Victorian London - Markets - Covent Garden

Covent Garden Market, recently erected from designs by Mr. Fowler, is unquestionably the first of its kind, not only in the metropolis, but most probably in the world. The building consists of three distinct ranges, united at the eastern extremity by a colonnade that supports a spacious terrace, or balustraded gallery, upon which have been erected two conservatories; these are furnished with the most rare and choice productions, native and exotic, of the flower garden, and are further enlivened by a fountain, that, by a mechanical contrivance, is regulated according to the wind. This is the grand front; and faces Great Russell Street. The central range, a large and lofty avenue, is occupied by the dealers in the more expensive fruits and vegetables, and in their several seasons exhibit a grand display of hothouse and other produce of surpassing beauty and most exquisite flavour. The range of buildings on the northern side consists of shops with small dwellings, and is chiefly occupied by the dealers in fruit and vegetables. The southern side, in exact conformity with the northern, is entirely confined to the dealers in esculent roots, chiefly potatoes, carrots, &c. The partially covered space between the northern and central ranges is principally occupied by the wholesale dealers in fruit, and some few vegetables; an observation that applies to the open space upon the southern side, where the business, though similar, is upon a comparatively diminished scale. Covent Garden Market is in the summer season a great object of attraction, and a visit to this grand mart of vegetable produce cannot fail to gratify, by the abundance and excellence of its supply, every admirer of fruit, flowers, and vegetables, whether of foreign produce or of British growth.

Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844

Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Sketches of London Life and Character, by Albert Smith et. al., [1849] - Covent Garden Market

