The CGCA – a short history
For many hundreds of years Covent Garden was known for its fruit and vegetable market, where barrow boys and stall holders from all over London would flock through the early hours to buy their stock. The Market’s success led to intolerable congestion and in 1974 it was relocated to Nine Elms in Vauxhall. The Greater London Council (GLC) were eager to get their hands on this prime real estate and, working in conjunction with Westminster and Camden Councils as well as a team of urban planners, they prepared a new and bold urban development plan in advance of the market move.
Alerting the community
Local people gradually began to understand the gravity of what was proposed: this was not just another short-lived idea to move the fruit and vegetable market. It was a plan to re-invent Covent Garden … and that plan did not include them.
The GLC needed compulsory purchase rights over large parts of the area, requiring a public inquiry. In preparation, a slightly more conservationist revised plan was published in 1971. This ‘renewed’ just half the area, refrained from driving through the eastern portion of the proposed ring road, and reduced the number of parking spaces to 5,000. But there was no comfort for the community.
A senior member of the team that had developed the plan, Brian Anson, rebelled against his own work as he came to understand how destructive it was. He lost his job. But with inside knowledge of the GLC’s thinking, he encouraged local people to act. In December 1970 he was part of perhaps the first unofficial community fight-back meeting, in the White Hart pub on Drury Lane, with men from old local families such as the Toomeys and the Driscolls who were to become prominent in the battle to save the area.
By February 1971 they had gone to the press. With headlines like ‘London theatres at risk’ and ‘Revolt in the Cities’, Covent Garden soon became a national issue. Over the next few months The Times and Guardian devoted entire pages to the subject. Land was now worth £2 million an acre.
A young architect, Jim Monahan, was outraged at the proposals. His energetic team from the Architectural Association knocked on every door in the area to publicise what was happening, and drummed up support from famous people. He alerted Austen Williams, vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, who became a courageous leader in the battle.
Together these early campaigners organised a public meeting at the Methodist Kingsway Hall on 1st April 1971. 600 people crammed in. John Toomey, a local man and print worker who would later become a Camden councillor, fired up the meeting as he spoke of how rising rents had already forced him to move outside Covent Garden with his growing family, while his parents and brothers remained. He saw how other communities in the City and the West End had already been driven out.
“Planning should be about people!” and similar phrases rang around the hall. The Covent Garden Community (not yet an Association) was created that night.
The Covent Garden Community Comes Together
Local people rallied to the cause. Many lived or worked in buildings that were marked for demolition. Key activists included Sam Driscoll, who lived with three generations of his family on Shorts Gardens; David Bieda, then a youth worker with Street Aid on Southampton Street; Christina Smith, a local businesswoman; Simon Pembroke, a lecturer at London University; John Wood who owned Rules restaurant; Jerry Coughlin, the first resident who had responded to Anson’s appeal; Fred Collins who owned a hardware shop in the line of the bulldozers at Seven Dials and refused to be bought out; and many more, some of whom live in Covent Garden to this day.
The first committee meetings of the Covent Garden Community were held in a dark basement. Borrowing photocopiers and moving around from house to house with a typewriter, they had to make decisions quickly as the developers continued to consolidate their holdings. 50 street reps were appointed. Demonstrations were organised. More public meetings took place, inside and outdoors. Riotous satirical skits were performed in pubs. People squatted flats that were due for demolition, and posters were put on hundreds of condemned buildings. Television crews covered the movement and newspapers fired the debate.
On the evening before the public inquiry in July 1971, hundreds walked by candlelight across Covent Garden to Cavell House near St. Martin-in-the-Fields where the hearings would be held. Those who did not walk came out to watch.
Next day angry protestors gathered to see the start of what would be, at that time, the longest inquiry in British planning history. For 42 days the community presented its case and cross-examined the experts, bringing 126 other objectors with them, from the Savoy Hotel to the Town & Country Planning Association. Celebrity witnesses like John Betjeman appeared. The case for additional roads was cleverly demolished by the bright young team from Street Aid, dressed satirically for the occasion. Notable witnesses included David (later Lord) Triesman, who floored the opposition with new data about mental illness in high rise flats. The barrister for the authorities, John Taylor QC, even invited the Street Aid team to dinner to give friendly advice.
Pulling-in favours and borrowing money, the local activists worked day and night. When it was over, there would be a long wait for a decision but, in the meantime, the community organised street festivities and bonfires to celebrate the end of their efforts so far. One party involved 1,500 people in the courtyard of Wild Street tenements.
The Covent Garden Community Association was formally constituted three months later, in October 1971.
To read more about the what happened next and the roller-coaster history of community action in Covent Garden visit the Covent Garden Memories website.
A number of unique images of the ‘Battle for Covent Garden’ in the 1970s and 1980s can be seen in our archive. Please contact us if you would like permission to use them.