Covent Garden comprises the area on the north side of the Strand which developed as the link between the settlements of the City of London and Westminster/Thorney Island. In medieval times the Strand was lined with large houses and palaces set in substantial gardens.
The history of settlement in the area can be traced to Roman times when roads led from Londinium, located to the east, along Holborn/Oxford Street to the north and the Strand to the south. Cemeteries were established along these roads in the 1st century. The area bounded by Trafalgar Square to the west, the Strand and the Thames on the south, and Oxford Street-High Holborn on the north has been identified as the site of a Saxon trading settlement known as Lundenwic. Dated between the 7th and 9th century the settlement was over 60 hectares in size. Archaeological excavations since 1984 have revealed important evidence of the town. Lundenwic was abandoned at the end of the 9th century, probably because of its lack of defences, and the old Roman walled city of Londinium was re-occupied.
On the north side of the Strand were Craven House (site at the south end of Drury Lane), Bedford House (site south of the Piazza) and Exeter House (site opposite the Savoy) as well as the Garden of the Convent, which provided food for Westminster Abbey. In 1553 the Garden was given to Sir John Russell by the Crown. In the 1630’s the Russell family began to develop the estate with the Piazza (by Inigo Jones), St Paul’s on the west side and terraced houses with arcaded ground floors on the north and east sides. The south side of the Piazza was not developed due to the location of the garden wall to Bedford House. In 1670 a small fruit and vegetable market was established on the south side of the Piazza. This grew to dominate the whole area, resulting in the original residents moving out. The area became characterised by bawdy-houses, taverns, coffee houses and prostitutes. In 1790 St. Paul’s burnt down and a facsimile replacement was built by Hardwick. In the 19th century a number of major building schemes resulted in changes to the character of the area including the Covent Garden Opera House (Smirke, 1808) which replaced an earlier theatre, the Drury Lane Theatre (Wyatt, 1811) the fifth theatre on the site, the Central Market Building (Charles Fowler, 1830), the current Royal Opera House and the Floral Hall (E.M. Barry 1857-8), the Flower Market (1887 – 91) and Bedford Chambers (1880). The latter development on the north west corner of the Piazza is in a similar form to and replaced the last surviving part of Inigo Jones’ scheme. Warehouses linked to the market function were constructed north of the Piazza such as in Floral Street and Shelton Street.
The market moved to Nine Elms in 1974 but, following considerable public opposition, plans for comprehensive redevelopment of the area were abandoned. Subsequent development in the area has been steered by the Covent Garden Action Area Plan (1978) which covers both those parts of Covent Garden in the City of Westminster and London Borough of Camden. The area has now become a popular shopping and entertainment location.