As London attempts a return to some sort of normality, Covent Garden’s website offers a handy list of the measures that visitors may expect: social distancing, queuing protocols, hand santiser stations, roads closed to traffic to improve pedestrian access, etc. .The photos on the site are a bit like architects’ visualisations, with figures added for scale. Covid-19 seems to have completed the cauterization of the area, a process that started when the fruit and veg market decamped to distant Nine Elms in the mid- 1970s. It seems astonishing now, but civic functionaries at the GLC intended to flatten the market buildings and replace everything with a giant mall. Public protests eventually forced the GLC to abandon its planned redevelopment; but when the market re-opened in 1980, residents and campaigners felt that they had won a pyrrhic victory. Covent Garden became a Disneyfied retail playground: heritage frosting for the up-market chains, living statues and gaudy stalls peddling trinket-shit to out-of- towners.
Covent Garden is so over-familiar and so despised by Londoners that it is worth remembering what it represents: the only Renaissance square in the city, Inigo Jones’s homage to all things Italian (inspired by the piazza of Livorno) and a gimlet-eyed speculative venture on the part of the Earl of Bedford, who owned the land. It was intended to be an up-market residential development but the Civil War scared off the smarter residents, and by the 18th century it was a full-blown party district, London’s crustiest erogenous zone. Many of the rooms above the piazza’s elegant colonnades were ‘working flats’ leased by prostitutes who used the local drinking shops as places to meet clients. Hogarth’s studio was on the south-eastern side of the piazza, and he remains our best guide to 18th century dissipation, recording several dives for posterity. The first of his series The Four Times of Day (1738) is a winter tableau showing Covent Garden on a freezing morning: a matron en route to church is inconvenienced by a couple of rakes making moves on a pair of malleable wenches. The young blades have clearly spent the night carousing in the dodgy looking shed beneath the portico of St Pauls’s church, ‘Tom King’s coffee house’, an all-night café that served as a place for tarts to pick up trade. Punters also had their pick of several bagnios, bath houses where one could engage private rooms for liaisons with the girls who operated there.
In the fifth image of his Marriage a la Mode Hogarth sets the fatal fallout of an adulterous liaison in a bedroom at The Turk’s Head, a bagnio in Bow St., wherein a young earl expires after being run-through by his wife’s lover. On the north-eastern side of the piazza you would find another ominous-sounding bagnio, Haddock’s, as well as the Shakespeare Head Tavern, the most notorious of all Covent Garden’s 18th century pick up joints. The Shakespeare’s head waiter was Jack Harris, self-styled ‘Pimp-General to the people of England’, who lent his name to an inventory of tarts, Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, a London-wide punters’ guide compiled by a succession of writers that was in print for decades. (Harris seems to have been proud of the fact that he made prostitution a bit more upmarket.) A few yards to the east, standing roughly where Drury Lane Theatre is now, was The Rose, a tavern which Hogarth used for a scene in A Rake’s Progress. Here, Hogarth’s anti- hero gets debauched in a chaotic private chamber, surrounded by an assortment of foxy, poxy, gin-spitting girls – their beauty spots masking venereal sores – one of whom is relieving the insensible rake of his watch.
Hogarth seized on the social theatre of Covent Garden: how the licentious nature of the district dissolved class divisions, or threw them into sharp relief. This remained true throughout the 18th century. In August 1776 the debt-ridden son of Lord Milton enjoyed a lengthy supper at the Bedford Tavern, another edgy establishment on the south side of the piazza, in the company of four working girls and a blind fiddler (yes, really). The party continued until three in the morning, at which point young Milton dismissed his entourage and blew his brains out with a pistol. The debts were gambling debts, naturally, incurred in the clubs of St. James’s. Even more tragic and bizarre is the 1779 murder of Martha Ray, singer, and mistress of the Earl of Sandwich, shot outside the Covent Garden Theatre by a demented cleric who was infatuated with her. Perpetrator and victim were taken to the Shakespeare’s Head where an impromptu inquest took place. The killer claimed that he didn’t intend to shoot Martha but ‘a phrensy overcame me’. He was hanged at Tyburn, but the strange thing is that the murderer seems to have attracted more public sympathy than his victim.
The Shakespeare’s Head stood roughly where the crass and ungainly Royal Opera House extension stands now. This 1990s project vandalised a considerable portion of Covent Garden, requiring the demolition of an entire terrace of Georgian houses on Russell St. and putting in its place a lifeless box showcasing shops that one can find anywhere. It is depressing to consider that one of the glories of Covent Garden turned out to be one of the agents of its demise, although in the light of recent events it all seems a bit academic. In the past decade most of the best pubs and bars closed and Covid-19 is succeeding where the GLC failed. You are permitted to consume goods and services if you queue nicely. But there’s no such thing as an antiseptic party, or a socially-distanced debauch. You can’t get slurringly romantic and maintain a two- metre exclusion zone. Welcome to Alphaville, WC2. We are all figures in an architect’s illustration now.