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life7.gif (50695 bytes)THERE is no rus in urbe like Covent Garden Market. 
    The patches of struggling vegetation in square, park, or garden, whose only commerce with the sun is a sort of bowing acquaintance - a  distant nod exchanged en passant through the chinks of a smoky cloud - have been wittily designated "Nature put in the pound for straying." But this is wit at the expense of truth. They are not Nature at all, but a vile caricature, daubed in charcoal and lampblack. The petrified trees of a coal-mine have as much claim on our sympathies. They satisfy no yearnings, but are silent and sullen as the walls that frown on them. They make no response to the inward voice that "babbles of green fields;" and, like the windows of a prison, show us a glimpse of the unencompassed world only through a black grating that reminds us of our imprisonment.
    How differently are we affected by Covent Garden Market. Here Nature empties forth her teeming lap, filled with the choicest produce of her happiest generation. The loveliness of the land is there and the fatness thereof. At one glance we pass in review the prime and bloom of vegetation, and communicate directly with the riches of the earth. It is the metropolitan congress of the vegetable kingdom, where every [-51-] department of the "growing" and "blowing" world has its representatives - the useful and the ornamental, the needful and the superfluous, the esculent and the medicinal. Here the Londoner fraternizes with the rustic, and acknowledges that he is not all bricks and mortar - that Nature has still some parental claims upon him which he cannot entirely away with.
    It is a twofold temple, dedicated to Pomona and Flora, in which daily devotion is paid to the productive divinities. Here, as in a very temple, all classes and grades, all denominations and distinctions of men, jostle each other in the humility of a common dependence on the same appetites, the same instincts, the same organs of taste, sight, and smell - the fashionable lady who has left her Brougham at the entrance, in quest of the pampered nursling of the conservatory, and the wan needlewoman, bent on the purchase of a bunch of wallflowers, or a root of pale primroses to keep her paler cheeks in countenance; the artizan's wife, purveying for her husband's meal, and the comfortable housekeeper, primed with the discriminating lore of Mrs. Glass, making provisions for her winter's preserves; the bloated gourmand, in search of precocious peas, and the sickly hypochondriac, eager to try the virtue of some healing herb.
    The priestesses who serve the temple form two distinct classes, those of Pomona and those of Flora - the Basket-woman and the Bouquet-girl. It is to the first that our artist has dedicated the mingled grace and vigour of his pencil, and has shown her to us in the midst of her athletic avocations. Hers is no finikin type of female beauty ; the taper waist and slender neck would ill befit the rude labours she is devoted to. [-52-] Her portly figure is rather architectural than sculptural in its graces; and with arms upraised, in support of the basket balanced on her head, she might serve as a model for the caryatids of a new temple to the deity she serves.
    He who would behold her in full activity must gratify his curiosity at some expense. He must voluntarily accomplish that which is enforced upon the vegetable visitor of the market-he must tear himself from his bed, foregoing the suavities of the morning's sleep to face the bleak air of dawning day. Unless, indeed, he repair to the scene, as we have often done, as a sort of "finish "- to use the language of antiquated fast men - after a round of evening parties, his temples throbbing with an unhallowed mixture of festive beverages, from the bland negus to the icebound fire of champagne punch; his senses jaded with a thousand artificial and violent delights; and, perhaps, a secret wound rankling at his heart - a wound that he has attempted to treat with light indifference, and to bury under a hecatomb of flirtations, but which now asserts itself with redoubled pangs, and mingles its reproaches to the. many-voiced objurgations of conscience to sicken and disgust him with his existence. Under such circumstances is it that the most striking phase of Covent Garden - that which it presents on the morning of a market-day - will produce its fullest effect. It is under such circumstances that it has impressed itself upon our minds, and that we can speak of it most naturally.
    Led by a vague instinct, an unconscious attraction- as towards some refreshing influence, some healing spring that should comfort the fevered spirit that lay [-53-] sick within us-we have found ourselves mechanically following some huge cabbage-laden waggon, as it loomed and rumbled through the deserted streets until it stopped and ranged itself with its companions round the market square. Here, with vacant attention, we have watched each process, joined each busy group, followed with our eyes the contents of each waggon in its various distribution, snuffing eagerly the mingled perfumes from the extempore parterres that were spreading before us, and inhaling with joyful and dilated lungs the countrified atmosphere that was, as it were, being unpacked with each cart-load of rustic produce.
    Gradually, as all impurities seemed cleansed away from our mind, and a more cheerful and healthy spirit awakened within us, we took a keener interest in the increasing bustle and variety of the spectacle that disclosed itself with the full dawn of morning. We watched the nature of each particular scene and the character of the actors therein, or listened to the arguments accompanying each bargain, until it was finally completed in the adjoining public-house, amidst the ceremonial libations of gin, half-and-half, or heavy wet; scrutinizing the peculiarities of buyer and seller. First, the various grades of rusticity in the vendors, from the complete bacon-fed bumpkin, who has come up with a load of turnips, and the semi-countrified market-gardener - half country half town, like a stagecoach-omnibus - to the cockney nurseryman, distinguishable only by the inseparable pedantry of his profession. The no less marked and more numerous distinctions in the purchasers the well-to-do shopkeeper, with neatly appointed cart and sleek horse; [-54-] the petty dealer, whose equipage exhibits various stages of rickets; the hawker, with a truck or donkey- cart, whose stentorian voice will shortly awaken ti~ echoes of many a tranquil quarter, with the familiar cry of "green gooseberries," "all a-growing all a-blowing," or "cherries round and sound," &c., &c. lastly, the stall-woman and the flower-girl-she of the "two bunches a-penny" - laying out with anxious discretion the small capital borrowed for the day, and for which exorbitant interest will have to be paid to some extortionate old hag - some withered she-Rothschild of rags and tatters - who, by some infernal compact with the devil of usury and a hard heart in lieu of the philosopher's stone, contrives to reap a golden harvest from squalid misery.* (*This is a fact. There is a class of money-lenders - generally women - who furnish capital to the lower class of hawkers, at the most outrageous profit.)
    Amidst this medley of divided interests, of varied ranks and conditions, of larger or smaller insects, swarming and feeding on the plenteous growth of Nature, moves the stately form of the Basket-woman, upreared above the rest by the height of her toppling burden, discharging her simple and unvarying functions like the embodiment of invisible justice presiding over and regulating the affairs of men.
    Bodily refreshed by approximation with pure and wholesome objects, gradually diverted from morbid discontent, and restored to something like equanimity, by the contemplation of persevering industry struggling through misery less fantastic than our own, we have bent our steps homeward, a wiser and a more sleepy man.
    [-55-] Towards the afternoon another and very different phase of the market is presented. To the range of heavy tilted carts and waggons has succeeded a line of brilliant and elegant equipages. The utile has given place to the dulce, and pleasure now shows itself almost as busy as need. .Over this period of the day Flora more especially presides, and the Bouquet-girl - her priestess - is in the height of her ministry. Her delicate fingers are now busily employed in tricking out the loveliness of nature; for even her loveliest daughters must be drilled and trained ere they can make their debut in the world of artifice they are called upon to adorn. Their slender stems need a wiry support to prop the head, that else would droop in the oppressive atmosphere of the ball-room or the theatre. Art must draw fresh beauties from the contrast of each with the other; nor will the self-complacent ingenuity that paints the lily and gilds refined gold be satisfied till it has completed their toilet by investing them in a white robe of broidered paper.
    The clients of the Bouquet-girl consist almost exclusively of the sighing herd of lovers. These, with the exception of an occasional wholesale order from the manager of a theatre with a view to some triumphant debut, form the staple consumers of her wares. But among the whole tribe she has no such insatiate customer as he who is struggling in the toils of a danseuse. "If music be the food of love," bouquets are certainly the very air upon the regular supply of which hangs its existence; and on such air does the danseuse, chamelion-like, seem exclusively to live. They are the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end of her life - the symbols of her triumphs public and domestic [-56-] - the tribute exacted by the achievements of her feet, and the conquests of her glancing eye. A collection of all the bouquets she receives, arranged and ticketed according to date and circumstance, would form a minute record of her career. Not but all passions, even of the humblest nature, are sufficiently burdensome in this particular, but let any man who as yet has only "paid attentions," as it is called, in the ordinary sphere of life, try even a flirtation with a danseuse, and he will see what an overgrown and ruinous item the article bouquet will form in his yearly expenditure. If he be not a man of some substance, or prepared to face the inquisitors of Portugal Street, he had better take us at our word than adventure on the experiment.
    Over what a multiplicity of love-affairs, in every stage of advancement, suspense, or retrogression, does the Bouquet-girl preside and administer to! For the destruction of how many beleaguered citadels do her arsenals furnish ammunition - from the open siege, carried on in the eye of the world, to the secret and artful mine, unsuspected till some terrible explosion reveals it to universal scandal! How many a course of true love has she traced through all its windings. The legitimate and successful suit, whose regular supply of bouquets ends at last with the bridal wreath of orange-flowers; and the illegitimate suit, whose series of bouquets has no other climax than abrupt cessation, a gradual dying-off, or a change in the address to which they are directed.
    Depository of secrets so important, upon which depend the fair name and the happiness of so many, what a bonne fortune would the confessions of a Bouquet- girl be to a revelation and mystery-mongering novelist. [-57-] It is to be hoped, however, that she is worthy of the trust reposed in her; indeed, we firmly and fondly believe it; for ourselves in the greenness of youth have furnished our little quota of delicate confidences to the mass of perilous stuff that slumbers in the fair bosom of one in particular, whom we will not name. With a solemn adjuration to the Bouquet-girl to pursue her amiable but responsible calling with inviolable secrecy and discretion, for the sake of mercy and the peace of society in general, we will bid her farewell, and a long ascendancy of the planet Venus.


