Covent Garden's Apple Market
Covent Garden's Apple Market

One of London's most famous markets, Covent Garden was primarily a place to buy fruit and vegetables. This 40-acre site once belonged to the convent of St Peter's, Westminster, which maintained a kitchen garden here. This 'convent garden' evolved to become known as Covent Garden.


The market began very simply in 1656 when the Duke of Bedford allowed several temporary stalls to be built in the gardens of Bedford House, his London home. In 1670 the Duke was granted a license by Charles II to hold a market every day except Sundays and Christmas.

The Duke sold the license shortly afterwards, and by 1700 there was a regular thrice-weekly market selling fruit, vegetables, flowers, roots, and herbs from permanent shops erected against the garden wall.

Entertainment of various sorts regularly took place at Covent Garden. According to diarist Samuel Pepys, the very first Punch and Judy shows were held here in 1642. Around 1650 the first pineapples began to be grown in England, and so popular did the fruit become that it was adopted as the symbol of Covent Garden Market.

Covent Garden entrance
Covent Garden entrance

The area surrounding Covent Garden was quite posh, and the residents were by no means happy with the rather plebian market, a source, they thought, of noise and dirt. In 1748 the market was rebuilt by the Duke, at a cost of 4000 pounds. The shops gained upper stories, and the tone of the market was raised considerably.

The area around Covent Garden became synonymous with theatre and opera. The Theatre Royal on Drury Lane is just outside the market area, as is the Royal Opera House. St Paul's Church in Covent Garden became known as the Actor's Church, and was frequented by the leading lights of the stage. From 1798 the actors could indulge in fine food at Rules Restaurant on Maiden Lane. Rules is known as the oldest restaurant in London.

By the onset of the Victorian era, Covent Garden had grown considerably, not least due to the closure of competing markets. In 1828 the entire complex was rebuilt to a neo-classical design by Charles Fowler, into a bright, colourful, cheerful market, full of light and space. It was, oddly, a place where high society could intermingle with ordinary Londoners, farmers, and flower sellers.

The market was further expanded into five main areas, the Russell Street, the Row, Flower Market, Charter Market, and Flower Hall. The Dukes of Bedford sold their interest in the market in 1918.

In 1974 the market moved to a new site at Nine Elms, Battersea (called New Covent Garden), but the original site has now been redeveloped into a thriving market once more, with cafes and a variety of shops under the colourfully painted Victorian market building.