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Covent Garden ( ) is a district in Londonmarker, Englandmarker, located in the easternmost parts of the City of Westminstermarker and the southwestern corner of the London Borough of Camdenmarker. The area is dominated by shopping, street performers, and entertainment facilities, and it contains an entrance to the Royal Opera Housemarker, which is also widely-known simply as "Covent Garden", and the bustling Seven Dialsmarker area.

The area is bounded by High Holbornmarker to the north, Kingswaymarker to the east, the Strandmarker to the south and Charing Cross Roadmarker to the west. Covent Garden Piazza is located in the geographical centre of the area and was the site of a flower, fruit and vegetable market from the 1500s until 1974, when the wholesale market relocated to New Covent Garden Marketmarker in Nine Elms. Nearby areas include Sohomarker, St James'smarker, Bloomsburymarker, and Holbornmarker.


Roman times to the 1500s

A settlement has existed in the area since the Roman times as an outlier settlement near Londiniummarker, the most detailed evidence coming from the area near St Martin's in the Fieldsmarker, where high status Romano-British burials were uncovered in 2004. After the collapse of the Roman Empire in Britain the area was deserted, but with the arrival of the Anglo-Saxon settlements this area became Lundenwic the principal early medieval township. The Anglo-Saxons largely ignored the intramural area of Londinium, as they had most Roman cities. Alfred the Great abandoned the area, from at least 886, when he occupied Londinium as Lundenburh as part of his reconquest of the Viking occupation. This explains why part of the area is named Aldwychmarker ie 'old town'. There are extensive early-medieval archaeological remains in the Covent Garden area reflecting this settlement and abandonment period and process.

"Covent Garden" (covent being the Middle English form of the modern word convent) was the name given, during the reign of King John (1199–1216), to a patch in the county of Middlesexmarker, bordered west and east by what is now St. Martin's Lanemarker and Drury Lanemarker, and north and south by Floral Street and a line drawn from Chandos Place, along Maiden Lane and Exeter Street to the Aldwychmarker.In this quadrangle the Abbey or Convent of St. Peter, Westminster, maintained a large kitchen garden throughout the Middle Ages to provide its daily food. Over the next three centuries, the monks' old "convent garden" became a major source of fruit and vegetables in London and was managed by a succession of leaseholders by grant from the Abbot of Westminster.

This type of lease eventually led to property disputes throughout the kingdom, which Henry VIII solved in 1540 by the stroke of a pen when he dissolved the monasteries and appropriated their land.

King Henry VIII granted part of the land to Baron Russell, Lord High Admiral and, later, Earl of Bedford. In fulfilment of his father's dying wish, King Edward VI bestowed the remainder of the convent garden in 1547 to his maternal uncle, Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset who began building Somerset Housemarker on the south side of Strandmarker the next year. When Seymour was beheaded for treason in 1552, the land once again came into royal gift, and was awarded four months later to one of those who had contributed to Seymour's downfall. Forty acres (16 ha), known as "le Covent Garden" plus "the long acre", were granted by royal patent in perpetuity to the Earl of Bedford.

1600s to 1800s

The modern-day Covent Garden has its roots in the early 17th century when land ("the Convent's Garden") was redeveloped by Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford. The area was designed by Inigo Jones, the first and greatest of English Renaissance architects. He was inspired by late 15th century and early 16th century planned market towns known as bastides (themselves modelled on Roman colonial towns by way of nearby monasteries) and the Place des Vosgesmarker the first planned square in Paris. The centrepiece of the project was an arcaded piazza. The church of St Paul's, Covent Gardenmarker stood at the centre of the western side of the piazza. A market, which was originally open air, occupied the centre of the piazza.