[--nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.--]

COVENT GARDEN MARKET, the great fruit and vegetable, and herb market of London, originated (circ. 1656) in a few temporary stalls and sheds at the back of the garden wall of Bedford House on the south side of the square.  ... The present Market-place (William Fowler, architect) was erected in 1830 at the expense of the late Duke of Bedford. The market is rated (1849) to the poor at 4800l., rather under than above the amount derived from the rental and the tolls.* (*There is a capital view of the part of the old market in Hogarth's print of Morning; and a very good engraving by T. Bowles (1751), showing the Dial, and that part of  the Piazza or Arcade which no longer exists.) The stranger in London who wishes to see what Covent-garden Market is like, should visit it on a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday, morning in summer, about 3 o'clock - not later. To see the supply of fruit and vegetables carted off, 7 A.M. is early enough. To enjoy the sight and smell of flowers and fruit, the finest in the world, any time from 10 A.M. to 4 or 5 P.M. will answer. The centre arcade at mid-day is one of the prettiest sights in London. Saturday is the best day.

Peter Cunningham, Hand-Book of London, 1850

Covent Garden Market, opposite St. Paul's Church, Covent Garden, is within an extensive square piece of ground, and of great antiquity. The eastern and northern angles of the margin of this market are Plazza and capacious mansions above erected by Inigo Jones, architect to Charles I. and II. This market is the property of the Duke of Bedford, and yields a large annual revenue after payment of contingent expenses. The late Francis, Duke of Bedford, in 1830, reconstructed and built the present market from the design and under the superintendence of Mr. Wm. Fowler, architect, at a cost of 50,000l. It consists of three sides of a quadrangle, with a Doric colonnade around it, supported by granite columns, and is undoubtedly a finely-conceived design, and a credit to the metropolis. Its arrangement is admirable, in such divisions as are suitable to the salesman, the purchaser, and the visitor. The productions of the hot-house, and of the growth of those who spare no expense in producing the finest fruit in all seasons of the year, and flowers, herbs, and vegetables of the best kinds, are here exhibited for sale. The promenade in the avenue, in which the best fruit shops are situated, is desirable and gratifying to the visitor; above the entrance on the eastern extremity are galleries for the sale of plants and flowers of a superior description.

