My Fair Covent Garden
Super 8mm film Colour Sound 1974 10:00
Summary: Amateur documentary recording Covent Garden Market shortly before and after closure in late 1974; and the early days of the New Covent Garden Market at Nine Elms.
Title number: 20385
Description: We hear the Queen declare the New Covent Garden Market open, while looking at contemporary details of the old Covent Garden Market area c.1974: one of the traditional lamps; a battered & leaning bollard on the corner of James Street saying “St Paul Covent Garden”; a reflection in a puddle, partly on cobbles - on the piazza or nearby streets – as we hear the audience clap.
Zoom out from the decorative semi-circular upper window of the former Flower Market Building, to see Henrietta Street, looking desolate, with a yellow poster half-visible on one of the columns of the former Fruit and Vegetable Market building to the left, and some kind of minor roadworks, shortly after the move in November 1974. On the soundtrack, there is an instrumental version of “I Could Have Danced All Night”.
Title - “Christine Collins presents”, as if printed in elegant style on clouded glass. Optical zooms in and out from bricks, interspersed with similar title “My Fair Covent Garden” (the final words in a more Gothic script).
Yellow poster on an arch or building wall in old Covent Garden, with a fruit (apple, orange?) announcing the move of to Vauxhall on 11/11/1974. Sign in the front alcove of St Paul’s church, on the piazza, stating that it was built by Inigo Jones in 1633; the camera zooming out to show the portico, as a flatbed lorry is loaded in the busy piazza outside, probably in autumn 1974. A porter loads sacks onto a barely seen hand trolley, with piles of cabbages behind him. On the soundtrack, a market worker accepts the necessity of the move due to traffic and for modernisation. Despite his sadness, he expresses hope for the future.
Closer, tilted view of the Saint Paul’s sign. Engraved plaque celebrating the first English performance of Punch’s puppet show in Covent Garden in 1662, as seen by Samuel Pepys. “Flora” statue, seen from the East, above part-seen “Covent Garden Market” sign on the main building. View swinging round from the first-floor windows of the South Portico of the Floral Hall, past the north colonnade piazza buildings, coming to rest on the north side of the piazza - busy with pedestrians, vans and market trolleys - looking towards King Street. On the soundtrack, the Queen talks about the origins of Covent Garden market, the legendary humour of the community, and the nature of the market as a practical workplace.
A man carries flowers and a large case away from the bustling old Covent Garden market. On the soundtrack, an elderly market worker expresses his preference for the old Covent Garden. A hand trolley stacked with crates of cauliflowers is wheeled through the busy piazza, to cries of “whoa, whoa, whoa”, discussion of transport arrangements for the new location & general street noise. Traders at work, moving & unloading hand trolleys there, one heavily laden with boxes. Pigeons pick among the local street litter. View along the busy north side of the piazza towards King St, obstructed by lorries. A porter in a heavy overcoat rests against an old-fashioned hand cart in the piazza, rubbing his hands to keep warm. On the soundtrack, a young man asks what’s wrong with the existing market site, and an older man explains how the lorry congestion affects the traders.
The Beadle stands in front of a huge white flatbed lorry, directing movement in the piazza with a finger. We hear him being heckled by the porter with the cart, who wants him to sort out the lorry obstructions so they can all get moving. Obstructed view of a green lorry as it edges forward in the crowded street. Another lorry is instructed to move in the opposite direction. The man in the overcoat picks up his handcart and follows a flatbed lorry loaded with pallets, as it slowly moves along the road on the north side of the central market building. A youngster in patched jeans prepares to sweep the piazza. Street noise – lorries, instructional shouts & a little chatter. A couple of men in sheepskin jackets stand chatting. Another fills in a form. A worker sitting on the boxes on a flatbed lorry passes a note to the men below. The Queen is heard praising the service provided by the market.
