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In 1644 the residential covenants were breached as the first little shop opened under the portico of Covent Garden's Piazza.

By 1656 for protection against the elements, market stalls selling fruit, vegetables, herbs, flowers and iron-wear had begun to nestle under a line of trees up against the garden wall of Bedford House. The impromptu market received a boost in 1665 as residents of the City of London fled the Great Plague for the open spaces outside its walls. Flower sellers did a great trade in nosegays to combat the dreadful stenches. The very next year the Great Fire of London stopped just short of Covent Garden and that too, had a stimulating effect, as the merchants whose premises had been destroyed set up around the Piazza. The fifth Earl knew a good business opportunity when he saw one. King Charles II had been restored to the throne in 1660, and in 1670 William Russell successfully petitioned him to formalise the market “for the buying and selling of all manner of fruit, flowers, roots and herbs whatsoever .… forever throughout the seasons of the year except Sundays and the Feast of Nativity”.

In 1705-6, the 120-year-old Bedford House was demolished. The entire site, including the garden and courtyard, was laid out for redevelopment as the Bedford Ground. This redevelopment included on its western border, Southampton Street was built 50 feet wide to permit the first access to the Piazza from the Strand. The new street was purposely narrowed at its southern end to create a bottleneck, and gated against the passage of market carts.

This reconstruction had a devastating effect on the market traders. The wall of the terraced garden of Bedford House against which they had pitched their stalls for half a century was demolished, and in 1706 they were pushed out into a railed enclosure out in the open square.

From before the turn of the eighteenth century, market forces began to prevail and the area gradually subsided into debauched decline. In 1681 Robert Lazenby had opened the first bagnio (brothel) in a basement in the Little Piazza, as the eastern end of the square was called. Soon after other houses in the Little Piazza were converted into Turkish Baths, which became known generically as ‘Hummums’. One such hummum was 'Lazenby’s Hummum' in Russel Chambers now occupied by Tuttons restaurant.

With the Restoration, life and gaiety returned to the centre of London. Thomas Killigrew persuaded his friend King Charles to grant him a royal patent for the first Theatre Royal and opened its doors in Drury Lane in 1732 not far from the site of the earlier, illegal, and notorious Cockpit Theatre. Covent Garden became the centre for entertainment. There were taverns, coffee houses, and cockfight pits and, in 1732 the first Royal Opera House opened its doors.

However, by 1748 a collection of 229 stands and 106 shops, low but substantial buildings sprawled the centre of the Piazza. The market became a noisy, messy neighbour. By 1757 all the gentrified tenants had vacated the arcaded buildings around the Piazza and drifted towards Mayfair, Bloomsbury and St. James’s.

Rents fell in the wake of their departure and Covent Garden entered a raffish, Bohemian phase, attracting men of letters, politics, arts, the theatre and of course market traders. The fine houses of the Piazza were turned into taverns, hotels, and coffee houses. Manufacturing came too. Busy workshops sprang up in the alleys and byways all around: barrow-makers, coach builders, tailors, goldsmiths, mercers (dealers in textiles), sedan chair-makers, and fan mounters all practised their craft here.

In 1813 the Covent Garden Market came under government regulation and throughout the nineteenth century, the Bedford Estate carried out a regular programme of clearing out and renewing decaying areas.


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Tom's coffe House

Hummums hotel

Rich entering the Piazza
Rich entering the Piazza
in a triumphant march

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