Survey of London: Volume 36, Covent Garden. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1970.

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'Preface', in Survey of London: Volume 36, Covent Garden, (London, 1970) pp. vii-viii. British History Online [accessed 15 April 2024]


Paris had a brilliant town planner in Baron Haussmann, Prefet of the Seine under Napoleon III. To him she owes many of her splendid boulevards and her sweeping vistas. Two centuries earlier in the cramped, overcrowded London of the 1630's there had emerged another great town planner—Inigo Jones.

In Covent Garden his spectacular Piazza was revolutionary in concept. On three sides were elegant symmetrical houses and the Church of St. Paul. On the fourth the garden wall of the mansion in the Strand of the landlord, the fourth Earl of Bedford.

In this volume of the Survey of London Dr. Sheppard and his colleagues tell us the intriguing story of Covent Garden and the surrounding area. Henrietta Street, where the regicide Lord Monson lived in one of the gabled houses. Russell Street, where in 1763 at number 8 Boswell met Dr. Johnson for the first time on a fine Spring evening. Bow Street, where Grinling Gibbons lived in the 1690's. Charles Street, which in 1681 boasted a bagnio for 'Sweating and Bathing', one of the earliest Turkish Baths in London.

Lely, Hogarth, and Sir James Thornhill lived at one time in the Piazza. Tavistock Row housed Richard Wilson, and in 1749 David Garrick paid five hundred guineas for the lease of No. 27 Southampton Street, 'Dirt and all', according to his wife.

However, initially the fine plan of Inigo Jones created new problems. In 1632 a Petition by the Mayor and Citizens of the City complained to Whitehall that the City's water supply had been 'taken away by diverse persons inhabiting in the Strand, and in or neare the Comon Garden'.

This thorny problem having been settled, the Piazza especially must have been a very attractive place in which to reside. A late seventeenth-century visitor wrote that 'The South Side lieth open to Bedford-Garden, where there is a small Grotto of Trees, most pleasant in the Summer Season; and in this Side there is kept a Market for Fruits, Herbs, Roots, and Flowers, every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday …'

In the thirteenth century Convent Garden was the orchard of the monks of Westminster Abbey. Their entire crop of apples, pears and cherries fetched £12 in 1327. By 1654 groups of traders with baskets, trestles and carts, had begun to gather there regularly, and in 1670, three hundred years ago, the Covent Garden Market was established by Royal Charter. By the late eighteenth century not only food changed hands. There were bird sellers and dealers in old iron. In the evening it was the haunt of prostitutes and until 1868 politicians at election time harangued disorderly crowds from the hustings in front of St. Paul's.

Soon the market will move to Battersea and the £70 million yearly total of goods will be handled in a new home.

The Covent Garden area will then start a new life. Will it still be 'a place all alive with noise and bustle', as Mary Lamb described it in 1817 as she sat at her window in Russell Street? Will there be a park where children can watch Punch and Judy shows, as in 1662 when the Italian Pietro Gimonde brought the first show to England? Will there be the modern equivalent of that 'rendezvous for the dissipated', the Shakespeare Tavern and Coffee House?

We will have to wait and see, but I hope that Dr. Sheppard's wonderful record of the past will inspire the town planners of the future.

The Greater London Council owes a very big debt of gratitude to the Trustees of the Bedford Settled Estates and to the Duke of Bedford, for allowing unlimited access to the Bedford family archives, and for lending indefinitely to the Council the records of their Covent Garden Estate. We do thank them for their great kindness. Sir John Summerson has been frequently consulted in the preparation of this volume, and his deep knowledge of London has been invaluable. I, as Chairman, and all the members of the Historic Buildings Board, are so very grateful to all the other generous people who have taken so much time and trouble to help prepare this unique and exciting story of a fascinating area of London.

Raine Dartmouth

Chairman, Historic Buildings Board
of the Greater London Council
March 1969