New Covent Garden, shortly after opening (before Christmas 1974): A modern traffic sign. The buyer’s walk inside the New Covent Garden Fruit and Vegetable Market, from ground level and from a higher angle. On the soundtrack the Queen says that the move is sad, but necessary to provide better & more spacious facilities. She hopes that the character and efficiency of the old market will continue.
We hear an outraged trader complaining that the new market is “bloody diabolical”, with higher rents & no customers. A buyer approaches two traders standing by piled sacks of brussel sprouts and onions, and leaves again after a brief, & apparently unsatisfactory, discussion. View of the same stall from the office balcony, as buyers and porters tread the aisles.
Overhead view of a stallholder discussing (I think) his crated red cabbages with a possible buyer. Trays of green apples, many individually wrapped in purple tissue paper. A trader drinks a mug of tea, while a customer looks at his crates of lettuce, cucumber, broccoli & cauliflower. R. Goldsmid’s multi-bay stall, moving from the indoor frontage to various crates, sacks and boxes inside, where a customer is being served. The R.Goldsmid outdoor delivery bays (nos. 45-48) at the other side, with a forklift trolley and a small blue van. A forklift trolley negotiates the busy centre delivery road at dusk, with vans and small lorries parked both at the delivery bays and in the parking area in the middle of the road. A lorry drives down the centre road, framed by a halo effect from one of the street lights. We hear the filmmaker ask whether it is better at the new market. Two traders express positive points of view, saying that the new market will take time to settle down, but that it is superior in many respects, has quality, and will increase equality between the traders.
Part of a modern traffic sign to the Administration and Flower Market areas in New Covent Garden. Fast, low, travelling shot of parked cars outside the new flower market hall. A parked minivan with a loaded roof rack and other vehicles, outside the new flower market delivery bays.
A man walks through the automatic plastic doors into the new flower market, and passes another (initially out of focus) who is carrying two trays of primulas in the opposite direction; the camera turning to follow the second man who emerges though a side exit. General market noise. A trader is heard expressing his affection for the old market but hopeful preference for the new. A woman carries a large red and white potted poinsettia on a cardboard tray. A floor display of massed pink and red cyclamen, each potted and individually wrapped, zooming out to show a larger view of the new flower market as traders wait and crates are stacked. The grey, strip-lit aisles of the new flower market, as a man opens his arms welcomingly to greet a friend. The bright plastic signs of William Newton & Sons Ltd, and of Scott & Whitlam Ltd, both mounted on partition screens. Boxes of pink, maroon, & purple cineraria on a tilted rack inside the market; and closer view. A red gerbera; and then peach gerberas, both laid out with others on a white background. Close-up of large red, purple and white anemones, standing in a display. Delicate sprays, perhaps of white narcissus, some tissue wrapped. A man stating his approval that the new market is “not as mad”.
View of stacked shelves of boxes, through a latticed metal screen in the new flower market. The filmmaker asks someone why the new market isn’t as nice. He replies that it has lost its character, and that a lot of the previous flower traders have left the trade. A buyer folds up some papers and puts it in a pocket as he walks, leaving to reveal a view down a buyer’s aisle, with shelving units, scattered boxes, a couple of customers and small shrubs in trays to one side. Five people look down at the new flower market through the glass window of the upper storey, the camera tilting back down to show two women in the main trading area below. A heavily laden trolley holding several different types of pot plants is wheeled along by an older porter, who pauses to look at the delivery guidance to the stall, which he has noted on the back of a cigarette packet..
A man shows a young nun a couple of bouquets in the new flower market. An older nun leads a man over to a stall, where she joins her younger counterpart and perhaps makes an order. Close-ups of various customers as they mill around. Another pair of nuns walk through the new flower market, one carrying a tall potted rose plant. A woman in a distinctive 1970s headscarf talks to a trader, who consults a reference book. A young man jots down an order or note, at his stall. A porter loads a tall stack of flower crates onto a forklift trolley at the stall of J & E Page Ltd, as another trolley passes by in the background. The queen’s speech is heard again, saying that the outcome will depend on how people adapt to new surroundings and methods, but that it seems to be operating smoothly.
