|"London is a world by itself . . . among the Londoners are so many nations differing in manners, customs, and religions, that the inhabitants themselves don't know a quarter of them." Tom Brown wrote in 1690:|
If that was true in his time, then how much more today with the population of the County of London four times as great, and Greater London adding four million more to the unwieldy total. Almost all of these millions have heard of Covent Garden, yet only a handful have seen with their own eyes the scene so readily imagined, and an even smaller number know anything of its early history ... its origin ... its chequered story throughout the centuries.
The man who refuses to walk the deserted streets of London at five o'clock in the morning in order to see the market for himself allows imagination to paint the scene. And probably the scene he visualizes is not entirely false, though it is certain to be daubed in softer colours than reality. Covent Garden is an allegorical resurrection. In the half-light of day, carts, wagons and lorries rumble over the London bridges towards these three acres of profusion. They bring with them the mud of farms and dialects of country lanes as I write, now yellow with hazel catkins. The side-streets are jammed tight. Cloth-capped porters hurry to and fro like courtiers of Nature. The richness of heaped produce looks like a vivid canvas of Van Gogh. Here is an anthology of the seasons . . . the vegetable world in all its glory . . . oranges, tangerines in silver jackets, Canadian apples, festoons of grapes, carrots, grapefruit from Cuba, shades of green in watercress, parsley, shallots, and the familiar fronds of the cabbage, onions with shining faces, beetroot, swedes, parsnips with long sensitive roots. To this mass add the colours of glorious masses of flowers. It is a gay scene. The fruits of the earth piled in a London street market.
The association is not uneasy. Centuries ago vegetables and flowers were grown where this market now stands. It was then the Convent Garden of St. Peter's. What was grown went to the table of the Abbot of Westminster. London had been pastoral for many years. William Fitzstephen, secretary to Thomas a' Becket, confirms the rusticity of London's population of roughly 40,000 in the biography of his master replate. . . . "The Thames abounds with fish. On the north side are fields for pasture and a delightful plain of flat meadow land, interspersed with flowing streams, on which stand mills whose clack is very pleasing to the ear. Close by lies an immense forest (Enfield Chase) in which are densely wooded thickets, the coverts of game, stags, fallow deer, boars and wild bulls."
The subsequent history of Covent Garden falls into four divisions. The Convent was disestablished and disendowed. Weeds ran riot, until the Earl of Bedford, in conjunction with Inigo Jones, the father of the English Renaissance, built around it the quadrangle and the Piazza. On two sides enormous colonnades were raised, and soon the Garden became the recognized parading-ground of gentlemen of fashion and their mistresses. The surrounding area became a fashionable suburb patronized in the Restoration by Charles and his frivolous Court for their gambling and insatiable amours. This era of popular dissipation was interrupted by two catastrophes that altered the face of London. Pepys in his diary records on 6th June, 1665: "The hottest day I ever felt in my life. This day, much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and c Lord have mercy upon us!' writ there; which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that, to my remembrance, I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell and chew, which took away the apprehension." That sign must have been common in Covent Garden. At night the rumble of the carts, precursors of those that now come at dawn, blended their noise with the dirge-like cry "Bring out your dead." Three months later Pepys wrote to Lady Carteret: "I have stayed in the City till above 7,400 died in one week and of them about 6,000 of the plague, and little noise heard day or night but the tolling of the bells." The final total was one hundred thousand deaths. To these horrors was added the Great Fire in which acres of dwellings were destroyed. In a few months the shape and size of London had changed. The second chapter in the history of Covent Garden had opened.
The fashionable world gradually moved westwards and houses of distinction were turned into tenements. This area deteriorated rapidly and became one of the most infamous quarters of London. Sir John Fielding summarized the condition in 1766 : "One of the principal causes of the number of bawdy-houses being collected together in or near Covent Garden, is there having been several estates in the courts and contiguous streets where the leases of the houses were so near expiring that it was not worth while to repair them till they were out, by which means they were let for almost nothing to the lowest of wretches, who hired three or four of them, and filled them with common prostitutes. This made Exeter Street, Change Court, Eagle Court and Little Catherine Street so infamous that it was dangerous for persons to pass and repass." The law which allowed such places to obtain a wine licence from the Stamp Office as a substitute for a magisterial licence added to the confusion. It was an evil time for Covent Garden, and "Tomkyn's" and the "Rose" carried on a roaring trade for "gentlemen to whom beds are unknown".
