From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Covent Garden is a district in London, England, located on the eastern fringes of the West End, between St. Martin's Lane and Drury Lane. It is mainly associated with the former fruit and vegetable market located in the central square which is 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 mainly 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, it was briefly settled when it became the heart of the Anglo-Saxon trading town of Lundenwic. Returning to fields, part of the area was walled off for use as arable land and orchards by Westminster Abbey by 1200, and was referred to as "the garden of the Abbey and Convent". In 1540 Henry VIII took the land belonging to the Abbey, including, what by now was called "the Covent Garden", and in 1552 this was granted to the Earls of Bedford. The 4th Earl commissioned Inigo Jones to build some fine houses in order 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 in London, acting as the prototype for the laying-out of new estates as London grew.
The fruit and vegetable market began as a small open air market on the south side of the fashionable square around 1654. Gradually, both the market and the area became disreputable with taverns, theatres, coffee-houses and prostitutes; and the gentry began to move away, and rakes, wits and playwrights moved in. By the 18th century Covent Garden had become a well-known red-light district, attracting notable prostitutes such as Betty Careless and Jane Douglas; and Harris's List of Covent Garden Ladies, a guidebook to the prostitutes and whorehouses, became a bestseller. An Act of Parliament was drawn up to control the area, and Charles Fowler's neo-classical building was erected in 1830 to both cover and help organise the market, and 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. However, 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 popular tourist location containing cafes, pubs, small shops, and a craft market called the Apple Market; along with another market held in the Jubilee Hall.
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 Vosges the first planned square in Paris. The centrepiece of the project was an arcaded piazza. The church of St Paul's, Covent Garden 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 London 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 Bath 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".