London Exhibited in 1852, 1852

    As early as two o?clock in the morning, a person looking down the dip of Piccadilly will perceive the first influx of the daily supply of vegetables and fruit to Covent-Garden market: waggons of cabbages ... light spring-vans fragrant with strawberries ... milk-white loads of turnips which slowly roll along the great western road... Different portions of the market are dedicated to distinct classes. The finest of the delicate soft fruits, such as strawberries, peaches, &c., are lodged in the central alley. On the large covered space to the north is the wholesale fruit- station, fragrant with apples, pears, greengages, or whatever is in season. The southern open space is dedicated to cabbages and other vegetables; and the extreme south front is wholly occupied by potato-salesmen. Round the whole quadrangle, during a busy morning, there is a party?coloured fringe of waggons backed in towards the central space, in which the light green of cabbages forms the prevailing colour, inter?rupted here and there with the white of turnips, or the deep orange of carrots; and as the spectator watches, the whole mass is gradually absorbed into the centre of the market. Meanwhile the space dedicated to wholesale fruit sales is all alive. Columns of empty baskets twelve feet - high seem progressing through the crowd ?of their own motion?. The vans have arrived from the railways, and rural England, side by side with the Continent, pours in its supplies...
    The busiest time at the market is about six o?clock, when the coster?mongers surround Covent Garden with their harrows, and hundreds of street hawkers, with their hand-baskets and trays, come for their day?s supply. The regular street vendor who keeps his barrow, drawn by a donkey or pony, looks down with a certain contempt upon the inferior hawkers, principally Irish. They only deal in a certain class of vege?tables, such as peas, young potatoes, broccoli, or cauliflowers, and have nothing to do with mere greens.
    Another class of purchasers are the little girls who vend watercresses. Such is the demand for cresses, that they are now largely cultivated for the market... The best come from Camden Town. Most people fancy that clear purling streams are necessary for their production, but the Camden Town beds are planted in an old brick-field, watered by the Fleet Ditch; and though the stream at this point is comparatively pure, they owe their unusually luxuriant appearances to a certain admixture of the sewerage...

Dr Andrew Wynter, ?The London Commissariat?, Quarterly Review, No. cxc, vol. xcv 1854

Covent-garden Market, when it was market morning, was wonderful company. The great waggons of cabbages, with growers' men and boys lying asleep under them, and with sharp dogs from market-garden neighbourhoods looking after the whole, were as good as a party. But one of the worst night sights I know in London, is to be found in the children who prowl about this place; who sleep in the baskets, fight for the offal, dart at any object they think they can lay their thieving hands on, dive under the carts and barrows, dodge the constables, and are perpetually making a blunt pattering on the pavement of the Piazza with the rain of their naked feet. A painful and unnatural result comes of the comparison one is forced to institute between the growth of corruption as displayed in the so much improved and cared for fruits of the earth, and the growth of corruption as displayed in these all uncared for (except inasmuch as ever-hunted) savages.

Charles Dickens, Night Walks (article from All the Year Round), 1860

COVENT GARDEN MARKET, the largest and most important of the metropolitan fruit and vegetable markets, indicates, by its name, that it was (in the thirteenth century) the convent, or herb-garden, of Westminster Priory. In 1552, the site, with seven acres of ground, then, and still, known as "Long Acre," was granted to John, Earl of Bedford. His descendant, Earl Francis, cleared away, in 1634, the old buildings which had accumulated here, and commenced a new and handsome square, from the designs of Inigo Jones. The piazza, on the north-east side, was constructed by that great architect, who bad intended to carry a similar colonnade all round the area. The present market-house was built by the grandfather of the present Duke of Bedford, in 1830, and is very handsome and convenient.
    "Covent Garden Market has always been the most agreeable in the Metropolis, because it is devoted exclusively to fruit, flowers, and vegetables. A few crockery-ware shops make no exception to this 'bloodless' character. The seasons here regularly present themselves in their most gifted looks - with evergreens in winter, the fresh verdure of spring, all the hues of summer, and whole loads of dessert in autumn. The country girls, who bring the things to market at early dawn, are a sight themselves worthy of the apples and roses; the good-natured Irish women, who attend to carry baskets for purchasers, are not to be despised, with the half-humorous, half-pathetic tone of their petitions to be employed; and the ladies who come to purchase, crown all. No walk in London, on a fine summer's day, is more agreeable than the passage through the flowers here at noon, when the roses and green leaves are newly watered, and blooming faces come to look at them in those cool and shady avenues, while the hot sun is basking in the streets."
- Leigh Hunt.

Cruchley's London in 1865 : A Handbook for Strangers, 1865 

FLORAL HALL, at the south-east corner of the Piazza, Covent Garden, was built in 1863, by taking down a portion of Inigo Jones's Arcade; E. M. Barry, architect. It is of iron and glass, and has a large dome. It is an adjunct to Covent-garden opera-house, and occasionally used for concerts, flower-shows, &c.

