Dating back to 1200, Covent Garden’s first historical record describes it as fields owned by Westminster Abbey.
Referred to as ‘the garden of the Abbey and Convent’, this land now accommodates the Market Building and the Piazza, from where Covent Garden derived its name.
In 1540, John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford, was granted the land, and a century later, his descendant transformed it into an innovative neighbourhood in London with the support of King Charles I.
In 1630, Inigo Jones, the most influential architect of the day, was commissioned by the 5th Earl of Bedford to design the country’s first public square at Covent Garden, known as the Piazza, which saw wealthy families moving into the arcaded houses he created to the north and east.
Covent Garden became London’s most significant market following the Great Fire of London in 1666, with the entire square being dedicated to selling fresh fruit and vegetables.
In 1828, the neo-classical Market Building was designed by Charles Fowler, but after a century and a half, it became clear that the market had outgrown the venue.
In the 1970s, residents’ strong campaigns thwarted plans to demolish and redevelop Covent Garden.
After a five-year renovation, Covent Garden re-opened in 1980 as Europe’s first speciality shopping centre.
How The Covent Garden Market Building Came To Be
Before a building was constructed to house them, markets had been held in Covent Garden for centuries.
Inigo Jones had yet to complete his design for the sprawling Italian-style Piazza when untidy traders began spoiling its pristine appearance and sparkling marble with their food stalls.
The first written mention of the “new market in Covent Garden” dates back to 1654.
It quickly grew more like an assortment of food sellers than a traditional market, gradually taking over more of the grand square.
By 1667, the commissioners responsible for highways and sewers were deliberating on addressing the “great filth” generated by the Piazza’s traders.
In May 1670, the 5th Earl of Bedford, owner of the Piazza, obtained a grant of letters patent that formalized the market’s existence, granting him and his heirs the authority to gather traders every day, except on Sundays and Christmas Day and to charge these traders for the opportunity.
The grant’s two critical stipulations were that the market could only sell fruit, flowers, roots, and herbs and that it could not expand beyond the Piazza.
The dukes of Bedford would often auction the right to operate the market and collect rent, and by keeping the lease brief, usually for a single year, they could benefit from the market’s rising value.
The income from selling the lease increased from £5 in 1670 to £2,500 in 1798.
As the market’s popularity grew, it became a victim of its success by the mid-18th century. In 1748, a group of locals compiled a petition complaining about the “nuisances of the market.”
They were worried about the noise, the smell, the obstructed streets, the unauthorized sale of alcohol, the “great number of profligate and disorderly people who frequent the square, and particularly that part of it called Irish Row.”
Their primary concern was the market’s impact on property prices, a beautiful reminder that the British have remained consistent.
They noted that values had “diminished in proportion to the increased nuisances.”
Flush with money from selling land near The Strand, Whig politician John Russell, the 6th Duke of Bedford, petitioned for a government bill in 1828 to “improve and regulate Covent Garden Market.”
The bill granted the duke permission to demolish the Piazza’s dilapidated stalls, construct a proper market building, and establish a regulated rent system.
Charles Fowler, an architect chosen by Bedford, took a revolutionary approach to his craft by focusing on making buildings functional rather than creating fairytale castles or Gothic cathedrals.
The Greco-Roman design of the Covent Garden Market building may seem attractive now, but it was considered remarkably unadorned and practical at the time.
In 1838, critic JC Loudon praised Fowler for being “one of the few modern architects who belong to the School of Reason and who design buildings on fundamental principles instead of antiquated rules and precedent.”
He described the Covent Garden Market building as “so expressive of the purposes for which it is erected that it cannot be mistaken for anything else.”
The market opened in May 1830.
The cost of the Covent Garden Market renovation, including the payment of £34,850 to the building contractor, William Cubitt of Gray’s Inn Road, ended up being £61,000, more than the Duke of Bedford had expected.
Nevertheless, the investment proved worthwhile. With a more efficient layout and established rents for stallholders, Bedford could cease contracting out the market and instead collect rents himself.
The new market was well received, drawing crowds to the attractive and well-managed site, and the duke profited.
Charles Fowler, the architect responsible for the design, became an expert in markets, constructing some of the best examples of the era.
However, only a few of these structures still exist.
Today, nearly 180 years after its construction, Covent Garden Market still operates as a market building, and it remains essentially unchanged, retaining its distinct character and purpose.
Covent Garden is home to various shops, restaurants, and theatres and is a popular destination for tourists and Londoners alike. It’s also known for its street performers and entertainers who perform on the historic Piazza.
Overall, Covent Garden’s long and rich history has seen it evolve from a residential area for the wealthy to a cultural hub to a bustling market and a current tourist destination.