Covent Garden: A Brief History

From humble beginnings as a ‘Convent Garden’ to the thriving heart of the West End, Covent Garden has a colourful history. Originally a bustling Saxon trading settlement to the aristocracy, it developed over time into what it is known for today, a lively marketplace with cobbled streets which are entirely pedestrianised.

The history of Covent Garden dates back to the 7th Century when it was a thriving trading settlement. At this time, it was situated on the River Thames (its shoreline being the Strand) but by the late Saxon period – possibly as a result of the threats of Viking raids – the area was left derelict and was soon used as farmland instead.

After the initial settlement and as early as the 1500s, the Monks of Westminster Abbey used it as their ‘Convent Garden’ to grow vegetables. In 1536, King Henry VIII seized the land as part of the dissolution of the monasteries, until in 1552 when it came into the hands of John Russell, the first Earl of Bedford.

In 1630 the 4th Earl of Bedford instructed Inigo Jones to design and build a church and create “houses and buildings fit for the habitations of gentlemen and men of ability” around the large piazza – its layout owing much to Inigo Jones’ knowledge of the formally designed and admired piazzas of Italy. By 1670, the stalls of market traders selling fruit and vegetables had become an established feature of the square.

However, in the 18th Century the aristocracy slowly started to move to more fashionable new developments such as those in Soho and Mayfair. Covent Garden then began to develop into a more bohemian playground for artists, journalists and writers who liked to frequent its many coffee houses and taverns.

In the 1800’s, the 6th Duke of Bedford – in response to the rapid growth of commercial demand – obtained permission to reconstruct the flower market. The old stalls were cleared away and Charles Fowler’s neo-classical structure was erected in their place. It wasn’t long before crowds flocked to the new well-managed market and testament to Fowler’s design, this is the basis of the structure we know and love today. In 1974 the fruit and vegetable market was moved to a new premises at Nine Elms in Vauxhall where it is still based, whilst the central Piazza in Covent Garden was redeveloped with the opening of restaurants, cafes, shops and market stalls.

Today, Covent Garden remains just as popular and is considered a must-see destination for those who enjoys shopping, theatre, restaurants, bars, history and culture.