John Timbs, Curiosities of London, 1867

  It is seldom that these fledglings of the hawk tribe quit their nests or rather their nesting places until they are capable, although on a most limited scale, of doing business on their own account. Occasionally a specimen may be seen in the vicinity of Covent Garden or Farringdon Market, seated on a carriage extemporized out of an old rusty teatray and drawn along by his elder relatives, by means of a string. It may not be safely assumed, however, that the latter are actuated by no other than affectionate and disinterested motives in thus treating their infant charge to a ride. It is much more probable that being left at home in the alley by their mother, who is engaged elsewhere at washing or ?charing,? with strict injunctions not to leave baby for so long as a minute, and being goaded to desperation by the thoughts of the plentiful feed of cast-out plums and oranges to be picked up in ?Common Garden? at this ?dead ripe? season of the year, they have hit on this ingenious expedient by which the maternal mandate may be obeyed to the letter, and their craving for market refuse be at the same time gratified.
           By-the-bye, it may here be mentioned as a contribution towards solving the riddle, ?How do these hundred thousand street prowlers contrive to exist?? that they draw a considerable amount of  their sustenance from the markets. And really it would seem that by some miraculous dispensation of Providence, garbage was for their sake robbed of its poisonous properties, and endowed with  virtues such as wholesome food possesses. Did the reader ever see the young market hunters at such a ?feed? say in the month of August or September? It is a spectacle to be witnessed only by early risers who can get as far as Covent Garden by the time that the wholesale dealing in the open falls slack?which will be about eight o?clock; and it is not to be believed unless it is seen. They will gather about a muck heap and gobble up plums, a sweltering mass of decay, and oranges and apples that have quite lost their original shape and colour, with the avidity of ducks or pigs. I speak according to my knowledge, for I have seen them at it. I have seen one of these gaunt wolfish little children with his tattered cap full of plums of a sort one of which I would not have permitted a child of mine to eat for all the money in the Mint, and this at a season when the sanitary authorities in their desperate alarm at the spread of cholera had turned bill stickers, and were begging and imploring the people to abstain from this, that, and the other, and especially to beware of fruit unless perfectly sound and ripe. Judging from the earnestness with which this last provision was urged, there must have been cholera enough to have slain a dozen strong men in that little ragamuffin?s cap, and yet he munched on till that frowsy receptacle was emptied, finally licking his fingers with a relish. It was not for me to forcibly dispossess the boy of a prize that made him the envy of his plumless companions, but I spoke to the market beadle about it, asking him if it would not be possible, knowing the propensities of these poor little wretches, so to dispose of the poisonous offal that they could not get at it; but he replied that it was nothing to do with him what they ate so long as they kept their hands from picking and stealing; furthermore he politely intimated that ?unless I had nothing better to do? there was no call for me to trouble myself about the ?little warmint,? whom nothing would hurt. He confided to me his private belief that they were ?made inside something after the orsestretch, and that farriers? nails wouldn?t come amiss to ?em if they could only get ?em down.? However, and although the evidence was rather in the sagacious market beadle?s favour, I was unconverted from my original opinion, and here take the liberty of urging on any official of Covent Garden or Farringdon Market who may happen to read these pages the policy of adopting my suggestion as to the safe bestowal of fruit offal during the sickly season. That great danger is incurred by allowing it to be consumed as it now is, there cannot be a question. Perhaps it is too much to assume that the poor little beings whom hunger prompts to feed off garbage do so with impunity. It is not improbable that, in many cases, they slink home to die in their holes as poisoned rats do. That they are never missed from the market is no proof of the contrary. Their identification is next to impossible, for they are like each other as apples in a sieve, or peas in one pod. Moreover, to tell their number is out of the question. It is as incomprehensible as is their nature. They swarm as bees do, and arduous indeed would be the task of the individual who undertook to reckon up the small fry of a single alley of the hundreds that abound in Squalor?s regions. They are of as small account in the public estimation as stray street curs, and, like them, it is only where they evince a propensity for barking and biting that their existence is recognised. Should death tomorrow morning make a clean sweep of the unsightly little scavengers who grovel for a meal amongst the market offal heaps, next day would see the said heaps just as industriously surrounded.

[click here for full text of The Seven Curses of London]

James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, 1869

see also Henry Mayhew on Costermongers and Covent Garden in 
London Labour and the London Poor (chapter 1)

see also Henry Mayhew on Costermongers and Covent Garden in 
London Labour and the London Poor (chapter 3)

see also George Sala's Twice Round the Clock - click here

see also Dickens's Dictionary of London - click here

see also James Greenwood in Toilers in London - click here

COVENT GARDEN MARKET, STRAND ... The great fruit, vegetable, and flower market of London; established about two centuries. The present building dates from 1831, but many improvements and additions, including a spacious building solely for the sale of flowers, have since been erected. Market days, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Reynolds' Shilling Coloured Map of London, 1895

Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Round London : Down East and Up West, by Montagu Williams Q.C., 1894