The area rapidly became a base for market traders, an area to which foreign travelers resorted. Exotic items from around the world were carried on boats up the River Thames and sold on from Covent Garden. The first mention of a Punch and Judy show in Britain was recorded by diarist Samuel Pepys, who saw such a show in the square in May 1662. Following the Great Fire of Londonmarker of 1666 which destroyed rival markets towards the east of the city, the market became the most important in the country. Today Covent Garden is the only part of London licensed for street entertainment, with performers having to undertake auditions for the Market's management and representatives of the performers' union and signing up to timetabled slots. In 1830 a grand building reminiscent of the Roman baths such as those found in Bathmarker was built to provide a more permanent trading centre.

On 7 April 1779, the pavement outside the Covent Garden playhouse was the scene of the notorious murder of Martha Ray, mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, by her admirer the Rev. James Hackman, who was hanged twelve days later.

Covent Garden was a well-known red-light district in the 18th century. The activities in Covent Garden were documented in Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies, a titillating list providing the addresses of prostitutes and whore houses, as well as details of their “specialities”. During its heyday (1757 to 1795), Harris’s List was the "essential guide and accessory for any serious gentleman of pleasure".

Modern-day period

The exterior of Covent Garden market
The interior of Covent Garden Market
Street view down to Covent Garden Market
Covent Garden Market with Christmas lights at night
In 1913, responding to political feeling against large holdings of real property, and wishing to diversify his investment portfolio into less politically sensitive fields, the Duke of Bedford agreed to sell the Covent Garden Estate to the MP and land speculator Harry Mallaby-Deeley for £2 million. The following year Mallaby-Deeley sold his option to buy to the pill manufacturer Sir Joseph Beecham for £250,000. After delays caused by the First World War and the death of Sir Joseph, the sale was finalised in 1918, the purchasers being Sir Joseph's two sons, Sir Thomas and Henry. The transaction included the market, 231 other properties, and sundry other rights. The property was part of Beecham Estates and Pills Limited from 1924 to 1928 and from 1928 it was owned by a successor company called Covent Garden Properties Company Limited, owned by the Beechams and other private investors. This new company sold some properties at Covent Garden, while becoming active in property investment in other parts of London. In 1962 the bulk of the remaining properties in the Covent Garden area, including the market, were sold to the newly established government-owned Covent Garden Authority for £3,925,000.

By the end of the 1960s, traffic congestion in the surrounding area had reached such a level that the use of the square as a market, which required increasingly large lorries for deliveries and distribution, was becoming unsustainable. The whole area was threatened with complete redevelopment. Following a public outcry, in 1973 the Home Secretary, Robert Carr, gave dozens of buildings around the square listed building status, preventing redevelopment. The following year the market finally moved to a new site (called the New Covent Garden Marketmarker) about three miles (5 km) south-west at Nine Elms. The square languished until its central building re-opened as a shopping centre and tourist attraction in 1980. Today the shops largely sell novelty items, though street performers can be seen almost every day of the year, both on the pitches within the market, and on the West and East Piazza's/James Street outside. More serious shoppers gravitate to Long Acre, which has a range of clothes shops and boutiques, and Neal Street, noted for its large number of shoe shops. London's Transport Museummarker and the side entrance to the Royal Opera Housemarker box office and other facilities are also located on the Piazza.

In August 2007, Covent Garden launched the UK's first food Night Market. Fresh produce from over 35 different stalls included Neal's Yard's specialist cheeses, Spore Boys' mushroom sandwiches, Gourmet Candy Company, Ginger Pig sausages and Burnt Sugar fudge. The aim of the Night Market was to bring Covent Garden back to its roots as the "Larder of London". Organisers are hoping to make it a permanent event in 2008 as part of a wider initiative to regenerate interest in the Covent Garden area.

Covent Garden Market and Piazza was bought by Capital and Counties in August 2006 for £421 million. In March 2007 Capco also acquired the shops located under the Royal Opera House.The complete Covent Garden Estate owned by Capital and Counties consists of . and has a market value of £650 million.

