Eighteenth Century

Covent Garden in the 18th Century

In the 1630’s, land that had previously been a part of Westminster Abbey was granted to the 4th Earl of Bedford after being seized by Henry VIII.  This land had been called “the Convent Garden”.  The Earl of Bedford, along with Charles I, and Inigo Jones (the most important architect of the day), worked to design this agricultural land into the first experiment of town planning by creating what would be the first public square in the country.

By the 18th Century, Covent Garden had become the center of “entertainment” for London society. Though Covent Garden was designed to be a public square, or a “melting pot” of the classes, many of the rich and distinguished families grew tired of this blending of social classes, and moved out of Covent Garden into new and more fashionable areas. As Covent Garden grew in its modes of entertainment, many believe it fell in social grace.

The Vendors:

Covent Garden now hosted everything from fruit, vegetable, and flower vendors to coffee houses, theaters and street performers.  The square or “piazza” was the prominent agricultural marketplace of the time.  Vendors sold fruit, vegetables, and flowers here. Additionally, foreigners would bring their wares up the River Thames to sell at Covent Garden. After the Great Fire of London in1666 which destroyed rival markets in the east part of the city, the market became the most important in the entire country.

The Theater:

The Covent Garden Theatre in 1732, was one of two theaters operating under royal patent, the other was Drury Lane. The theater prospered during this time and was a mixture of both upper and lower classes.  Seating was based upon the price one could afford to pay for their seating but thousands would attend the theater nightly. The theater experience was very different than what we see today.  Audiences were often rude, loud and could even be dangerous. Food and Alcoholic beverages were served throughout the performances, and it was not uncommon for audiences to show their disapproval of the performers by throwing food at them.

“Other Entertainment”:

By the mid-eighteenth century, many of the homes in Covent Garden, served a much more dubious function. Many of these homes became the center of other types of “entertainment” as Covent Garden became a notorious red-light district that was filled with seedy lodging houses, Turkish baths, and brothels.  It became so well known for these other types of entertainment, that the magistrate Sir John Fielding nicknamed it the “Great Square of Venus”.

In London, one out of every five women was a prostitute.  Many believe that this was due to the minimal employment options available to women during this time.  Prostitution allowed for women to earn enough money to maintain themselves independently.  English society also encouraged young men to partake in these types of activities and it was seen as perfectly acceptable behavior. Even the theater had its ties to prostitution and its own language to describe these activities and individuals:

 — Prostitutes who waited outside theatres for the plays to finish were called ‘spells.’
— Lower class streetwalkers were ‘flash mollishers.’
— Covent Garden Ague was a term for venereal disease.
— Covent Garden Nun was another name for a prostitute.
— Covent Garden Abbess was a bawd (madam) most of whom started out as whores themselves.

In the years between 1757 and 1795, there came to be a special publication known as Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, which contained detailed descriptions of Covent Garden prostitutes; their physical descriptions, as well as their sexual specialties. This list began as a hand-written listing but due to its popularity it eventually moved to print. During its thirty eight years of production, it sold over a quarter of a million copies! The listing began as the work of Jack Harris, the head waiter of a Covet Garden tavern, the Shakespeare’s Head. Harris’s List was the “essential guide and accessory for any serious gentleman of pleasure”.

From the 1780 edition, the entry for a Miss B____rn. of No. l8 Old Compton Street, Soho:  

This accomplished nymph has just attained her eighteenth year, and fraught with every perfection, enters a volunteer in the field of Venus. She plays on the pianofort, sings, dances, and is mistress of every Maneuver in the amorous contest that can enhance the coming pleasure; is of the middle stature, fine auburn hair, dark eyes and very inviting countenance, which ever seems to beam delight and love. In bed she is all the heart can wish, or eyes admires every limb is symmetry, every action under cover truly amorous; her price two pounds.



British Library Board, The (). Georgians Entertainment. Retrieved 29 October 2012 from The British Library Board: http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/georgians/entertainment/entertainments.html

Davison, Anita (2008). Women: Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies. Retrieved 29 October 2012 from Unusual Historicals: http://unusualhistoricals.blogspot.com/2008/09/women-harriss-list-of-covent-garden.html

Hume, Robert D. (). The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Retrieved 29 October 2012 from J Stor: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/964219?uid=3739568&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21101372223057

Pascoe & Company (). All A’ Blooming. Retrieved 29 October 2012 from Pascoe & Company: http://www.pascoeandcompany.com/blog/all-a-blooming#more-244


One thought on “Covent Garden in the 18th Century

  1. Bridget, I really enjoyed reading your entry! I visit family yearly in europe (Venice, Italy) and I couldn’t help but be reminded of my trips by your post. Europe in general is a much more liberal country with all it’s nude beaches and cafe’s which sell you a shot in your coffee at literally all times of the day!! Specifically in Venizia the environment feels like your walking in a HUGE outdoor mall that sells any item you can think of ranging from wine right from the vineyard, to underwear with the Itallian flag. Not only are you able to notice the clashing of different social classes, but the different ethnicities you can spot is even more diverse.
    Like how you stated in your entry that there are many different types of “work” involved in this town square, in Europe i found the energy surrounding this fast paced life style is ecstatic and running till well after 2am. For Europe being as non-judgmental and liberal as it is it would not surprise me if prostitution did occur.
    -I really thought you did a great job at making your entry interesting and very informative. Wouldn’t it be fun to live a day during this time!?

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