Covent Garden is a district in London on the eastern fringes of the West End, between St. Martin's Lane and Drury Lane. It is associated with the former fruit and vegetable market in the central square, now a popular shopping and tourist site, and the Royal Opera House, which is also known as "Covent Garden". The district is divided by the main thoroughfare of Long Acre, north of which is given over to independent shops centred on Neal's Yard and Seven Dials, while the south contains the central square with its street performers and most of the elegant buildings, theatres and entertainment facilities, including the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and the London Transport Museum.
Though mainly fields until the 16th century, the area was briefly settled when it became the heart of the Anglo-Saxon trading town of Lundenwic. After the town was abandoned, part of the area was walled off by 1200 for use as arable land and orchards by Westminster Abbey, and was referred to as "the garden of the Abbey and Convent". The land, now called "the Covent Garden", was seized by Henry VIII, and granted to the Earls of Bedford in 1552. The 4th Earl commissioned Inigo Jones to build some fine houses to attract wealthy tenants. Jones designed the Italianate arcaded square along with the church of St Paul's. The design of the square was new to London, and had a significant influence on modern town planning, acting as the prototype for the laying-out of new estates as London grew. A small open-air fruit and vegetable market had developed on the south side of the fashionable square by 1654.
Gradually, both the market and the surrounding area fell into disrepute, as taverns, theatres, coffee-houses and brothels opened up; the gentry moved away, and rakes, wits and playwrights moved in. By the 18th century it had become a well-known red-light district, attracting notable prostitutes. An Act of Parliament was drawn up to control the area, and Charles Fowler's neo-classical building was erected in 1830 to cover and help organise the market. The area declined as a pleasure-ground as the market grew and further buildings were added: the Floral Hall, Charter Market, and in 1904 the Jubilee Market. By the end of the 1960s traffic congestion was causing problems, and in 1974 the market relocated to the New Covent Garden Market about three miles (5 km) south-west at Nine Elms. The central building re-opened as a shopping centre in 1980, and is now a tourist location containing cafes, pubs, small shops, and a craft market called the Apple Market, along with another market held in the Jubilee Hall.
Covent Garden, with the postcode WC2, falls within the London boroughs of Westminster and Camden, and the parliamentary constituencies of Cities of London and Westminster and Holborn and St Pancras. The area has been served by the Piccadilly line at Covent Garden tube station since 1907; the journey from Leicester Square, at 300 yards, is the shortest on the London Underground.
The route of the Strand on the southern boundary of what was to become Covent Garden was used during the Roman period as part of a route to Silchester, known as "Iter VII" on the Antonine Itinerary. Excavations in 2006 at St Martin-in-the-Fields revealed a Roman grave, suggesting the site had sacred significance. The area to the north of the Strand was long thought to have remained as unsettled fields until the 16th century, but theories by Alan Vince and Martin Biddle that there had been an Anglo-Saxon settlement to the west of the old Roman town of Londinium were borne out by excavations in 1985 and 2005. These revealed Covent Garden as the centre of a trading town called Lundenwic, developed around 600 AD, which stretched from Trafalgar Square to Aldwych. Alfred the Great gradually shifted the settlement into the old Roman town of Londinium from around 886 AD onwards, leaving no mark of the old town, and the site returned to fields.
Around 1200 the first mention of an abbey garden appears in a document mentioning a walled garden owned by the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of St. Peter, Westminster. A later document, dated between 1250 and 1283, refers to "the garden of the Abbot and Convent of Westminster". By the 13th century this had become a quadrangle of mixed orchard, meadow, pasture and arable land, lying between modern-day St. Martin's Lane and Drury Lane, and Floral Street and Maiden Lane. The use of the name "Covent"—an Anglo-French term for a religious community, equivalent to "monastery" or "convent"—appears in a document in 1515, when the Abbey, which had been letting out parcels of land along the north side of the Strand for inns and market gardens, granted a lease of the walled garden, referring to it as "a garden called Covent Garden". This is how it was recorded from then on.
The Bedford Estate (1552–1918)
After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540, Henry VIII took for himself the land belonging to Westminster Abbey, including the convent garden and seven acres to the north called Long Acre; and in 1552 his son, Edward VI, granted it to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford. The Russell family, who in 1694 were advanced in their peerage from Earl to Duke of Bedford, held the land from 1552 to 1918.
Russell had Bedford House and garden built on part of the land, with an entrance on the Strand, the large garden stretching back along the south side of the old walled-off convent garden. Apart from this, and allowing several poor-quality tenements to be erected, the Russells did little with the land until the 4th Earl of Bedford, Francis Russell, an active and ambitious businessman, commissioned Inigo Jones in 1630 to design and build a church and three terraces of fine houses around a large square or piazza. The commission had been prompted by Charles I taking offence at the condition of the road and houses along Long Acre, which were the responsibility of Russell and Henry Carey, 2nd Earl of Monmouth. Russell and Carey complained that under the 1625 Proclamation concerning Buildings, which restricted building in and around London, they could not build new houses; the King then granted Russell, for a fee of £2,000, a licence to build as many new houses on his land as he "shall thinke fitt and convenient". The church of St Paul's was the first building, begun in July 1631 on the western side of the square. The last house was completed in 1637.
The houses initially attracted the wealthy, though when a market developed on the south side of the square around 1654, the aristocracy moved out and coffee houses, taverns, and prostitutes moved in. The Bedford Estate was expanded in 1669 to include Bloomsbury, when Lord Russell married Lady Rachel Vaughan, one of the daughters of the 4th Earl of Southampton.
By the 18th century Covent Garden had become a well-known red-light district, attracting notable prostitutes such as Betty Careless and Jane Douglas. Descriptions of the prostitutes and where to find them were provided by Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies, the "essential guide and accessory for any serious gentleman of pleasure". In 1830 a market hall was built to provide a more permanent trading centre. In 1913, Herbrand Russell, 11th Duke of Bedford agreed to sell the Covent Garden Estate for £2 million to the MP and land speculator Harry Mallaby-Deeley, who sold his option in 1918 to the Beecham family for £250,000.
The Covent Garden Estate was part of Beecham Estates and Pills Limited from 1924 to 1928, after which time it was managed 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 had reached such a level that the use of the square as a modern wholesale distribution market was becoming unsustainable, and significant redevelopment was planned. Following a public outcry, buildings around the square were protected in 1973, preventing redevelopment. The following year the market moved to a new site in south-west London. The square languished until its central building re-opened as a shopping centre in 1980. An action plan was drawn up by Westminster Council in 2004 in consultation with residents and businesses to improve the area while retaining its historic character. The market buildings, along with several other properties in Covent Garden, were bought by a property company in 2006.
St Paul Covent Garden was a civil parish in the metropolitan area of London, England. The former area of the parish now corresponds to the Covent Garden market and surrounding streets in the City of Westminster.