Neal’s Yard: The One Man Wonder

Tucked away in a small alley behind Covent Garden, between Shorts Gardens & Monmouth Street lies one of London’s ‘hidden gems’ – Neal’s Yard. A conglomerate of brightly coloured independent shops & cafes line the perimeter of the yard, creating a warm and welcoming space for locals and tourists alike. Though it may appear ‘picture-perfect,’ its history is far from it. Indeed, only 50 years ago the multi-colored buildings and quirky windows were once run-down, boarded up and about to be demolished; however, the unintentional actions of one man changed the entire trajectory and fate of Neal’s Yard. 

Image 1: A recent image of Neal’s Yard

The name Neal’s Yard is derived from Thomas Neale who received a piece of land in 1690 from William III, this land is now known as the Seven Dials, in which Neal’s Yard is located. Inspired by the success of the Covent Garden piazza, Neale was adamant to transform Seven Dials into an affluent and economically prosperous area; however, the area failed to establish itself and Neale lost interest in the site. Thus, although Neal’s Yard is named after Thomas Neale, Neale himself had, indeed, very little impact in the development of Neal’s Yard. Upon Neale’s abandonment of Seven Dials, it deteriorated into a slum and became known for hosting drunkards during the London Gin craze of the early 18th century. Neal’s Yard in particular became a rat-infested void, used by drunk men and tramps as a communal latrine. Its buildings were deteriorating; windows were either boarded up or broken, and it wasn’t even on the London A to Z. The only formal activity which took place there were the few warehouses which kept stock of produce for the Covent Garden Fruit & Vegetable Market. Other than that, it was a ghost yard that not even the ghosts wanted anything to do with. 

Image 3: Neal’s Yard in 1979
Image 2: Neal’s Yard in the 1970’s.

This all changed in 1976 when Nicholas Saunders, a British activist and author, was looking for a run-down, inexpensive place to stay in London and stumbled upon 2 Neal’s Yard, on sale for £7,000. Despite the questionably low price and the fact that it was scheduled for redevelopment, Nicholas applied for planning permission with the intent of residing there, but was rejected. He became adamant to prevent the area from being demolished and thus applied for permission to open up a wholefoods shop. After being rejected again, he consulted his solicitor who informed him that he could legally open a shop as long as he had support from the neighbours. Despite comments that he was ludicrous and crazy to be starting business in such a derelict area he received the necessary support and, within 3 months, opened his wholefood shop. Within 4 months, his turnover had crossed £1000 and was double that of the nearby Sainsbury’s per square foot. He was cheap, well-stocked, straightforward and helpful – all of which contributed to his success. As he grew, he began to take on staff, all of which were previous customers that had asked him for a job and thus, within his wholefoods market, he developed a feeling of community. A building that once only housed rats now had ‘regulars’ and a natural co-presence of people was forming. 

Image 4: Nicholas Saunders before his passing in 1998
Image 5: Workers at Saunders’ Whole
foods shop when it had just opened

Saunders expanded this community feeling to the rest of the yard. He bought other buildings and established new types of businesses with the colleagues that worked with him at his Wholefood shop, most of which remain today. He opened the Monmouth Coffee House with Anita Leroy, Neal’s Yard dairy with Randolph Hodgson and Neal’s Yard remedies with Romy Fraser. Though Saunders eventually left to further his own research career, Neal’s Yard became a community of small businesses. Saunders, before his passing in 1998, described it as a ‘family’ with ‘me as a father and the businesses as my grown-up children.’ The businesses have kept to the spirit of Nicholas’s ideas and provide good jobs that are well paid and involve responsibility. Additionally, they all operate in environmentally-friendly and sustainable ways. As a consequence, the yard began to attract more people, not just the ‘regulars’ that shopped at Saunders wholefoods shop. More important, however, is the type of people who began to hang around Neal’s Yard. These are similar to the sort of people who worked there, those that valued community and respect for one another, and Neal’s Yard developed into a meeting place for social groups. Interestingly, Anita of the Coffee House married Randolph of the Dairy Shop and they held a sit-down feast for everyone in the yard, and symbolized their union by serving coffee ice-cream. Perhaps what’s even more interesting is that even today, the workers of Neal’s Yard continue to have community days where they celebrate each other’s presence and life in the yard. Thus, through his desperation to prevent Neal’s Yard from being demolished, Saunders established what has been described by the Financial Times as “a hub of caring capitalist businesses which became the model for the fair-trade and eco-businesses that followed two decades later.” 

Image 6: A young Randolph Hodgson at Neal’s Yard Dairy.

Although this analysis may appear overwhelmingly historical, it is particularly important to emphasize the unintended and unexpected effects in which one man’s business had on the area and community as a whole. An atypical story of rags to riches, Saunders turned a desolate and soon to be demolished piece of land in the heart of central London into a beautiful, bustling street that is adored by many. What’s even more interesting is the natural way in which life and community was brought to Neal’s Yard; rather than a pre-meditated and pre-designed government scheme which often fails to establish themselves in the long-run, Neal’s Yard is a product of honest citizens with a passion for their work and each other. It is a perfect representation of Bill Hillier’s words when saying, “space is not a reflection of society, but a set of strategies in relation to social form as often as not offering an alternative basis for encounters other than those dictated by the social structure.” Neal’s Yard was not dictated by social structure; its barren streets and emptiness was not an essential local quality, but rather it lacked social order strategies. Such strategies were later instilled by Saunders, together with his customers who then became colleagues; they overcame the mundane space they were given to exist, and formed a society. Not only is there now a strong community surrounded by stronger colors and vibrancy, but Neal’s Yard is now itself a social resource. Though Saunders may have purchased his wholefoods store for £7,000, properties in Neal Yards now range between £700,000 and £1 million. Thus, it can be argued that Saunders shaped the movement of Neal’s Yard and, unintentionally, developed its current spatial configuration. 

Bibliography:

‘History’, n.d. Neals Yard London. Accessed 28 Jan 2022. Available at:
https://nealsyardlondon.co.uk/history/

Heathcote, E. 2010. ‘Book cover: Alternative London.’ Financial Times. Accessed 29 Jan 2022. Available at:
https://www.ft.com/content/ad15610e-0316-11e0-80eb-00144feabdc0

‘Neal Yard’s Community Days.’ Neals Yard London. 25 January 2017 [Blog]. Available at:
https://nealsyardlondon.co.uk/2017/01/25/neals-yard-community-days/

Delahaye, D.K. ‘Neal’s Yard Covent Garden| A Guide To London’s Hidden Gem.’ Hues of Delahaye. n.d., [Blog]. Available at:
https://www.huesofdelahaye.com/neals-yard-covent-garden-beautiful-places-in-london/

Image Sources

Image 1: https://www.athenaeumhotel.com/local-attractions/neals-yard/

Image 2, 4, 5: https://nealsyardlondon.co.uk/history/

Image 3: https://flashbak.com/pictures-run-soho-covent-garden-1979-388473/

Image 6: https://www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk/pages/about-us

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