Covent Garden as a Palimpsest19 minute read

Considering Covent Garden as a palimpsest in London

Covent Garden market hall 1800s
Figure 5 – Covent Garden market soon after the construction of the central market hall between 1828 and 1830 (source: Richardson, 1979)

Covent Garden and specifically its central piazza and market halls form clear examples of a palimpsest in London. The closure and relocation of Covent Garden’s wholesale market trade in the 1970s catalysed Covent Garden’s transition from being an eminently localised space to a globally connected space. This transition is directly linked to Covent Garden gradually becoming less relevant and accessible to local people. Simultaneously an on-going process of commodification of Covent Garden’s space, built form and histories has begun and continues to occur presently. This project will analyse the dynamics driving these significant changes in Covent Garden’s social, economic and cultural functions over an extended period of time. Moreover the redefinition of Covent Garden’s functions will be linked to underlying shifts in the nature of London’s political economy.

A critical framework of analysis will be utilised to assist in examining both primary and secondary data from academic and popular sources. A background outline of Covent Garden’s social, economic and cultural history will first be presented before this project’s methodology is discussed. Subsequently the local to global shift in Covent Garden will be analysed with reference to theory on Neoliberalism. Finally analysis of the on-going process of commodification in Covent Garden will be supported by evidence from the literatures on Gentrification and a critical geography of tourism.

Background: Covent Garden’s social, economic and cultural history

Covent Garden’s flower women
Figure 1 – Covent Garden’s flower women (Source: Smith 1877)

The central market building that still stands in Covent Garden Piazza today was constructed between 1828 and 1830 to formalise market trading in the area, which had been growing throughout the 18th Century. The growth of the market was necessary to feed an expanding population in London (Richardson, 1979). The market represented the largest central trading point in London for the sale of fruit and vegetables as well as a wide selection of flowers. The daily atmosphere associated with the market generated a constant buzz of activity in Covent Garden reinforced by the diverse range of Londoners coming and going (Richardson, 1979). There was an unexpected juxtapositioning of different activities and atmospheres within the space (Christie, 1974). The market was able to provide employment for a large majority of the local Covent Garden population in work directly connected to the market as well as in ancillary services (Richardson, 1979). The aristocratic Bedford family who owned the market scooped the majority of the market profits in the form of fees from the traders (Richardson, 1979). Many of the causal labourers working in activities associated with the market were embedded in a highly unequal employment structure, for example men were employed to carry enormous physical loads from the market to the homes of wealthy residents in outer London for little wages (Richardson, 1979). An archival source entitled “Street life in London” written by the radical journalist Adolphe Smith describes some of the experiences of labourers working in Covent Garden in the 19th century. The “Covent Garden Flower Women” (Figure 1) looked down upon, as “the parasites of the flower world” would negotiate with market dealers to obtain their discarded flowers, which they would then attempt to sell (Smith, 1877:7). The life of a flower woman was a hard one and the women could often barely make enough to survive (Smith, 1877:7). Eliza Doolittle, a Covent Garden flower girl is the central character in George Bernard Shaw’s play “Pygmalion”. Similarly around four thousand men worked as labourers in the market (Figure 2)arriving in the early morning to pick up ad hoc work transporting orders (Smith, 1877:51). The labour was extremely causal with men able to earn a significant income in the busy season but during the quiet months they could earn barely enough to cover the basic necessities of life (Smith 1877:51). Furthermore Covent Garden grew to support a varied range of small artisan crafts and skilled industries such as printing, piano making and book binding (Christie, 1974). Christie (1974:32) argues that Covent Garden served as an entrepreneurial incubator for fledging industries that could establish themselves in the area before moving elsewhere.

Covent Garden’s labourers
Figure 2 – Covent Garden’s labourers (Source: Smith 1877)

The district of Covent Garden exhibited a high degree of cultural value and diversity in the 18th and 19th centuries. Covent Garden became a centre of London’s entertainment industry due to the presence of theatres such as the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane (Christie, 1974). Nonetheless as the 18th century progressed Covent Garden acquired a reputation for inappropriateness and loss living exemplified by lowbrow theatres, multiple drinking houses and a prevalent prostitution trade (Richardson, 1979). Covent Garden’s reputation at the time was similar to that associated with the Soho area of London today. Covent Garden also had a large provision of residential space compared to other central London areas in the 19th century (Christie, 1974). Certain areas developed into slums where disease could fester unchecked (Richardson, 1979). Covent Garden was a place of widespread inequality in the 18th and 19th centuries where relative opulence and squalor could exist in adjacent streets (Richardson, 1979).