The flower hawkers?Counter attractions to bed?Short history of ?Convent Garden??Distinguished residents ?Reminiscences?Murder of Martha Ray?Hackman hanged?Ceaseless Stream of traffic?Din of voices?Scene in the market?The man in blue?Flower sellers? Plant sellers?A hard case?I am able to assist.
   ?ALL a-growing and a-blowing ?. Of all the sounds that reach my ears during the year, none gives me greater pleasure than this, the cry of the flower sellers. It brings glad tidings of  sunshine, it is an assurance that fogs are a thing of the past, and it bids you watch for the coming of the swallow.
   To the hard-working professional man the advent of spring brings new life, and its first pulsations are often induced by the sight of the daffodils on the street barrows.
   It may not be generally known that the flower hawkers are an extremely industrious class. Their day commences at the earliest dawn, or even before, in Covent Garden Market, or one of the other centres whither the grower consigns his produce.
   In my early days it was no uncommon thing for young gentlemen, after passing the night in a somewhat dissipated manner, to wend their way, in the small hours of the morning, to Covent Garden Market in order to have a cup of coffee at the stall by the church, and, as they expressed it, ?to see life with the costers.?
   There were many counter attractions to bed in those days. Among the popular resorts that kept open almost all night were Jessop?s, at the bottom of Catherine Street, Strand; the ?Coal Hole,? down the dark arches of the Adelphi; the Cider Cellars in the immediate neighbourhood; the ?Garrick?s head,? [-182-] opposite Covent Garden Theatre, where Baron Nicholson sat with his jury; and, last but not least, Evans?s.
   It has been said, and with a good deal of truth, that the district known as Covent Garden has more literary, and, in?deed, human interest than any other spot in modern or ancient London.
   ?Covent Garden? is, as every one knows, a corruption of ?Convent Garden.? Some six hundred years ago the ground covered by the present market and the surrounding buildings was an enclosure belonging to the Abbots of Westminster. One part of the area was used by them as a kitchen garden, and another part as a place of burial. At the dissolution of the religious houses?so we learn from Thornbury?the property passed into the hands of the Duke of Somerset, on whose attainder in 1552 it was given by the Crown to John Russell, Earl of Bedford, under the description of ?Covent Garden, lying in the parish of St. Martin?s in the Fields, next Charing Cross, with seven acres called Long Acre, of the yearly value of six pounds six shillings and eightpence.? The value of the land, I am informed, has since increased.
   In 1630, or thereabouts, the large square was laid out, from the designs of Inigo Jones, by Francis, fourth Earl of Bedford. On the north was the Piazza that still exists, on the east another that has long since been destroyed by fire, on the south the blank wall bounding the garden of Bedford House, and on the vest the church of St. Paul, which was also designed by Inigo Jones, and which is a familiar building in the present day. Along the southern wall stood a number of trees, and it was beneath their foliage that the fruit and vegetable market had its first beginnings. In 1689 Strype wrote: ?The south side of Covent Garden Square lieth open to Bedford Garden, where there is a small grotto of trees, most pleasant in the summer season; and on this side there is kept a market for fruits, herbs, roots, and flowers every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday which is grown to a considerable account?and well served with choice goods, which makes it much resorted to.?
   I may be forgiven for quoting another writer in reference to the change that time wrought on this spot. Walter Savage Landor put the matter thus: ?The garden formal and quiet, where a salad was cut for a lady abbess, and flowers were gathered to adorn images, became a market, noisy and full of life, distributing thousands of fruits and flowers to a vicious population.?
   [-183-] The market gradually developed, and in 1671 it was formally established under a charter granted by the King to the Earl of Bedford. Wooden stalls and sheds, and other make?shift erections, met the requirements of the salesmen and women for a long time, and it was not until 1830 that the present market was erected. It was built by John, sixth Duke of Bedford, the architect being Mr. William Fowler; and an interesting circumstance in connection with its construction was that, while excavating for the foundations, some navvies came upon a quantity of human remains, which no doubt dated from the time when the Abbots used the ground as their place of burial.
   In days gone by, Covent Garden was a very fashionable quarter. We read that, between 1666 and 1700, the following, among other distinguished persons, resided in the Piazzas:
   Lord Hollis, Lord Brownlow, the Bishop of Durham, Lord Newport, the Duke of Richmond, Lord Lucas, the Earl of Oxford, Sir Godfrey Kneller, Sir Kenelm Digby, the Marquis of Winchester, Benjamin West, and Sir Peter Lely. King Street, Henrietta Street, and other thoroughfares in the immediate neighbourhood, were also crowded with ?persons of quality,? as the phrase runs.
   Many and various are the memories that cling to Covent Garden. Looking back through a long vista of years, one can see, with the mind?s eye, two monster conflagrations, separated by an interval of some five decades, in which former Covent Garden Theatres were totally destroyed. Again, to go still further back in the distance of time, it was on the Piazzas that Powell set up his famous peep-show, to which, a wit of the period declared, large congregations were attracted by the ringing of the hell at the neighbouring church.
   At one end of the existing Piazza stood the Bedford Coffee Tavern, an establishment with which are intimately associated the names of Garrick, Foote, Quin, and many other notabilities; and in the immediate vicinity was Sheridan?s resort, the ?Piazza Hotel.? Then, too, at the north-west corner of Covent Garden was Evans?s, that famous meeting-place for men of wit and fashion, where, before clubs were known, it is stated that as many as nine dukes have dined on one evening.
