Square in London. It is now the site of the Royal Opera House, home of the British national opera and ballet companies. The land around the site, once a convent garden, was laid out as a residential square in 1630. The original Covent Garden playhouse, called the Theatre Royal, was built in 1732 and served for performances of plays, pantomimes, and opera. Twice destroyed by fire and rebuilt, the theatre became the Royal Italian Opera House (1847) and was replaced by the Royal Opera Co. (1888). The square was also the site of a fruit, flower, and vegetable market from 1670 to 1974.
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The area is bounded by High Holborn to the north, Kingsway to the east, the Strand to the south and Charing Cross Road to the west. Covent Garden Piazza is located in the geographical centre of the area and was the site of a flower, fruit and vegetable market from the 1500s until 1974, when the wholesale market relocated to New Covent Garden Market in Nine Elms. Nearby areas include Soho, St James's, Bloomsbury and Holborn.
"Convent Garden" (later becoming Covent Garden as we know it today) was the name given, during the reign of King John (1199–1216), to a patch in the county of Middlesex, bordered west and east by what is now St. Martin's Lane and Drury Lane, and north and south by Floral Street and a line drawn from Chandos Place, along Maiden Lane and Exeter Street to the Aldwych.
In this quadrangle the Abbey or Convent of St. Peter, Westminster, maintained a large kitchen garden throughout the Middle Ages to provide its daily food. Over the next three centuries, the monks' old "convent garden" became a major source of fruit and vegetables in London and was managed by a succession of leaseholders by grant from the Abbot of Westminster.
King Henry VIII granted part of the land to Baron Russell, Lord High Admiral and, later, Earl of Bedford. In fulfilment of his father's dying wish, King Edward VI bestowed the remainder of the convent garden in 1547 to his maternal uncle, Edward Seymour, the Duke of Somerset who began building Somerset House on the south side of Strand the next year. When Seymour was beheaded for treason in 1552, the land once again came into royal gift, and was awarded four months later to one of those who had contributed to Seymour's downfall. Forty acres (16 ha), known as "le Covent Garden" plus "the long acre", were granted by royal patent in perpetuity to the Earl of Bedford.
The area rapidly became a base for market traders, and 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. 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. 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.
In 1913, responding to political feeling against large holdings of real property, and wishing to diversify his investment portfolio into less politically sensitive fields, the Duke of Bedford agreed to sell the Covent Garden Estate to the MP and land speculator Harry Mallaby-Deeley for £2 million. The following year Mallaby-Deeley sold his option to buy to the pill manufacturer Sir Joseph Beecham for £250,000. After delays caused by the First World War and the death of Sir Joseph, the sale was finalised in 1918, the purchasers being Sir Joseph's two sons, Sir Thomas and Henry. The transaction included the market, 231 other properties, and sundry other rights. The property was part of Beecham Estates and Pills Limited from 1924 to 1928 and from 1928 it was owned 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 in the surrounding area had reached such a level that the use of the square as a market, which required increasingly large lorries for deliveries and distribution, was becoming unsustainable. The whole area was threatened with complete redevelopment. Following a public outcry, in 1973 the Home Secretary, Robert Carr, gave dozens of buildings around the square listed building status, preventing redevelopment. The following year the market finally moved to a new site (called the New Covent Garden Market) about three miles (5 km) south-west at Nine Elms. The square languished until its central building re-opened as a shopping centre and tourist attraction in 1980. Today the shops largely sell novelty items, though street performers can be seen almost every day of the year, both on the pitches within the market, and on the West and East Piazza's/James Street outside. More serious shoppers gravitate to Long Acre, which has a range of clothes shops and boutiques, and Neal Street, noted for its large number of shoe shops. London's Transport Museum and the side entrance to the Royal Opera House box office and other facilities are also located on the Piazza.
