Robert Pimlott

'We Were Spoilt': Memories from Robert Pimlott, the Community Gardener

By Rebecca Wearmouth

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Robert Pimlott' page

It’s hard to imagine the bustling streets of Covent Garden as anything other than the thriving tourist attraction it is today. However, in the 1970s, Covent Garden was a quiet residential area, as Robert Pimlott explains. Far from a shopping, drinking and eating hotspot, the Covent Garden of the 1970s (especially after 1974 when the market was moved from Covent Garden to Nine Elms) was a semi-deserted area. ‘We had it to ourselves’, Robert fondly remembers. 

Robert became community gardener, a role he devised for himself, in 1977. The five gardens were ‘good, but nobody was responsible for maintaining them on a regular basis and I thought my experience of working with young people would also be useful’. He approached members of the Covent Garden Community Association, who had established the gardens, proposing himself, and CGCA stalwart Jim Monahan managed to raise the funds for a salary in a very short time.  As I interviewed Robert, the strong sense of community that existed in the Covent Garden of the 1970s became startlingly evident. The gardens themselves were built by volunteers: both residents and local workers, and by community service volunteers. An information pamphlet that Robert brought along to the interview (pictured below) describes how a Gardeners’ Club met on the first Thursday of every month to discuss plans for the garden, arrange group workdays and social outings. The pamphlet itself serves as another example of the strong community spirit at the time. Robert explains how he had it made up for free by a designer friend who lived in the area. 

Robert recalls the popularity of the gardens, especially during the summer months: ‘now you go to Soho Square or the Phoenix Garden (the last remaining community garden in the area) on sunny days and they’re packed out. It was the same there’. The gardens were frequented by lunchtime picnickers, nursery groups and children and local people of all ages. But the biggest garden was also used as the site for the annual festival as well as other smaller festivals. It is these annual festivals that Robert names as his fondest memories: ‘it wasn’t just a day thing – like now they have them for one day or two – but these would go on from setting up on Thursday to finally clearing up on Tuesday’. Robert describes how the festivals were incredibly popular and got bigger year by year. He suggests that in the final years of the festival the popularity of the event perhaps became overwhelming: ‘It was a good idea, but it got too big’.  

The Covent Garden described in the memories of community gardener Robert Pimlott is a quiet place of community and local festivities, but is also a place that possessed a sense of excitement. Robert describes how an unknown band performed in the garden festivals that later went on to become Stomp, and how ‘We used to see these posters for ‘The Police playing tonight’ and ‘Dire Straits’…We used to walk past and say “who are these people?”’. It is not just the festivals that Robert remembers fondly; when asked what Covent Garden was like after the closing of the market in 1974 he responds enthusiastically. ‘We were spoilt’ he says, ‘The place was empty. The streets were empty…We had it to ourselves, but you knew it was going to change’. Just as the community gardens were enjoyed and nurtured in the knowledge that they would only last until property developers decided to build upon the plots, so the tranquility of the area was experienced in the bittersweet knowledge that the area itself would soon be developed into something entirely different. However, Robert is not entirely negative about this, refusing to identify the ‘old’ Covent Garden as better than the ‘new’ Covent Garden; he views the changes as simply ‘inevitable’. 

This interview was conducted as part of the Lottery Heritage Fund project, 'Gentlemen We've Had Enough: the Story of the Battle to Save Covent Garden'. On 10th May 2013 King's College London students, supported by Westminster Archives, the Covent Garden Community Association, and the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King's College London, interviewed Covent Garden residents about their memories of the area. Students' accounts of their interviews have been added to this Covent Garden Memories website. For more information please see:

This page was added by Rebecca Wearmouth on 19/06/2013.

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