Did you know… The first recorded mention of a Punch and Judy show in England was at Covent Garden in 1662, by the diarist Samuel Pepys.
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Covent Garden was designed by Inigo Jones in the 1630s. A small fruit and veg market was added in 1670, and became the longest running food fair in London.
Covent Garden was not always the pleasant place that you see today – prisoners were dragged down the track on their way to be hanged at Tyburn. The area around St. Giles was the site of London’s first leprosy hospital, and it was here that the Great Plague took hold in 1665.
During Victorian times, Covent Garden was known as the city’s worst slum – a fact attested to by Dickens in his numerous novels.
The site was acquired by Henry VIII in the mid 16th-century. It was originally owned by the monks at Westminster Abbey, as a place to grow their vegetables. But when he scrapped the monasteries in 1536, he also grabbed their land. When Charles I came to power in 1625, he granted the Earl of Bedford a licence to build, and hired Inigo Jones to create a piazza.
Jones’s classical designs were rather wasted in 1670, when a fruit and veg market settled in the square. It expanded rapidly, attracting more and more vendors to the area – and changed forever Covent Garden’s make-up. Out went the wealthy nobles—moved to better premises in St. James’s and Whitehall—and in came the lowly street traders.
With the influx of street traders came the brothels, crime and undesirables. The authorities soon came up with a novel solution – the Bow Street Runners.
The Bow Street Runners were established in 1751 to tackle rising crime. This voluntary group ran in opposition to the constables, who were rumoured to be in collusion with the criminals. They were disbanded in 1839, ten years after the creation of the Metropolitan Police Force.
A stunning new market hall was added in the early 19th-century (what we now call
the Piazza), and contains small shops, stalls and the Punch and Judy pub.
The ground outside is now permanently filled with buskers, acrobats, mimes and various other kinds of street entertainment.
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