May 12, 2022 – Covent Gardens

We met a cousin for coffee and a visit this morning near our hotel.

She is a language teacher and has just completed a historical fiction novel set in Italy. The name of the novel is called “The Tears of Monterini” by Amanda Weinberg.

We walked over to Covent Gardens and had a look at what was going on there. We then saw her off on her way at the nearby tube station.

Now, a little about “Covent Garden.

“Covent Garden’ was as a garden in the 1500’s for the monks of Westminster Abbey. The name has changed over the years due to mispronunciation. In 1536 King Henry Vlll seized the property as part of the destruction of the monasteries. The land then went to John Russell, 1st Earl of Bedford in 1552. The land then sat vacant for generations.

Finally in the 1630’s Francis Russell, the fourth Earl of Bedford, built a house there for himself on the north side of the Strand. He then commissioned Royal Architect Indigo Jones to build a square there, with houses “fit for the habitation of Gentlemen and men of ability.”

He also asked for a church to be built as the aristocrats had to go to church somewhere, but he didn’t want to spend too much money on the building. He asked that the church be “no more elaborate than a barn.” Jones answered with, “You will have the finest barn London.” St. Pauls Church was the result. The resulting Square of the Covent Garden construction was the first “piazza in London.

Markets began forming in the piazza as early as 1656. Even though the population was quite small at the time the people living there were mostly wealthy tenants.

Due to its location, it missed a good deal of the plague and avoided the Great Fire of London in 1666. That fire caused many to move to the west end looking for lodging and markets. Thus the markets grew in size and number of stalls.

King Charles ll granted a royal charter in 1670 to formalize its presence in Covent Garden.

The growth and the new characters now working in Covnet Garden decided the fate of the Gentlemen in the area. As the the market grew, those with money moved away to more gentile surroundings. A man’s address was important in London then and perhaps still is now.

When the the two theaters arrived that was another reason to leave the piazza.

The First Theatre Royal on Drury Lane, and the Royal Opera on Bow Street were two more reasons for those able to move away.

King Charles ll allowed them to be the only “theatres” allowed to perform spoken drama.

This made Covent Garden the center of London’s theatrical activities. This in turn attracted hordes of theater-goers who crowded the streets of Bow Street and Drury Lane. Along with these people came the prostitutes.

In the daytime the market was a hive of activity and growing in its stature, but at night the piazza was a different animal. As this change happened more of the wealthy left and the working class moved in to replace them. Thus Seven Dials and St Giles Rookery became an impoverished area. This flight of the wealthy just increased over time.

By the end of the 18th century the vacant homes were turned into taverns, book shops, gambling houses and the like. Brothels soon followed.

Some of the brothels served as coffee houses during the day. Many other coffee houses became centers for discussing the politics of the day.

Moll and Tom’s Coffee house was one of these establishments where customers could meet and then leave for a more private area to do whatever they were gong to do.

Buttons Coffee House was different. It was established in 1713 by the writer Joseph Addison, who was determined to create a literary center in London. Addison owned newspapers and advertised that he would place placed a Lion head letter box at his establishment for folks to put in their comments about the issues of the day. Those added to the opinions in Addison’s newspapers The Tatler, The Spectator and The Guardian.

This resulted in the gathering of English writers and where ideas were discussed and accepted or not.

Button’s coffee house closed in 1754. There is a Starbucks at that location today. So the tradition continues.

We then walked to Mayfair to Mayfair Chippy. According to many sources, these are the best around. They were very good as was the service.

The food and service was great as was the people watching. I must say that over the years the service at most establishments in England has greatly improved. Perhaps it is my age, but years ago it seemed that the servers were not as interested in serving people as they are now. I may be wrong but that is my impression on this trip.

We love walking on vacation and London is one of our favorite cities to walk in. You never know what you will come across or discover.

An interesting thing happened on our walk today. I noticed a couple walking a dog. Over the next few hours of walking we passed them three times coming from different directions and in distant places in the city. They were probably locals walking their dog.

I only noticed them due to the dog that they were walking. But three times? That’s seems a little crazy.

The homeless problem exists here as it does at home.

The English system of medical care here offers “free” medical care so I wonder why these folks are still out on the streets. I’ve been reading an interesting book called “What the Dog Saw” by Malcolm Gladwell. It discusses this issue along with many others. They actually examine tactics tried in different cities and the success rates of those programs.

A busy London street.