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Covent Garden’s Market

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General view of Covent Garden looking north, circa 1720, from an engraving by Sutton Nicholls.

Covent Garden Market was, and is, a beehive of activity.

It sits near the Royal Opera House, St. Paul’s church, and the Theater Royal (on Drury Lane) and is only a short walk from Waterloo Bridge. Today it houses a number of shops and restaurants and is one of those places that everyone going to London has heard about.  Historically, it was a flower and fruit-and-vegetable market and for those that have read Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, Covent Garden is likely the place flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, was referring to when she says “I want to be a lady in a flower shop stead of selling at the corner of Tottenham Court Road.”

Courtesy Ellen Terrell, 2019.

On a recent trip to London I took pictures of the Market’s Rule, Orders & Bye-Laws. The sign is more recent, but the rules date from the reign of George IV and list a host of do’s and don’ts for the various vendors, along with the penalties for any infractions. You can tell from the rules themselves that the market was predominantly occupied by those selling vegetables, fruit, and flowers and it made me wonder a bit more about the market’s history.

Covent Garden traces its history back to the walled off land used by Westminster – referred to as “the garden of the Abbey and Convent.”  It was seized by Henry VIII with the Dissolution of the Monasteries and granted to the Earls of Bedford. The 4th Earl commissioned Inigo Jones to build houses on the land, and by the mid-17th century, a flower and vegetable market had developed. The area was clearly marked on a late 17th century map with the Bedford house nearby.

Whitbread’s new plan of London : drawn from authentic surveys. 1853

The area fell into some disrepute and was a known red-light district, but by the 1830’s there was an effort to improve the area and help organize the activities.  This is when Charles Fowler’s neo-classical building was built to cover the market. As the market grew, so did the London Underground and the Covent Garden station on what is now the Piccadilly line (originally the Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway), opened in 1907. The Duke of Bedford sold the land in that area, and in 1970 the market activity moved to the New Covent Garden Market and the building was repurposed into an open air shopping and tourist destination in the 1980’s.

Courtesy Ellen Terrell, 2019.

The Library has material in its collection for those wanting to read more on Covent Garden and its vendors, London theater history, and the London Underground.


Courtesy Ellen Terrell, 2019.

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