The creation of Covent Garden

Covent Garden as it was in 1660, looking west with St.Paul’s church on the far side of the piazza.

The streets of London had developed by a largely organic and disorderly process over many centuries, with little in the way of any kind of plan or uniformity. King Charles I was interested in creating areas and buildings in the capital that would rival those of the major cities of the Continent. At the same time Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford wanted to develop his land known as Covent Garden between Long Acre and the Strand. In medieval times it had been a market garden belonging to and supplying produce to Westminster Abbey. Bedford obtained a licence from the King to develop forty eight acres and commissioned the architect Inigo Jones to create a group of residential buildings and a church. Jones decided to base his designs on observations he had made in Paris and a piazza he had seen at Livorno in northern Italy, creating something similar to the recently completed Place des Vosges in Paris.

The first buildings to be completed in 1631 were two four-storey premises on what became the west side of the development. They were followed by twenty two five-storey stuccoed and pilastered houses along two terraces to the north and east. The top three floors of each house extended beyond the ground floor creating a public arcade at street level along which people could walk in all weathers. Below ground each house contained a large basement. A luxurious feature was that water was piped through conduits to the back yard of each building. By the standards of London at that time they were of a revolutionary style, with elegant, uniform façades. These dwellings were unusual in that middle class people lived side by side rather than individual premises of varying sorts as they had previously. They were more typical of Dutch towns such as Antwerp and Amsterdam than anything that had previously been built in England and set a new standard that would be followed in London and other British cities during the following centuries. The houses immediately became popular residences for wealthier Londoners. At the outset each house was leased to its tenants, with the first terms being of thirty-one years but later terms of forty-one years.

The new church of St.Paul’s was planned for local residents, sitting between the two original four-storey buildings on the west side. At that time almost all churches in London and elsewhere in England had existed since at least the Middle Ages and the one at Covent Garden was the first Anglican church to be built on a new site in England since the Reformation of the previous century. The Earl, presumably viewing a church as something that would bring no profit, did not want to pay a large sum for its building and (according to Horace Walpole, writing over a century later) instructed Jones that he “would have it not much better than a barn” to which the architect replied: “You shall have the handsomest barn in England!”.

Jones originally designed the church with the altar at the west end allowing for an entrance and grand portico, with two round and two square Tuscan columns, opening at the east into the piazza. However the unusual location for the altar was not accepted by the Anglican authorities and it was moved to the traditional east end. Nevertheless, Jones went ahead with his plan for the portico onto the piazza, making it at that time the dominant feature of the square. To complete the design a false door was created below the portico but with the church entered through the churchyard at the opposite end, giving it a strange and unique layout.

The intention was that St.Paul’s would become the local parish church, which required Parliamentary legislation. However Parliament was suspended for many years and when it was finally recalled other national events took precedence so it was not until 1660 that Covent Garden officially became a parish.

When originally completed the entire development was built around an open square, or piazza. The terraced houses made up the eastern and northern sides; the church and two other buildings the western side; and the rear garden wall of the Earl’s Tudor-style Bedford House, which fronted on to the north side of the Strand, along the southern side. The original plan was to include some form of structure in the centre such as a fountain or statue but initially only a single tree was planted that was in turn later replaced with a column. The piazza became a place for Londoners to take a stroll and for open-air public entertainment. In 1662 Samuel Pepys wrote of watching a Punch and Judy show beneath the portico of St.Paul’s.

Following the completion of the main Covent Garden development new streets of houses were built out in each direction in 1631: Henrietta Street, Maiden Lane and Bedford Street. The original piazza atmosphere of Covent Garden lasted only a few decades. During the 1650s a fruit and vegetable market developed in the square, although it was not until the 19th century that the market arcade was constructed, changing Covent Garden to the modern layout.

Sources include: Liza Picard ‘Restoration London’; John Richardson ‘Annals of London’; Gillian Tindall ‘The Man Who Drew London’. With thanks to Jean Olwen Maynard for help with fact-checking and proof-reading.

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