Covent Garden Market reopened as a retail centre in 1980, after the produce market was moved to its current location in Nine Elms. Currently one of the most famous and popular parts of the covered Covent Garden market is Apple Market, a small subsection of the main market. Street entertainment at Covent Garden was first mentioned in Samuel Pepys' diary in 1662.Today Covent Garden is the only part of London licensed for street entertainment with performers having to undertake auditions for the Market's management and representatives of the performers' union and signing up to timetabled slots.

Currently performers operate in a number of venues around the market, including the North Hall, West Piazza, and South Hall Courtyard. The courtyard space is dedicated to classical music only. There are street performances at Covent Garden Market every day of the year, except Christmas Day. Shows run throughout the day and are 30–40 minutes in length.

In March 2008, Capital and Counties proposed to reduce street performances by approximately 50%. In the Courtyard, shows currently run back to back from 10:30 am to 7:00 pm, with short breaks in between each show, allowing for two shows each hour. Under the new proposal, performances would be cut to one 30-minute show each hour. The musicians and performers staged a demonstration "busk" in the Piazza against these cuts on 27 March with the opera singer Lesley Garrett who is supporting their campaign. They have organised a petition which so far has over 5,000 signatures including Ken Livingstone, Brian Paddick, Vasko Vassilev, Brian Eno and Victoria Wood.

A street performer in front of the Market

Royal Opera House

In the 1960s an extension to the rear of the Royal Opera House had somewhat improved its facilities, but as time passed, it became clear that a major remodelling was needed. In 1975 the government gave adjacent land for the modernisation, refurbishment and extension of the house and, by 1995, with the availability of National Lottery money, significant funds had been raised. A major reconstruction of the building took place between 1996 and 2000, involving the demolition of almost the whole site (except for the auditorium itself), including several adjacent buildings, to make room for a major increase in the overall scale of the complex. In terms of volume, well over half of the complex is new.

The new opera house has greatly improved technical, rehearsal, office and educational facilities, a new studio theatre, the Linbury Theatre, and much more public space. The inclusion of the adjacent old Floral Hall, long a part of the old Covent Garden Market but in general disrepair for many years, into the actual opera house created a new and extensive public gathering place. The venue is now claimed by the ROH to be the most modern theatre facility in Europe.

St Paul's Church

In 2005 the path leading up to the front of St Paul's Churchmarker was given plaques similar to those in Leicester Squaremarker and the Hollywood Walk of Famemarker, which became known as the Avenue of Starsmarker. The plaques quickly deteriorated and only lasted a year before being removed.

Transport and locale

Location in context

Also nearby

Nearest stations

Cultural connections

The marketplace and Royal Opera House were memorably brought together in the opening of George Bernard Shaw's play, Pygmalion, as well its musical adaptation by Alan Jay Lerner, My Fair Lady. In both, Professor Henry Higgins is waiting for a cab to take him home from the opera when he comes across Eliza Doolittle selling flowers in the market.

In the mid-1950s, before he directed such films as If.... and O Lucky Man!, Lindsay Anderson directed a short film about the daily activities of the Covent Garden market called Every Day Except Christmas. It shows 12 hours in the life of the market and market people, now long gone from the area, but it also reflects three centuries of tradition in the operation of the daily fruit and vegetable market.

Alfred Hitchcock's 1972 film, Frenzy, likewise takes place amongst the pubs and fruit markets of Covent Garden. The serial sex killer in Frenzy is a local fruit vendor, and the film features several blackly comic moments suggesting a metaphorical correlation between the consumption of food and the act of rape–murder. Hitchcock was the son of a retail greengrocer in North-East London and would have known the area, so the film was partly conceived (and marketed) as a nostalgic return to familiar streets from the director's childhood.


Neal Street
Neal Street, named after Thomas Neale (1641-1699) who designed the Seven Dialsmarker development and set up the first central postal service in the American colonies, was home to the punk club The Roxymarker in 1977. It is the centre of a fashion-focused mid-market retailing district which caters mainly for young people.


  • Boursnell, Clive, Covent Garden Market, London: Studio Vista, 1977, ISBN 0-289-70806-0 (mainly author's photographs of the Market activities and people)


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