So on a wet Bank Holiday Sunday (what other kind of weather do you get on a bank holiday?) family Upchurch Tarling, lashed by driving rain, visited the London Transport Museum in the piazza of Covent Garden. It was only half-way round the museum, and having read one of the exhibition plaques, that I realised that the building had in fact housed the old Covent Garden Flower Market. And it’s a truly beautiful building.

The market, in one form or another, has been in operation since the 15th century. The name is in fact a bastardization of Convent Garden from when it was formerly the vegetable garden for the monks at Westminster Abbey. Dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII led to the land being given to the first Earl of Bedford, and eventually a later fourth Earl commissioned architect  Inigo Jones to build the first square or piazza in London, the resulting housing aimed at the wealthier residents of London. When the Great Fire in 1666 flattened much of London to the east, the square suddenly exploded with new activity as former City of London dwellers headed to the West End to rebuild their lives, so much so that Charles II formalised the Market with a new royal charter in 1670. The posh people by then had begun to move out.

The area gradually fell into disrepute with taverns, coffee houses and theatres opening, mingling with the brothels and prostitutes. The market continued successfully however, albeit in somewhat squashed surroundings,  and the produce grew in abundance, much home-grown but some arriving from abroad as trade continued to flourish. Items such as broccoli, French beans, cucumbers, asparagus, strawberries as well as spring and summer flowers could all readily be found. In the early 19th century the area was so chaotic and so over-crowded that the then current Earl of Bedford had a new covered market built and the resulting neo-classical building by architect Charles Fowler went to some way to help organize the vending and selling of produce there. Over the century and into the next, further buildings were added including the the Transport Museum’s own cast iron and glass building,  designed by William Rogers in 1871,  the heart of London’s wholesale flower business for the next 100 years, trading every day except for Christmas.

“In the 20th century, products were shipped in from places like California, Marrakesh, and Holland and trucked in overnight from as far as the border with Scotland. Covent Garden was the premier price-setting market in Britain: at its height the market was the destination for almost a third of all the fruit and vegetables imported into the country. The annual turnover was about one million tons and the sale of all this produce is estimated to have been worth £65 million.” Anna Bransford – Covent Garden Memories

By the end of the 1960’s however, traffic congestion was causing problems for the market, which required increasingly large lorries for deliveries and distribution. Redevelopment was considered, but protests from the Covent Garden Community Association in 1973 prompted the then Home Secretary, to give dozens of buildings around the square listed-building status, preventing redevelopment. In 1974 the market relocated to its new site, the New Covent Garden at Nine Elms in Vauxhall, where it continues to have it own set of characters and lovable rogues.

Below is a link to an photo editorial about Clive Boursnall who’s photography and resulting book Old Covent Garden beautifully captures the mood of the market in the 60s and 70s. Worth a look. I especially love the flower ladies – Eliza Dolittle they are not.