A man arranges a modest pot plant with small white flowers, and places it with the others in its tray on the ground in the new flower market. A man hauls a heavily laden handcart, stacked with closed boxes and a few pot plants, past a man stacking an empty box on a pile. A trolley is pulled out, past a shopping nun and a man with an empty trolley, through the exit doors. We hear a man saying the result of the move will be clearer in 6 months time. A daffodil trader indicates to his assistant where he should move boxes from a large pile, on which rest their drinks and cigarettes. The instrumental version of “I Could Have Danced All Night” starts up again. A young clergyman carries a box of flowers through the busy market, accompanied by a nun, then pauses briefly by an Asian man who wanders through the market with his family, perhaps in slightly slow motion. The peach gerberas are shown again; then a closer, clearer view of the cyclamen; and the red gerbera.
Low level shot of the damp and deserted street at the north side of old Covent Garden piazza, looking towards King Street, with the wonky bollard on the corner of James Street. The arches of Bedford Chambers, on the north side of the piazza, the camera zooming in to “Bedford” on the relevant sign above. The closed shutter of the Jubilee Market, with “Stand No. 13” painted out above the market name. Another sign above a closed shutter to the side of the old Flower Market on the South side of the Piazza, saying “Covered Way”. Sign above a substantial wooden door on the east side of the Piazza (next to the old Flower Market) saying “Russell Chambers”. External view of the smoke-blackened columns on the south side of the old Fruit and Vegetable market, looking towards the old Flower Market. Zoom back through (probably) the dark north colonnade of the former fruit and vegetable market, away from the east end, to see a small metal beam resting on one of the pillars.
“The End” title, again as though printed on smoky glass.
Further information: The Convent Garden (later “Covent Garden”) of Westminster Abbey was seized by Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, and granted to the Dukes of Bedford in 1552. In the 1630s, the 4th Earl of Bedford commissioned Inigo Jones to build an Italianate arcaded piazza, houses and the church of St Paul’s, in an effort to raise the value of the land. Traders soon began to gather in the piazza, and created an ad hoc fruit and vegetable market. This was formalised by the Earl of Bedford, who acquired a royal charter in 1670, allowing markets to sell “fruits, flowers, roots and herbs” there. The presence of the market was a subject of controversy from the start. For example, in 1667 the Commissioners for Highways and Sewers discussed what to do about the “great ffylth” caused by traders. Taverns, coffee houses, theatres and brothels began to open up there, and the area became increasingly disreputable. In 1748, a group of residents wrote a petition complaining about the nuisance of the market. In an attempt to control the area, parliament approved the building of a permanent market building in the central square. This was designed by Charles Fowler, at the request of Whig politician John Russell, 6th Duke of Bedford, and opened in 1830. Although it is now admired for its architectural beauty, the market was seen at the time as having a very functional design. Additional buildings were gradually added. The Flower Market Building was designed by William Rogers and opened in 1871, trading every day except Christmas Day for over 100 years. The portico houses on the north side of the piazza were remodelled in 1878, and became the Bedford Chambers Arcade. A new hotel building, Russell Chambers, opened next door to the Flower Market in 1887. Jubilee Hall was built to the south of the piazza in 1904, to expand market capacity to cope with the increase in flower imports from abroad.
In 1918 the 11th Earl of Bedford sold the Covent Garden Estate to the Beecham family, and it subsequently became part of the Beecham Estates and Pills Limited. In 1928, a successor company took it over – Covent Garden properties Ltd. They sold some properties, and in 1962 the remainder including the market were sold to the government-owned Covent Garden Authority. By the end of the 1960s, the markets were causing considerable traffic congestion; and it was finally decided to move them to Nine Elms, in Vauxhall. That move took place on 9-10 November 1974, and was graced with a royal opening some months later on 26 June 1975. The new facilities were a major cultural shock for many traders, but did put them all on a more equal footing, as there was less distinction between pitches in terms of favoured positions for sales.
