Today’s theatrical, buzzing and bustling tourist district of Covent Garden, filled with shops, cafes, independent boutiques and market stalls, went from being open fields, to the holy site of a convent with walled garden owned by the Benedictine Monks of Westminster Abbey in the 1200s AD. It was to become an aristocratic playground and a wild, seedy area of lawlessness, fights and disrepute. Of beggars, street-sellers, dandy highway men, thieves and prostitutes.
In Georgian London, this led to a six member police force being formed by writer and magistrate Henry Fielding, called the ‘Bow Street Runners’. They were said to be London’s first professional, paid police force and in their smart attire of top hats and tails whether on foot or mounted on horseback, were quick to react to any hint of a crime being committed.
Judge Henry Fielding’s ‘Bow Street Runners’ (similar to the predecessors the ‘thief-takers) were paid a guinea a week plus a share of any reward money for successful prosecution of criminals. Unlike the thief-takers, they were officially linked to the Bow Street Magistrates Court.
In 1552 the convent site had been acquired by John Russell, the first Earl of Bedford. His descendants employed architect Inigo Jones to convert the convent vegetable field into an Italian style piazza in the 17th century. With St Paul’s church to the west, the surrounding handsome terraced houses soon became the residences of wealthy socialites.
The piazza became a fashionable place for London society to gather. Looking for a piece of the action and attracted to the drinking and gambling dens, coffee houses and theatres of the area were writers such as Samuel Pepys (famous for keeping a diary of the Great Fire of London in 1666) and Scottish writer, James Boswell who in 1763 stayed in London for nine months and wrote his famous journal about the city. Boswell penned of the joy and merriment found while fulfilling his burning desires, drinking and sharing humour with the ladies of the night. Indeed, there was plenty of colourful inspiration in the dubious establishments surrounding the piazza. If those walls had ears, what stories would they tell?
Private rooms were available in places such as the Shakespeare Tavern frequented by Boswell and also the infamous Rose Tavern on Drury Lane, which became the subject of Rake’s Progress (1735) by William Hogarth. The character ‘Rake’ inherited a fortune which he squandered in an immoral life, eventually leading to his downfall. Hogarth’s painting shows him cavorting with prostitutes, oblivious to the fact that his pocket watch was being stolen!
Henry Fielding had founded the Bow Street Runners to bring law and order to the area. Later he was joined by his half-brother Sir John Fielding, also a magistrate who had been blinded in an accident when he was 19. With the nickname ‘The Blind Beak’ his hearing was so astute, he was said to have been able to recognise over 3,000 thieves just by listening to their voices!
The motto for this police force, was “Quick notice and sudden pursuit”.
The organisation successfully solved crimes until 1839 when they became the Metropolitan Police
The Beggar’s Opera, written by John Gay in 1728 was no doubt inspired by the gritty street life of Covent Garden featuring thief-catchers, prostitutes and highway men amongst its salubrious cast. It premiered at Lincolns Inn Fields Theatre less than a mile from the piazza. Both John Gay and William Hogarth, through their poetry and illustration bring us images of walking the streets of 18th Century London as being seductive, alarming and seductively alarming.
A scene from the Beggar’s Opera VI (1731) by William Hogarth
‘Rake’s Progress’ Scene 3 depicts The Rake at the Rose Tavern. This painting is one of a series on the story of Tom Rakewell by William Hogarth. Scene 6 shows the Rake continuing to squander his inheritance in a Convent Garden gaming house filled with robbers, clergymen, highway men, money lenders and aristocrats.
Actor-Manager John Rich built the first Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, with the fortune he made from the success of his first Beggar’s Opera production. This is now the location of performing arts venue, the Royal Opera House. The first theatre burned down in 1808 and the next theatre became an opera house in 1843. Latest major renovations were completed in 1999 and it is the nation’s permanent home to the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet. The Royal Opera House is open to the public from 10am every day.
In 1897, the legendary poet and Bohemian dandy, Oscar Wilde was charged with gross indecency at Bow Street Magistrates Court and in Adelaide Street, WC2, can be found the statue ‘A Conversation with Oscar Wilde by sculptor Maggi Hambling which was unveiled in 1998. The Irish playwright wears a degenerate grin, is smoking and looks as if he is generally causing mayhem. Reminiscent of his walks on the Wilde side in the haunts of Victorian Covent Garden.
The vibrant fruit and vegetable market which once dominated the piazza was featured in ‘My Fair Lady’ as a flower market. The play is an adaptation of the 1913 stage play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw and is the story of Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle. Could this poor girl, with her ‘common’ manners really be turned into a ‘Duchess’ with an upper-class accent by phonetics Professor Henry Higgins and therefore improve her chances of progressing in society? Would it really make a difference?
Covent Garden piazza throughout history has been a centre for everything theatrical. Attracting high falutin socialites, royals, nobility and aristocrats, intellectuals, writers, artists, tramps, thieves and street-sellers, side by side on the seductive streets of London, where really and truly, in the words of Cole Porter, ‘Anything Goes.’
Now known as the Apple Market, Covent Garden piazza has cleaned up its act and is still a bustling market place for a variety of traders to sell their wares. On a Monday there is an antiques market and at other times in the week you can find a wide variety of handmade and artisan goods on sale. There is a lively mixture of shops, restaurants and museums, encircled by many theatres. If you can get through the tourist crowds, you will be entertained by street performers from all over the world and can take a break from shopping and sight-seeing for some people watching in one of the many open-air cafes.
Written by Mandie Stone.