Post image for The Origins Of Covent Garden Market

Covent Garden began life as an actual garden. The Abbey of St Peter At Westminster had a very large garden: the area now taken up between Long Acre, Drury Lane and The Strand.  After the Monasteries were dissolved by Henry VIII, the land passed to John Russell, the first Earl of Bedford. In around 1586, his successor, the Third Earl Bedford built Bedford House on the pastureland roughly where Southampton Street stands today.

In 1627, Francis Russell succeeded his cousin to become the 4th Earl of Bedford. A building speculator by trade, he paid £2,000 for a licence to take over the houses to the north of his garden wall. He commissioned the architect Indigo Jones to build a new square, which cost another £2,000. The square consisted of three sides of regal housing, with the church of St Paul on the other. The church was completed in 1633, the houses by 1639. This became the Piazza, one of the most sought after addresses in the whole of London. Sadly, none of these original houses remain.

Covent Garden Market came into being in 1656 when a number of ramshackle stalls began to sell fruit and vegetables in the gardens of Bedford House. In 1670 the 5th Earl was granted a royal charter to enable him to hold a market selling flowers, fruit, roots and herbs, and to charge dealers a toll. In 1677-, 22 shops were built against the wall of Bedford House gardens. By 1697 it was a three times a week market.

The big fruit, vegetable, meat and fish market of the time was Stocks Market, which was established in the 13th century and held on the site of where the Mansion House is today. Covent Garden Market began to grow in 1748, by which time several of the market buildings began to grow additional storeys. In the same year the vicar of St Paul’s presented a petition to the Duke complaining about the market’s ramshackle state. He spent £4,000 rebuilding.

Several of the buildings were coffee houses and places to eat. Although street traders had existed in the area since the Convent was around, they were the first eating houses and purpose built restaurants in Covent Garden. One of them was Mrs Bradley’s Tavern, an establishment renowned for its roast meats and pies. The closure of the Stocks Market in 1737, brought a huge increase in business to Covent Garden. It was clear that the market and the area  surrounding it was falling into disrepute. Theatres “of the lowest kind” were opening, milliners shops closed and taverns, coffee-houses and brothels snapped up their leases. The aristocracy and their acolytes moved away, and rakes, wits and writers moved in.

The market itself was thriving. In the year 1771, the Irish statesman Edmund Burke wrote that he sold £14 worth of carrots there, and remarked that he could have got double the price. One of the more unusual products sold at Covent Garden Market at the time were live hedgehogs, which served the joint purpose of being affordable pets and also pest controllers for people’s gardens.

From 1826-30, the gradual closure of the nearby Fleet Market to build Farringdon Road brought even more business and more clamour. It was clear that the ramshackle of buildings, most of them constructed from wood, could not cope with demand.

In 1828 the 6th Earl of Bedford requested an Act of Parliament to regulate it. Once it was obtained, he commissioned Charles Fowler to design the neo-classical  building that today forms the centre of Covent Garden. It was built by William Cubitt and Company, who were asked to add more building. These were the Floral Hall (illustrated above) and Charter Market, followed many years later in 1904 by the Jubilee Market for foreign flowers.

The area was one of London’s more colourful locations. The young and still poor Charles Dickens writes how he took a room overlooking the market where he could gaze at the sights – including piles of pineapples – when he was down and times were hard.

By the close of the 19th century, the market consisted of five sections: the Flower market, the Row area, the Russell Street end, Floral Hall and the Flower Market. The satirical magazine Punch took up a campaign against what it called the expansion of “Mud Salad Market”.

After 1918 Covent Garden Market and all trading rights were sold by the Duke of Bedford to the Covent Garden Estate Company, which was owned by the Beecham Family, best known for pharmaceuticals and Beecham’s Powder, not to mention “health drinks” like Ribena and Lucozade. In 1961 the company was taken over by the Covent Garden Market Authority, set up by Act of Parliament. In 1974, due to congestion and the difficulty of getting fruit, flowers and vegetables in and out of the centre of London, the market moved to a 64 acre site at Nine Elms, near Vauxhall, where it is today.

The existing buildings at Covent Garden were converted into retail space and a tourist hot-spot was born.

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London Dungeons

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Torture - though not at London DungeonYou may be surprised to learn that there are more authentic London Dungeons than the London Tourist Attraction beside London Bridge railway station. The Tower of London could be classed as one big dungeon – though not much of it is below ground – and there are other, more genuine dungeon prisons in London.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a dungeon as “an underground prison, especially in a castle” and, contrary to popular myth, dungeons are not really an English thing. Many of the Scottish and French castles contain dungeons, but the practice never really caught on in the London area. When castles were being built in the few centuries after the Norman Conquest, imprisonment wasn’t really considered a punishment. It was death, mutilation or reparation back then. But there are a very few  honourable exceptions. Yes, London Dungeons really do exist!

First of which is the reputedly-haunted Clerkenwell House of Detention . Built in 1616 as an overflow for the Bridewell, it was known as the Clerkenwell Bridewell or New Prison. Later the same century another gaol was built next door to hold prisoners awaiting trial at the nearby Newgate Prison. These two prisons became one in 1818 when the Bridwewell was demolished and a newer New Prison built on the site. The newer New Prison was knocked down again in 1847 and rebuilt as the House of Detention, a remand centre for prisoners awaiting trial. It is estimated that, at its peak, almost 12,000 people a year passed through its meagre cells. It would have been very over-crowded.

Clerkenwell House of Detention

Clerkenwell House of Detention

In 1890, the part of the prison that stood above ground was demolished, the vaults sealed up, and the Hugh Myddleton School built on the site. Like so much of central London, the school has closed and the buildings are now luxury flats. During the Blitz of World War II, the vaults were reopened and used as air raid shelters. After the war they were forgotten about until 1994 when an entrepreneur opened them up as a private museum and party venue called The House of Detention. The venue closed in 2000 after a problem with HM Customs and Excise over unpaid VAT.

Since then the House of Detention has been used as a film set for a variety of movies, including St Trinians 2, Diary of a Callgirl, Spooks and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. Ghosts have often been seen at the House of Correction, most often that of a crying young girl.

Several of London’s pubs have cellars that were once used as dungeons. The Viaduct Tavern, 126 Newgate Street, London, EC1A  stands over part of what was Newgate Prison and five of the original cells make up its beer cellar . If you ask very nicely when it’s not too busy, the manager may allow you to take a quick peek. Similarly, the Morpeth Arms, 58 Millbank, London, SW1P – as well as the Tate Britain gallery – stand on part of the site of the Millbank Prison and the cellars of the pub are where prisoners were held before being transported by ship to Australia.

There are maybe more London Dungeons than you thought.

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Jack The Ripper Tour

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The first thing to know about the Whitechapel Murders, committed by the man they called ‘the Jack The Ripper’, is that much of what we rely on as fact is little more than speculation. For a start, Ripperologists cannot even agree on simple Ripper facts, such as how many victims there were. On September 13th, […]

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Spare Time in London? Discover the City’s Vanishing Secrets

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Anyone with time in London should steer off the beaten track and seek out the British capital city’s hidden secrets. London has been evolving ever since the Romans set up house between the Walbrook and the Thames rivers in AD43. Ever since that moment, Londinium evolved into what we know as the London of today. […]

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Vanished London: An Introduction

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This website celebrates the buildings, businesses and open spaces that have made London what it is, but which may be fast disappearing. From theatres, music halls, cinemas, pubs, cafes and traditional bakeries to lidos, amusement parks and hidden treasures, these pages are dedicated to a London few tourists see, but which is as important as […]

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