Posted by: emmacwatkins1 | October 13, 2021

A Brief History of Buskers and Vendors in Covent Garden

Covent Garden has always had a reputation for its performers and vendors. In the nineteenth century, Covent Garden solidified its place as a bustling market and staple of the city, and since then it has grown into its role as one of the “must-see” sites of London, boasting upscale shops and the London Transport Museum. Since its beginning, Covent Garden has been shaped by those who have made it their home or workplace, including but not limited to sex workers, laborers, artists, costermongers of trinkets and edible goods, and street performers of all skillsets. 

In addition to its marketplace, Covent Garden is also interesting for its architecture in terms of urban planning. In 1633, the owner of the land we now know as Covent Garden commissioned Inigo Jones to develop the land into the first housing project outside of the old city of London. As the city’s first residential square, Covent Garden permanently altered the structure of London’s urban life. The design of the square allowed for not only the bustling market, but also staging grounds for street performers, or “buskers.” Juxtaposed with the theater district that catered to the middle and upper classes and was seen as refined, street performances made room for more kinds of entertainment. According to the Covent Garden website, “The first record of Covent Garden street entertainment came in 1662, when Samuel Pepys’ diary notes that a marionette show featuring a character named Punch took place on the Piazza.”

Not all prominent ways of earning a living there were based on entertainment, however. In J. Thomson and Adolphe Smith’s anthology, “Street Life in London,” Covent Garden is introduced by photographs of “Covent Garden Flower Women” and “Covent Garden Labourers.” The photographer’s focus on the laborers of Covent Garden highlights the vast, working class history of Covent Garden. Despite the positive aspects of bringing attention to working class and poor people in Victorian London, J. Thomson’s photographs and Smith’s journalistic writings make a spectacle of their subjects, causing viewers to potentially empathize with them, but not calling on viewers to create any substantial change in terms of their welfare. In the photograph of the flower vendors, the women are shown both standing and seated outside St. Paul’s Church. St. Paul’s Church would have been situated among streets littered with churches, theaters, and ballrooms — the latter two characterized in Smith’s description of the photograph as “unwholesome.” None of the women face the camera head on, which could point to modesty or discomfort, or potentially the desire for the photograph to appear less staged, offering a supposed more natural look into the lives of the three women. It could also point to the culture of shame around flower women, who were described by Smith as “parasites of the flower world.”

 In discussions about the popular square today, Covent Garden’s working-class history is often overshadowed by its proximity to wealthier theater-goers in the past and the upper-class inhabitants of the square, who reside in its upscale apartments and penthouses, in the present. When walking through Covent Garden in the present day, it is rare to go more than a few steps without encountering a busker putting on a magic show or singing folk songs. While the performances are more high-tech, and the “costermongers” sell more modern wares, Covent Garden is still indisputably shaped by the performers and vendors who make their living there.

Special thanks to Terry St Clair, long-time Covent Garden busker, songwriter, and Covent Garden history buff, for letting me pick his brain about working class history in Covent Garden. 

Works Cited: 

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Covent Garden.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 8 Apr. 

2011, Accessed 12 October 2021.

Espey, Nigel T. “Daily Life in the 19th Century: Covent Garden Market: Covent Garden – 400 

Years of History: Covent Garden Memories.” Covent Garden Memories, 9 Nov. 2012,–C3qBldlgJyrrsct7YV79rTI.

Summerson, John. “Inigo Jones.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 11 Jul. 2021, Accessed 12 October 2021.

Thomson, John. “Covent Garden Flower Women.” Photographs from the Royal Photographic 

Society Collection, Primary Source Media, 1877. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, Accessed 2 Oct. 2021.

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