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St Paul’s Church

When Inigo Jones designed the rectangular enclosure of the Piazza in 1630 its centre was an open space designed to lead the eye to this building, which dominated its western side. Modelled on a Tuscan temple it inspired the whole architectural conception. The Earl of Bedford had requested a plain building “not much better than a barn” a preference owing to an austerity of taste than to shortage of cash. The architect replied, “Well then, you shall have the most handsomest barn in London.”

The sealed portico facing the Piazza looks as though it should be the entrance, and indeed that was the intention. However the door was never used because, ecclesiastically speaking, the nave faced the wrong way, so you have to enter through the gardens behind the church.

The Portico of St Paul’s Church

Under the portico is a plaque, which commemorates the first Punch and Judy show in England. It was here that Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary of 1662 that he had seen the Italian puppet show of Punchinello transmogrified into an Englishmen called Punch, his wife Judy and a dog, Toby.

Eliza Doolittle meets Professor Higgins at this spot in Shaw’s play 'Pygmalion', the original play that inspired the musical 'My Fair Lady'.

Jugglers and street entertainers performing on the cobblestone continue this theatrical tradition today. The Punch and Judy pub opposite provides an excellent view of these acts.

Lloyd’s Bank Chamber

One of six neo-Renaissance stone and brick blocks erected in or near the Piazza between 1876 & 1890 to the design of Henry Clutton or influenced by his work. The white-framed glass gazebo at ground level is the entrance to Le Boulestin a spacious subterranean restaurant founded in 1926. When Art Deco was new, this was one of London’s most expensive dining places, and certainly the most stylish, with its modern murals, fabrics and fittings. Chef Marcel Boulestin was the world’s first television chef appearing on BBC in 1937. The site was previously occupied by an Edwardian hotel, the Covent Garden and before that the Bedford Head Hotel.

Number 43 King Street

Now the oldest construction in the Piazza is in the northwest corner. The history of its occupancy mirrors the changing economic fortunes of Covent Garden. Originally until 1756 it was Lord Archer's substantial private mansion. Later it was rented to a peruke maker (wig maker), before it became the home of the new Royal Institute of Architects. Exclusive clubs followed but later it became the premises of George Monro a wholesale fruiterer and is now occupied by a small public relations company.

Russell Street

This exits the Piazza on the east, overlooked by the first floor terrace of the Central Market building. A restaurant re-creates the original conservatory, which displayed indoor plants and flowers in the wholesale market. The street is names after Francis Russell, the fourth Earl of Bedford (hence Bedford Chambers and Bedford Street) who commissioned Inigo Jones to build the Piazza.

Many of England’s essayists and writers frequented three of the street’s coffee houses in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Wills, on the corner of Bow Street at No.1 was the favourite of John Dryden and Alexander Pope, the masters of restoration comedy. William Congreve and William Wycherley and the satirist John Swift were all regulars at the ‘wits’ room on the first floor.

Across the way, No.17, was Tom’s where you could have found the poet Oliver Goldsmith, the literary master Dr Samuel Johnson and his former pupil, actor-manager David Garrick.

A few doors down at No.10 was Button’s, a haunt of the essayist and fiction writer Daniel Defoe and the founders of the Tatler and the Spectator Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steel. The eponymous Daniel Button was a former servant of the Addison’s whom he acquired when he married Lady Warwick. At No8 you can drink a cup of coffee today in the very house, then a bookshop, where Dr Johnson first met his biographer James Boswell.

27 Southampton Street

Throughout history famous people lived all around the Piazza, particularly actors and dramatists, whose unsocial hours demanded they reside close to their work. The playwrights Wycherley, Congreve, and Richard Sheridan, and the great thespians Garrick, Charles Macklin, John Kemble, and Edmund Kean, as well as Nell Gwynne, were all local residents, although hardly a trace of their homes has survived. An exception is 27 Southampton Street, just off the south side of the Piazza, where David Garrick found it convenient to live within a short stroll of theatres from 1749 - 1772. He was manager of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, for nearly thirty years from 1747, and nearby Garrick Street and the Garrick Club are named after him. Theatregoers were more passionate in those days, and from time to time his home was besieged by angry mobs enraged by his productions.

Covent Garden Market Building

Within 25 years of the completion of Inigo Jones’s noble square, as early as 1656, market traders had established their stalls in its open centre. This building, designed by Charles Fowler, was put up to provide a covered hall in 1830, and until 1974 it remained the primary fruit and vegetable market for London. The whole Covent Garden market was steeped in its atmosphere. In the early morning hours, lorries pregnant with ripe produce rumbled in from the countryside to crowd the narrow thoroughfares. Boxes of fruit and vegetables and flowers were piled high on the cobbles, and on the heads of the porters, both male and female, who fetched them to the stalls. Teashops did a brisk trade all night, and pubs opened at dawn for thirsty porters and drivers. You can still see the market regulations painted on large boards in the entrances to the Central Market Building.

Left empty in 1974, this structure was preserved and renovated by the Greater London Council, and reopened in 1980 as a complex of shops, boutiques, and open-air restaurants. This redevelopment sparked the regeneration of the entire area.

Although the area over the years it has still retained its exciting, bustling ambience. This now comes from tourists and the many street entertainers and events - musicians, clowns, dance and special exhibitions. These are staged in the west Piazza and also under cover in the north hall of Central Market Building where up to one million people per week pass though or around.

The Jubilee Hall

This is where our story started, but as the area became posh again, the market traders were generally expected to leave. However in the Jubilee Hall today, a busy traditional market still flourishes in the covered space beneath the new building on the south side of the Piazza. It spills out onto the pavement underneath the glass portico of the adjacent baroque Jubilee Hall, built in 1904.Millions of people pass through every year buying original and traditional crafts and goods.

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Index of things

Histories of Things
By Laurence Skelding

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