as I know Aly doesn’t have the time to include everything. I hope you find it as interesting as I do.