Figure 6 – Covent Garden market scene in 1965 (source: Richardson, 1979)

Following the end of the Second World War Covent Garden was characterised by out migration to the suburbs and a slow down in the development of the area. Covent Garden was increasingly in need of renovation (Richardson, 1979). A Greater London Council (GLC) plan proposing the closure of the market and the comprehensive redevelopment of the area was published in 1968. The plans which proposed the demolition of about half the buildings in the area and the introduction of major road routes through Covent Garden was met with widespread public resistance (Richardson, 1979). The fruit, vegetable and flower markets were eventually closed in November 1974 and relocated to Nine Elms near Battersea. 3000 jobs associated with the market were lost along with 6000 jobs associated with the print industry (Anderson and Green, 1992). The revised plans for Covent Garden were more conservative but still advocated the need for the area to be opened up to investment in order to maintain economic competiveness and prevent the area from going into permanent decline. At the time of the market closure 45% of Covent Garden’s residents had lived in the area for more than 20 years and over half could only afford a small rent of £4 per week (Christie, 1974). Consequently the low-income residential population of Covent Garden was expected to come under threat of displacement as property speculation and gentrification began to take hold following the redevelopment.

The redeveloped central market hall reopened in 1980 and now forms a centre point of Covent Garden’s prosperous local economy. Initially the market halls and a number of other buildings were managed by a community charity, the Covent Garden Area Trust. However the property company Capco now owns the central market hall itself purchasing the freehold on the site in November 2006. The thriving economy of the area is partly based around retail with many global brands such as Zara, Benetton and Uniglo having a presence either in the piazza itself or in the surrounding streets (Ives, 2003:90). Covent Garden is now established as a leading global shopping destination attracting many premium brands (Morrison, 2015:10). Moreover the area is now renowned as one of London’s most popular visitor attractions complemented by an array of street performers. The London Transport Museum is a palimpsest in itself having moved into the former flower market in 1980 (Richardson, 1979). Property speculation and investment has intensified in the last ten years with an increasing emphasis on luxury developments. Boutique developments have stimulated rapid property price growth in the area as wealthy buyers priced out of more traditional Central London property hotspots like Mayfair gravitate towards Covent Garden (Bloomfield, 2015; City AM, 2012:36).


A mixed methods approach was utilised to source both primary and secondary data on Covent Garden from a varied range of sources. A brief ethnographic study was carried out over the course of a number of site visits to Covent Garden in order to obtain primary qualitative data. Ethnographic work included a non-participant observation aimed at getting a sense of the profile of Covent Garden’s visitors. Additionally the non-participant observation was able to shed light on how Covent Garden’s aesthetics and heritage have been used in a process of commodification. However the limitations of non-participant observation must be recognised in any analysis, notably the reliance on the researcher’s subjective interpretation of the dynamics at work in Covent Garden. Additionally a collection of photographs taken in and around Covent Garden’s central piazza were used to assist in triangulating some of the key observations recorded during site visits.

Archival material focusing on Covent Garden’s economic, social and cultural history was sourced primarily from the LSE Library archives, for example the “Street Life in London” works by John Thomson and Adolphe Smith. Moreover the collection of government publications held in the LSE Library was useful as a source for Covent Garden planning documents released by urban governmental bodies such as the GLC and Westminster City Council in the 1960s and 1970s. Secondary data was sourced from a number of academic articles focusing on Covent Garden specifically as well as from non-academic sources such as newspaper articles. Finally this project has looked to apply relevant theoretical work on topics such as gentrification and a critical geography of tourism to the Covent Garden case.

Covent Garden: the local to global shift

Covent Garden Market Hall renovation
Figure 7 – Central market hall during its renovation, May 1979 (source: Richardson, 1979)

Covent Garden today is a space with a fundamentally different function and set of users compared to the wholesale market era. The piazza and central market building that was once served by the comparatively localised fruit and veg trade is now a central hotspot for a diverse array of visitors and tourists drawn from across the globe. This local to global shift observed in Covent Garden can be linked to a wider trend of neoliberal economic and political restructuring of urban governance institutions since the 1970s. Neoliberal restructuring has tended to disenfranchise urban inhabitants in terms of their control over decisions that shape urban space and the city as a whole (Purcell, 2002:99). Urban policy is increasingly orientated away from a goal of redistribution towards a need to maintain local economic competiveness in a global economy (Purcell, 2002:100). Forms of urban management have begun to move away from an emphasis on social provision for inhabitants towards a more entrepreneurial strategy that prioritises investment for wealth creation (Meethan, 2001:23). Urban governance institutions have looked to engage in supply side interventions aimed at attracting investment to local urban areas (Purcell, 2002:100). This neoliberal urban governance ethos is driven by the imperative of capitalist accumulation that regards the democratic involvement of urban inhabitants in city decision-making as inefficient (Purcell, 2002:101).