In August 2007, Covent Garden launched the UK's first food Night Market. Fresh produce from over 35 different stalls included Neal's Yard's specialist cheeses, Spore Boys' mushroom sandwiches, Gourmet Candy Company, Ginger Pig sausages and Burnt Sugar fudge. The aim of the Night Market was to bring Covent Garden back to its roots as the "Larder of London". Organisers are hoping to make it a permanent event in 2008 as part of a wider initiative to regenerate interest in the Covent Garden area.
Covent Garden Market and Piazza was bought by Capital and Counties in August 2006 for £421 million. In March 2007 Capco also acquired the shops located under the Royal Opera House. The complete Covent Garden Estate owned by Capital and Counties consists of . and has a market value of £650 million.
Covent Garden Market re-opened as a retail centre in 1980, after the produce market was moved to its current location in Nine Elms. Street entertainment at Covent Garden was first mentioned in Samuel Pepys' diary in 1662. 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.
Currently performers operate in a number of venues around the market, including the North Hall, West Piazza, and South Hall Courtyard. The courtyard space is dedicated to classical music only. There are street performances at Covent Garden Market every day of the year, except Christmas Day. Shows run throughout the day and are 30-40 minutes in length.
In March 2008, Capital and Counties proposed to reduce street performances by approximately 50%. In the Courtyard, shows currently run back to back from 10:30am to 7:00pm, with short breaks in between each show, allowing for two shows each hour. Under the new proposal, performances would be cut to one 30 minute show each hour. The musicians and performers staged a demonstration "busk" in the Piazza against these cuts on 27th March with the opera singer Lesley Garrett who is supporting their campaign. They have organised a petition which so far has over 5,000 signatures including Ken Livingstone, Brian Paddick, Vasko Vassilev, Brian Eno and Victoria Wood.
In the 1960s an extension to the rear of the Royal Opera House had somewhat improved its facilities, but as time passed, it became clear that a major remodelling was needed. In 1975 the government gave adjacent land for the modernisation, refurbishment and extension of the house and, by 1995, with the availability of National Lottery money, significant funds had been raised. A major reconstruction of the building took place between 1996 and 2000, involving the demolition of almost the whole site (except for the auditorium itself), including several adjacent buildings, to make room for a major increase in the overall scale of the complex. In terms of volume, well over half of the complex is new.
The new opera house has greatly improved technical, rehearsal, office and educational facilities, a new studio theatre, the Linbury Theatre, and much more public space. The inclusion of the adjacent old Floral Hall, long a part of the old Covent Garden Market but in general disrepair for many years, into the actual opera house created a new and extensive public gathering place. The venue is now claimed by the ROH to be the most modern theatre facility in Europe.
In the mid-1950s, before he directed such films as If.... and O Lucky Man!, Lindsay Anderson directed a short film about the daily activities of the Covent Garden market called Every Day Except Christmas. It shows 12 hours in the life of the market and market people, now long gone from the area, but it also reflects three centuries of tradition in the operation of the daily fruit and vegetable market.
Alfred Hitchcock's 1972 film, Frenzy, likewise takes place amongst the pubs and fruit markets of Covent Garden. The serial sex killer in Frenzy is a local fruit vendor, and the film features several blackly comic moments suggesting a metaphorical correlation between the consumption of food and the act of rape–murder. Hitchcock was the son of a retail greengrocer in North-East London and would have known the area; and so, the film was partly conceived (and marketed) as a semi-nostalgic return to familiar streets from the director's childhood.
Covent Garden, the Untold Story: Dispatches from the English Culture War, 1945-2000. (Book Reviews: National Musics).
Sep 01, 2002; Covent Garden, the Untold Story: Dispatches from the English Culture War, 1945-2000. By Norman Lebrecht. Boston: Northeastern...
Fresh, souped-up research: New Covent Garden Soup prided itself on making the best fresh soups around, so it was quite a shock to discover consumers greatly preferred competitor brands. (Case Study: Covent Garden Soup).
Mar 01, 2003; "Did you know that the best soup in the country is Heinz Cream of Tomato?" asks New Covent Garden Soup Company's head of...