Meanwhile a major re-development of the old Covent Garden was planned, but following a public outcry, in 1973 the main buildings were protected. Interesting independent shops began to set up in the surrounding streets in the late 1970s. However, the central market building was not re-opened until 1980, when it became a very attractive shopping centre, with a small craft market called “Apple Market”. In the same year, the Flower Market Building re-opened as the London Transport Museum. Jubilee Hall was demolished in the 1980s but rebuilt, and still exists as a trader-owned craft market.
“I could Have danced All Night” is a song from the renowned musical “My Fair Lady”, about a Covent Garden flower seller.
St Paul’s Church, in the piazza, is known as “The Actor’s Church” – a link which goes back to 1662. In addition to conventional church services, it hosts a variety of theatrical performances and concerts, as well as memorial services for members of the acting profession. The piazza has also long been a prime venue for street performers. Pepys describes seeing “an Italian puppet play, that is within the rails there, which is very pretty” in 1662 - Signor Bologna’s Punch and Judy show, on its first arrival in England. The engraved plaque celebrating that event is on the southern edge of the portico of St Paul’s, which has an annual gathering of Punch showmen in its grounds.
The “Flora” statue was sculpted by R.W Siever, and erected above the opera terrace in 1830 as part of the original Market Building design. It is made of Coade stone – a hard-wearing artificial stone made to a “secret recipe” (now rediscovered) at the Coade factory in north Lambeth. It didn’t meet universal approval at the time. The fourth Duke of Bedford’s Chief Agent, W.G. Adam, said: “Mr Sievier’s Group is very pretty and well composed and perfectly classical but I think it would be better without the votive Deity which may give rise to observations and discussions.” The statue group was renovated in the early 2000s and restored to position in 2008.
The South Portico of the Floral Hall was dismantled in the 1990s, when the Royal Opera House was reconstructed on the site, and re-erected as the Stoney Street entrance to Borough Market in 2004.
In April 2017, New Covent Garden Market moved temporarily to a new site near Battersea Power Station, to allow redevelopment of the Nine Elms site.
R. Goldsmid was a longstanding fruit and vegetable company, which had been trading in the Covent Garden area since at least 1938, when they had a shop at No. 10 Henrietta Street. They are no longer trading at New Covent Garden Market. Scott & Whitlam Ltd were founded in 1954. They continued trading at 317-319 Flower Market, New Covent Garden for some years, but did not move to the Battersea site. Mathew Page was a flower grower who decided to sell his own produce in Covent Garden in the mid 1800s. His sons, John and Edward, took over the business and called it J & E Page – a company which has since expanded but no longer has a presence in New Covent Garden.
Christine Collins made this film as a personal side project while working as the sound recordist for a film on the same topic commissioned from Gateway Film Productions (Palmers Green) by the Covent Garden Market Authority. She gave me the following account of filming: "We visited the Old Market I think twice with a call time of around 3.00am! I could only snatch brief downtime moments to use my Super 8mm film camera, hence the fact that I have no footage of the actually ringing of the Old Bell to mark the final closure of the market. I also, of course, had access to the recording of the Queen's speech as we had filmed her too. ( I visited the abandoned Covent Garden one Sunday morning). We filmed the New Market complex not long after it had opened.... Unfortunately in those days the amateur could only add sound to their Master film by having a magnetic stripe applied down the edge of the film. The film naturally had joins (either cement but more likely tape joins) These joins caused the film to lift off the recording head slightly as they went thru and give a nasty hic-up each time.....thank goodness for video!!". She remains an active amateur filmmaker.
“Covent Garden Market: Its History and Restoration” by Robert Thorne
“Covent Garden Past” by John Richardson
“Transplanting the Garden” by Colin Allen
E-mail conversation with Christine Collins
(Researched for London's Screen Archives by Zoe Roberts - June 2017).
Locations: UK; England; London; Westminster; Wandsworth; Covent Garden; Vauxhall; Nine Elms; New Covent Garden