Covent Garden’s regeneration revolved around the implementation of a long-term strategy of opening up the area to global inward investment in order to maintain economic competiveness. The redevelopment inevitably stimulated property speculation throughout the area leading to an influx of developers looking to rent commercial premises to the highest bidder. Frank (1996a) argues that this placed pressure on economically marginal activities such as the diverse range of small but skill intensive industries previously so vital to the area. Similarly Richardson (1979) contends that a constant pressure now exists to make Covent Garden even more profitable but this has had a consequence of squeezing out small shops and businesses useful to the living and working populations of the area. Commercial premises located in and around the piazza are now almost exclusively filled by boutique designer brands drawn from across the globe (Ives, 2003:90). These brands are marketed to wealthy visitors attracted to the area and not to local inhabitants. Moreover the market halls have been placed into the ownership of a private developer. Covent Garden now has a fundamentally different character in comparison to prior to the closure of the wholesale market because it is an urban space, which has been inexorably privatised and globalised (Frank, 1996b).

Richardson (1979) points to concerns about the level of local involvement and consultation in the redevelopment as planning decisions were increasingly made centrally and motivated by a need to prioritise the attraction of international visitors to the area over the concerns of local residents. Covent Garden prior to the redevelopment had a significant low-income population mainly employed in the market and other local industries. Christie (1974) at the time called for a rethinking of the planners housing policy to ensure that low-income residents were not displaced from the area due to the widespread property speculation and gentrification that was expected to follow. However as a part of the neoliberal restructuring of urban policy since the 1980s housing provision has largely been opened up to the market leading to a focus on luxury developments (Bloomfield, 2015).

Covent Garden Market Hall 2016
Figure 8 – Inside the central market hall in 2016

A key part of the neoliberal restructuring of urban policy has been the centralisation of decision- making over the production of urban space, which has had an effect of gradually disenfranchising local inhabitants (Purcell, 2002:100). This process was observed in the case of Covent Garden under the Thatcher government as decisions were increasingly made centrally without the opportunity for public consultation (Frank, 1996a). Despite the powerful interests of local and central government at work in the transformation of Covent Garden in the 1970s and 1980s, neighbourhood participation in the area’s polity was able to successfully challenge some of the planning proposals. Anderson and Green (1992) highlight the work of the Covent Garden Community Association, which challenged the original 1968 plan for the area triggering a public enquiry. The actions of the Covent Garden Community Association led to the scrapping of many of the large-scale developments, which would have irreversibly damaged the character of Covent Garden (Anderson and Green, 1992). Additionally the Covent Garden Forum was able to collect a petition with 125,000 signatures contributing to the reversal of the decision to demolish the Jubilee Market Hall, which still stands in the piazza today (Anderson and Green, 1992). Hain (1980) is less positive contending that the ability of local campaigning in Covent Garden to block the powerful interests of government and the market was limited in the longer term. The Covent Garden example demonstrates that the opportunity for local political participation is simply a means of neutralising dissent and mobilising support for official policy (Hain, 1980).

Frank (1996a: 140) makes a valid point when questioning whether the continued commercial success and popularity of Covent Garden is enough arguing that the loss of Covent Garden as a “citizens place” has damaged London significantly. The Covent Garden example raises questions of who has the right to the city and who has the right to determine the production and reproduction of urban space? Lefebvre argues that it is those who inhabit the city and contribute to the body of urban lived experiences that should determine urban policy (Purcell, 2002:102). Urban inhabitants should play a direct role in any decisions that contribute to the production of urban space replacing the power of the state and private capital (Purcell, 2002:102). Moreover Lefebvre asserts a right of appropriation where urban inhabitants are entitled to physically access, occupy and use urban space (Purcell, 2002:102). The neoliberal conception of urban space as private property or a commodity to be valorised by the capitalist production process as shown in the case of Covent Garden is specifically what Lefebvre’s right to the city stands in opposition to (Purcell, 2002:103).

