Community in Covent Garden

A thriving local population

By Anne Bransford

Photo:Women shelling peas at the market, no doubt with a companionable bit of chat and gossip.
Photo:Frank and Victor Basini, owners of the Shelton Café & Restaurant established in 1948.
Photo:Mr. Jefferson outside of Amos Jones theatrical supply and chemist's shop on Drury Lane, established in 1785.
Photo:Portwine butcher's shop and staff on Earlham Street, established 1790.
Photo:The Portwine business today
Photo:A call to action!
Photo:Punch and Judy puppet shows have been a Covent Garden tradition since the 17th century.
Photo:The Covent Garden Community speaks out at a demonstration in front of St. Paul's.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, when developers looked at Covent Garden, they saw an empty, inactive space begging to be modernised. No thought was given to the invisible conduits of energy flowing through the community as life continued after the market had moved. The neighbourhood had a history of strong local ties, binding together as family the working-class people who shared a way of life. The atmosphere was very much like that of a small village; people were always willing to help take care of each other. Though the standard of living was relatively low, the suffering was not felt so badly because everyone was in it together. The following quotes come from interviews conducted by Jessica Skippon, who spoke with individuals who grew up in Covent Garden in the 1920s and 1930s.

In the old days there was a real sense of community in Covent Garden. The spirit of the people in these poor areas was tremendous.  Everyone looked after each other. Things were done for you by friends and relatives which the Social Services do today…” – Kitty Driscoll

But deprivation, we didn’t feel it as deprivation, maybe because we grew [up] with it, because it was part of us. We weren’t suffering that nobody else was.” – John Toomey

We’re more closely related to the Driscolls than if we were related by blood…My mother had a lot of illness and the Driscolls, we could walk into the Driscolls’ as if we were walking into our own homes. We’re all part of the Driscolls and they’re all part of us.” – John Toomey

It was different in those days. It wasn’t ‘Coronation’ or nosy” but if an elderly woman “walked up to Sainsburys, the shopping area, somebody would say ‘Good morning, Mrs. So-and So, how are you?’ you know…if the neighbours saw her milk bottle outside with milk in, they’d look in her letterbox to see if she was all right and call her.” – Kitty Driscoll

"We had a wonderful thing with the policemen, you know, not like now.  They all knew our names and if we were out late, they'd say …'Why aren't you in bed, son', so you know what I mean?  And 'Why are you out in the street?'" – Kitty Driscoll

When the Greater London Council (GLC) revealed its Plan for redevelopment, the public was outraged that it would fundamentally change the nature of beloved Covent Garden without any interest for the wellbeing and wishes of residents. The GLC intended to develop housing in such a way as to increase rents to levels that force long-established residents out of the area. The latent community network was brought to the fore in 1971 with the creation of the Covent Garden Community Association, formed in vociferous protest to the Plan. A system of street representation was set up to allow as many people as possible to participate; fundraisers, demonstrations, and a newsletter were organized. It was not a pitched battle between gentlemen – the CGCA used guerrilla tactics like interrupting GLC press-conferences, squatting in buildings about to be demolished, and marching to places like Trafalgar Square and the Mayfair home of the chair of the redevelopment committee. Grass-roots resistance to the Plan was successful, and the GLC was commanded to revise its scheme with input from local groups. A compromise was settled on that preserved the character of Covent Garden while allowing necessary redevelopments to take place. The battle over Covent Garden intensified the already substantial sense of community identity among residents; the energy that went into the campaign was also funnelled into the organisation of a local community centre and communal gardens.

The CGCA is still active today, protecting the interests of those who live and work in Covent Garden. They work with Westminster and Camden Councils as well as local businesses to maintain quality in areas like housing, street environment, business licensing, town planning, and health care. Over the years the CGCA has been responsible for a wide range of projects, including the Seven Dials Community Centre, Jubilee Hall Sports Centre, the Covent Garden Area Trust, community gardens, tenants’ associations, and a variety of others. Without this group, made up of and supported by the Covent Garden community, Covent Garden as we know and love it today would not exist. For more information see their website.

Special thanks to Jessica Skippon and her work "Covent Garden: A Classic Slum?"

This gallery was added by Anne Bransford on 07/11/2012.

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