The third stage was inaugurated as early as 1680 when the vegetable market was established, but almost a century had to pass before it was finally settled. A feature at the beginning of the nineteenth century was the seasonal migration to Covent Garden of Shropshire and Welsh girls. They came on foot in droves and were employed moving loads of fruit to the market. It was common for these young women to carry a heavy load from Baling to Covent Garden roughly nine miles sometimes making the double journey twice a day, for a weekly wage of five or seven shillings. These country wenches must have brought a breath of fresh air into a murky atmosphere.
The last chapter came in 1732 when Covent Garden Theatre was built by the harlequin, John Rich. That first building was very small, the stage measuring 20 ft. by 47 ft., but it had this advantage the granting of Letters Patent by King Charles II to one William Davenant, "his heirs and assigns", which allowed "tragedies, comedies, plays, operas, musick, scenes, and all other entertainment of the stage whatsoever". From this foundation the theatre began with Congreve's Way of the World, but soon turned to opera, the first being Thomas Arne's Artaxerxes. In 1736 Handel's Atalarita was performed by Royal Command, the composer in this performance insisting that a solo be given to his chef, Gustavus Waltz. On i6th May, 1767, there is a record of Charles Dibdin accompanying the singer Miss Brickler on the piano, the first time that instrument is mentioned in English music. Rich's theatre was destroyed by fire in 1808. The then Prince of Wales laid the foundation stone for the new theatre later that same year, in fact in the vaults of the present building can be seen this three-ton block of masonry bearing the inscription: "Long live George, Prince of Wales." The rebuilt theatre was the largest in Europe, but it had a similar fate, being burned down in 1856.
The present structure by Barrie was opened in 1858. Here is the only Covent Garden known to many people. The earthy smell of vegetables and soil never reaches that sweeping amphitheatre of scarlet and gold with its tiers and boxes and glittering lights. Here every great singer from Caruso to Gigli, Tetrazzini to Flagstad, has appeared, no international reputation being complete without an appearance in London's leading opera house; here Sadler's Wells Ballet with the brilliant prima ballerina, Margot Fonteyn, the talented choreographer, Frederick Ashton, and the inspired direction of Dame Ninette de Valois has become the greatest ballet company in the world outside the Soviet Union. On great occasions the entire theatre is a moving mass of animated humanity reflecting and radiating every shade of brilliance and colour, such as that Spring night in 1946 when, before an audience that included the late King, and Queen, the two Princesses and the ambassadors from every embassy and legation in London, the Royal Opera House re-opened with a rich new production of The Sleeping Beauty, perhaps the most famous of the Russian classical ballets ... an unforgettable night of pageantry . . . everything being dwarfed by those massive curtains of crimson.
Two worlds exist side by side. One has links with Westminster Abbey. The other, a tradition that goes back to the first production of The Messiah in 1741 with Handel as conductor ... a tradition that today is murmured in the same breath as the Scala in Milan, and the Metropolitan Opera House in New York ... a jewel of brilliance in the Season. A bell summons us. The scarlet stalls and boxes are filling. Every tier of the sweeping amphitheatre is filling. The lights fade like dying glow-worms. The curve of a woman's shoulder looks momentarily like ivory. The orchestra snatches at a few stray notes. Applause greets the conductor. He bows . . . taps the stand with his baton. The theatre wells to the music of Tchaikovsky . . . familiar chords . . . then slowly the huge curtains part . . . and delicate wraiths of grace float across the stage. It is a visual interpretation of a musical emotion. Music and ballet become fused in an inarticulate, unfathomable speech which leads us to the edge of the infinite and allows us for moments to gaize into that. Ballet becomes the ectoplasm of music. We follow the romance of Odette and Siegfried until the final voyage through the waters of the lake to the world of eternal happiness.London Season, Louis T. Stanley, [As Written]