   Passing from gay to grave, I cannot help referring to a most remarkable murder of which this locality was the scene.
   Over a hundred years ago the Earl of Sandwich, a member of Lord North?s Administration, was one day passing through [-184-] Covent Garden when, in the window of No 4, a house standing at the corner of Tavistock Street, he caught sight of a very beautiful girl. Her name was Martha Ray, and she was a milliner by trade; her parents being, it is believed, staymakers of Holywell Street. She excited the nobleman?s interest to such a degree that he had her removed from the shop, made arrangements for the completion of her education, and became her guardian.
   A few years later, Martha made the acquaintance of a Captain in the army named Hackman, who fell passionately in love with her and asked her to become his wife. She refused, observing that she would never ?marry a knapsack.? This remark the Captain took very much to heart, and, in order to remove the disability to which it pointed, he resolved to change his profession. Hoping that a black coat would succeed where a red one had failed, he entered the Church, and, as Vicar of Wyverton, in Norfolk, once more offered his hand where he had already given his heart. This time. Martha seemed more disposed to yield; but she raised some question of a settlement, and misunderstandings appear to have resulted.
   The sequence of events in this sad story is a little difficult to trace and I may pass at once to the tragic episode with which they culminated.
   In the evening of the seventh of April, 1779, Martha Ray, after having refused, earlier in the day to inform Hackrnan of her intended movements, proceeded, with a female attendant, to Covent Garden Theatre, there to witness ?Love in a Village.? Her lover, it appears, followed her thither, and we learn that, during the performance, he was seen drinking a glass of brandy and water in the Bedford Coffee Tavern.
   Hackman posted himself in the roadway when the audience began to stream out of the theatre, and, as Martha was being handed by a gentleman to her carriage, he rushed forward, Crew a pistol and shot her dead. He pointed another pistol to his own head and fired, but the bullet merely grazed the skin. Next he tried to beat out his brains with the butt-end of the weapon; but, before he could effect his desperate purpose, he was seized and handed over to two Bow Street runners, who conveyed him to the Bridewell on Tothill Fields.
   In due course Hackman was tried for the murder, found guilty, and sentenced to death. He was hanged at Tyburn, and-it is recorded that he was accompanied in the coach to the scaffold by Lord Carlisle and Mr. James Boswell.
   [-185-] But I must turn from the past to the present.
   The Strand and its environments never seem to go to bed. The stream of traffic flows on without intermission throughout every hour in the twenty-four, and it would be very difficult to say when the work of the night ends and the work of the day commences. The omnibuses of course stop running at a given hour ; but before all the other passenger conveyances have vanished from the streets, vans laden with fruit, vegetables, hay, and other spoils from the country, come lumbering along. Early rising is the rule with labouring London.
   Any of my readers who may visit Covent Garden Market in the small hours of the morning will see very much the same sights as those that were to be witnessed twenty or thirty years ago. On entering Wellington Street from the Strand you find the roadway choked with vans, carts of all shapes and sizes, and harrows. Every other street leading to the market is in the same congested condition. Who would have thought the world contained so many cabbages and potatoes as are to be seen here? Men bearing baskets and cases on their heads pass hither and thither, dodging each other with a dexterity born of long experience.
   The shouts and oaths so freely exchanged are responsible for a deal of the prevailing din; but other than human throats contribute to it largely. I refer to those of ?the costers? donkeys. One of these animals, elated it may be by meeting so many fellow-creatures, gives utterance to a prolonged and well-executed bray. Others at once raise their voices in response, and in a moment all the donkeys in all the streets are exercising those vocal powers with which Providence, in its inscrutable wisdom, has seen fit to endow them. One cannot help feeling very sorry for such of the occupants of the neighbouring houses as desire to sleep.
   The manner in which the vegetables are packed in the huge market carts is extraordinary. You see loads of lettuces and cabbages ten feet high, roped and netted down so tightly that, when unloosened, you marvel how so many could have been pressed into the space.
   The market itself is, of course, the scene of scenes. For incessant industry it is a veritable bee hive. If you are disposed to stand about and watch what is going on, you must have a care for your head and your shins. The buyers, salesmen, and porters are no respecters of persons. With them, it is work first and politeness afterwards.
   [-186-] If it is summer-time, the air is loaded with the fragrance of flowers, and the market is made beautiful with their colours.
   ?Now then for your dollars,? shouts the eager seller; ?we come here to sell, so make your choice and be sharp about it.?
   You turn to see by whom these words are spoken, when thump! you are nearly knocked off your feet by a burly, perspiring porter bending under a load of cauliflowers. ?Why don?t yer git out of the blooming way?? is his substitute for an apology.
   There are plenty of beggars and loafers standing about, and, oddly enough, a little group of Sisters of Mercy and hospital nurses. What on earth are they doing here at such an hour? The answer is very simple?they are buying flowers, at market prices, to gladden the hearts of poor sufferers laid on beds of sickness.
