Another in the occasional series on “Far-Flung Lost London” …
Covent Garden was first recorded as Covent Gardyn, that is to say the garden of the convent or monastery (Westminster Abbey), in 1491. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the area was given over to John Russell, the First Earl of Bedford, in 1552, whose descendants built Bedford House here in the later sixteenth century (which was demolished in the early eighteenth). The Piazza was laid out in the 1630s, and the Market, famed for its fruit and vegetables, in the 1650s. The Market moved to a new location at Nine Elms in 1974.
Church of St Paul
The church of St Paul was built by the Palladian architect Inigo Jones for Francis Russell, the Fourth Earl of Bedford, between 1631-33. On being told by Russell, “I would not have it much better than a barn”, Jones is reputed to have retorted, “You shall have the handsomest barn in England”. The cleric and theologian John Wesley, who preached here in 1784, described the church as “the largest and best-constructed … that I have preached in for several years”. The church burnt down in 1795, and was rebuilt, and reopened in 1798.
Situated in the heart of the West End, the church has had a long association with the theatre and arts. The artist Peter Lely was buried here in 1680, the master wood-carver Grinling Gibbons in 1721, the composer Thomas Arne in 1778, and the actress Helen Terry in 1928. The artist Joseph Mallord William Turner was baptised here in 1775, and the librettist William Schwenk Gilbert – of Gilbert & Sullivan fame – in 1837. The Tuscan portico provided the setting for George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion”, written in 1913. It was also either here or in the neighbouring piazza that Samuel Pepys witnessed “an Italian Puppet Play” in 1662. Since 1975 the event has been commemorated by an annual May Fayre and Puppet Festival, held in Covent Garden on the second Sunday in May.