Covent Garden today: a commodified space

Covent Garden Apple Store
Figure 3 – Apple Store in Covent Garden Piazza opened in 2010

Covent Garden’s unprecedented commercial success largely relies on the commodification of the area’s buildings and histories into a product that can be consumed by visitors attracted to the area. This can be seen in the historic central market hall in the piazza, which is now utilised, as a host for a series of boutique shops and fashionable eateries. Additionally the piazza and surrounding streets are now utilised by some of the largest commercial brands such as Apple, which opened its then largest worldwide store in the piazza in 2010 (Figure 3). Frank (1996b) argues that Covent Garden is now monopolised by high spending tourists serving far fewer Londoners and a much narrower spectrum of people compared to what it once did. The production of “shopping experiences” such as Covent Garden forms a

Chanel designer shop inside Covent Garden
Figure 4 – Chanel designer shop inside Covent Garden’s central market hall

key strand of the regeneration strategy favoured by a number of western urban economies (Edensor, 2009:311). These “shopping experiences” are intended to almost exclusively attract visitors but for inhabitants such sights can become mundane (Edensor, 2009:311). Furthermore Covent Garden’s commercial success is based upon a selective and somewhat inauthentic display of the area’s heritage. The historic aesthetics of the central market hall have been retained while any obvious reference to the importance of the market itself in the history of Covent Garden has been erased. The historic infrastructure of Covent Garden represented by the central market hall now forms a shell into which boutique style retail outlets have been installed (Figure 4) as part of the commodification process. Edensor (2009:303) confirms the marketing of local economic heritage and the remnants of its production sites as a common strategy adopted by western cities looking to attract visitors. However as in the case of Covent Garden the marketing of heritage can be selective and inauthentic because of the requirement to produce an easily consumable message (Edensor, 2009:303; Britton, 1991). The selective use of heritage in Covent Garden to aid in the commodification process links to John Urry’s concept of “the tourist gaze”. This is the idea that visitors interpret the sights they consume according to a personal framework whereby the objects they gaze upon come to stand for some other general quality (Edensor, 2009:307). Tourists gazing upon the preserved market buildings in Covent Garden can feel satisfied and content in discovering a visual representation of London’s heritage.

A revalorisation of Covent Garden’s space and built form has occurred based on the introduction of a globalised tourism industry. Urban spaces are able to achieve status and value as a tourist sight because of their social, cultural and crucially commercial attributes, which can be commodified (Britton, 1991:454). A key aspect of this is the way intangible aesthetic elements of place become commodified to attract inward investment and facilitate economic growth (Meethan, 2001:23). Collinge (1982:224) comments on the success of Covent Garden where the positive ambience and atmosphere is both conducive to successful tourism as well as retailing and entertainment. Nonetheless how genuine and authentic is the positive ambience and atmosphere so key to Covent Garden’s role as a tourist attraction in London. Boorstin’s idea of “the spectacle” suggests tourism is in fact a staged and inauthentic production put on for the benefit of tourists (Edensor, 2009:304). The culture and atmosphere of the wholesale trading market in Covent Garden felt very real whereas Covent Garden today with its street performers, boutique style shops and eateries feels very scripted and inauthentic. Covent Garden is in danger of becoming what Edensor (2009, 304) describes as an “enclavic space” where local cultural specificity is erased in accordance with the bureaucratic and commercial imperatives of the tourist industry.


On one level the regeneration of Covent Garden since the 1980s has been hugely successful, handing a significant boost to London’s economy by attracting the tourist dollar as well as foreign investment in retail and property. The district now undoubtedly serves as a genuine asset to London’s reputation as a global city. However at what cost to Covent Garden’s social, economic and cultural heritage has this commercial success been achieved? This project has highlighted how the dynamics behind the changes in Covent Garden are representative and exemplary of a wider neoliberal shift in London’s political economy, which continues to gain momentum presently. Covent Garden has been transformed from a wholesale market with a localised spatial area of influence into a globally relevant and internationally connected space. Two main processes operating simultaneously, commodification and revalorisation of Covent Garden’s built form and cultural heritage based on the introduction of tourism and retail, have facilitated the local to global shift. However these processes rely upon a highly selective mechanism to determine which elements of Covent Garden’s heritage should be retained and which should be erased. The Victorian aesthetics of the central market hall for example are profitable in the commodification process and therefore have been retained. However less economic value can be attached to the wholesale market heritage of Covent Garden and consequently it has been largely erased in favour of the introduction of boutique retail outlets. Local people have also formed a hindrance in the strive to maximise the area’s economic competiveness and therefore their ability to influence decisions concerning the production of urban space in Covent Garden has been gradually restricted. The consideration of Covent Garden as a palimpsest raises a fundamental question about who should have the right to the city, political elites and private capital or urban inhabitants who contribute to the body of urban lived experience.


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