   Who is that individual in blue, standing in the middle avenue? He looks like a butcher?but no; what could a butcher be doing there? Well, absurd as it may seem at first sight, the supposition is correct. There he stands, steel on belt, with a basket of steaks and other pieces of meat. He shouts: ?Buy! buy! buy !? On drawing closer you will find that the good man is doing a very brisk trade, and rapidly disposing of his stock. The market habitu?s, it appears, buy his meat, and take it to neighbouring coffee-shops and public-houses, where they either have it cooked for them or perform the operation themselves.
   Not the least interesting among those who every morning flock to Covent Garden are the women who sell buttonholes and nosegays in the street. Theirs is a most laborious life. They have to rise in time to attend the early morning market, and it sometimes takes them the whole of the day to dispose of their stock. While they are laying out their few shillings on roses, carnations, geraniums, and maidenhair, they have to beware of the market,-thieves, who are always ready to pounce down upon goods that are left unguarded. Quite recently, I am informed, a poor woman, on bringing the last of her pur?chases from the salesman to the spot where she had left her barrow, found that the vehicle and its contents had been spirited away.
   There are any number of costers who post themselves in various parts of the metropolis with barrows laden with plants, seedlings, roots, and bulbs purchased at Covent Garden. A remarkable characteristic of these individuals is the con-[-187-]scientious manner in which they safeguard their ?stock money.? It may be that, after the toils of the day, they will pass a good deal of the evening in public-houses, treating themselves and their pals to pots of beer; but, even when under the influence of drink, they may be trusted not to spend any part of the sum that has been set apart for the purchase of the following day?s stock.
   A few weeks ago a case came before me in which one plant coster charged another with assault. It appeared that they had had a disagreement, which had led to blows, and that one of the combatants, finding himself getting the worst of the conflict, ran forward and overturned his antagonist?s barrow, thereby destroying its contents.
   After dealing with the case of assault, I turned to the man who had lost his goods, and said:
   ?Are you married??
   ?Yes,? he replied.
   ?Have you any children??
   ?Six,? said he with a grin.
   ?Have you anything in the world to support them with, now that your stock is destroyed??
   ?No, nothing.?
   ?Then you stand there a pauper??
   ?Yes, sir,? he said, ?that?s quite right.?
   ?What do you propose to do??
   ?That?s just what I don?t know,? he returned, scratching his head.
   I thought the case so hard that I resolved to assist the man out of a little fund that had been placed at my disposal by private friends for the relief of those whose needs I might find to be pressing.
   I observed:
   ?Well, I fancy you are an honest fellow, and I don?t think you ought to go to ruin because of this misfortune. I?m there?fore going to give you money to get a fresh stock. What was your stock worth??
   ?Well, sir, a matter of three pound or three pound ten.?
   ?Very well. I?ll let you have it?that is, you shan?t have it, but an officer shall. I?ll let him off his duty, or rather, I?ll see that the authorities at Scotland Yard do so, in order that he may proceed with you in the morning for the purpose of buying a stock equivalent to the one you have lost.?
   When the women and girl flower sellers return to their [-188-] lodgings after attending the market, they proceed to sort their stock and make up their buttonholes. It is extraordinary with what quickness and ability the latter operation is performed. A few flowers are placed together so as to form a dainty little spray, and they are then nimbly bound together with wire.
   Strangely enough, the flower seller, as a rule, has no love ?for flowers. She knows that her customers like them, and appreciate a well-arranged buttonhole, but where the great attraction lies she herself cannot understand. How seldom you see a flower girl wearing a flower! That her male asso?ciates should be insensible to the charm of their goods is less surprising. Probably the only personal use a coster ever made of a flower was to put the stalk in his mouth and chew it.
   The number of male and female Street flower sellers in London is very large. Several will often congregate together at a street corner, competing for the patronage of the public with great good nature. The women are nearly all dressed alike, with the same sort of hat and feathers, the same tartan ?shawls, short cotton dresses, and high-heeled lace-up boors, -and the same kind of gold ear-rings.
   Taking them as a whole, the flower sellers?men and women alike?are a very worthy class.

[---nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.---]

Flower Market, 1857 [ILN Picture Library]

Floral Hall, 1860 [ILN Picture Library]

New Flower Market, 1872 [ILN Picture Library]

Victorian London - Publications - History - The Queen's London : a Pictorial and Descriptive Record of the Streets, Buildings, Parks and Scenery of the Great Metropolis, 1896 - Covent Garden Market

Covent Garden Market - photograph


Covent Garden is, as all the world knows, a, the chief fruit, vegetable, and flower market in London. It stands in a district abounding with the most interesting historic memories, but the present market buildings were only erected in 1831; and although they have been enlarged since then, they are now quite inadequate for their purpose. Since the middle of the sixteenth century, Covent Garden has been the extremely profitable property of the Dukes of Bedford. Our view is taken from the north-eastern corner, looking toward the Strand. The scene here presented order in disorder, innumerable baskets and carts filled to overflowing with seasonable products, porters bustling to and fro is a very characteristic one. The building to the left of the Market, at the beginning of Russell Street, is the Hummums Hotel.