Behind the scenes
The first historical record of Covent Garden dates back to 1200, when it consisted of fields. Owned by Westminster Abbey, the land where the Market Building and the Piazza now stand was referred to as ‘the garden of the Abbey and Convent’, hence its name.
In 1540, the land was granted to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford, whose descendant was to transform it into an innovative new London neighbourhood a century later.
With the support of King Charles I, the 5th Earl of Bedford set about converting his estate into the first ever experiment in urban planning in London. In 1630, he commissioned Inigo Jones, the most important architect of the day, to create the first public square in the country at Covent Garden.
The Piazza was a watershed in English architecture and wealthy families moved into the arcaded houses he designed to the north and east.
After the Great Fire of London in 1666, the entire square was devoted to the selling of fresh fruit and vegetables and Covent Garden became London's largest market.
In 1828 the architect Charles Fowler was commissioned to design the neo-classical Market Building but a century and a half later it was evident that the market had outgrown its magnificent venue.
In the 1970s, plans to demolish and redevelop Covent Garden were stopped following a vigorous campaign by local residents and in 1980 Covent Garden re-opened as Europe's first speciality shopping centre following a five-year renovation.
Covent Garden had played host to markets for centuries before anybody even thought of building a structure to house them. Inigo Jones had barely finished laying out the vast Italian-style Piazza before scruffy traders started mucking up its clean lines and sparkling marble with their food stalls. 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 formalised 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 dukes of Bedford would regularly auction off the right to run the market and collect the rents, and by keeping this lease short—often just a single year—they were able to benefit from the escalating value of the market. 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, the unauthorised selling of booze and the “great number of profligate and disorderly people who frequent the square, and particularly that part of it called Irish Row”. In a beautiful reminder that the British have never really changed, their biggest concern was the impact of the market on house prices. Values, they wrote, had “abated in proportion as the nuisances have increased”.
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. Bedford’s chosen architect was Charles Fowler. 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. Attractive though the Greco-Roman design for Covent Garden Market now seems, at the time it appeared remarkably functional and unadorned. In 1838, the critic JC Loudon wrote that Fowler was “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 by any possibility be mistaken for anything else”.
Including the £34,850 paid to the building contractor, William Cubitt of Gray’s Inn Road, the work had cost the duke £61,000—considerably more than he anticipated—but it was worth every penny. 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. Only a few of these remain standing, but his Covent Garden Market is still there 180 years later, pretty much unchanged, still operating as a market building, still impossible to mistake for anything else.