After 400 years, could street performers disappear from Covent Garden?

To the outside eye, Covent Garden and its street performers would seem to have a happy, harmonious relationship. The first recorded instance of an outdoor performance there dates back to 1662 and there’s a mention of a puppet show in the diary of Samuel Pepys. 

These days a professional core of around 30 performers are members of the Covent Garden Street Performers’ Association: they’re the people you see performing magic shows and whatnot to crowds of generally delighted tourists.

But the Association has now sounded the alarm over the end of street performance. Their demise could be a result of the enforcement of a stringent licensing scheme for street performers that Westminster Council officially passed two years ago, but has never actually been clamped down on. A vote on whether the licenses should be enforced – that is to say, backed up by the police – is due December 4.

The three rule changes are essentially this. A ban on street performers plus their audiences taking up more than five square metres – an obvious problem as almost all performances take up more space than this. A ban on amplification, which would hit magicians who use microphones. And a ban on dangerous props that would force magician and jugglers with spotless safety records to tone down their sets.

Technically none of this actually means anyone is banned, but it would make things vastly more difficult for Covent Garden performers. Aside from diminishing the quality of their shows, the tiny performance space would be almost impossible to maintain control over. If police were to set about vigorously enforcing it, it’s hard to see what performers could realistically do. 

The performers are apparently popular locally: a petition apparently found 99 percent of local shops oppose the rule change. 

They’re hoping the council feels the same way. There are three potential options on the table for December 4: discontinue the scheme entirely, limit where it is in effect, or give the police more resources to enforce the law and move street performers on.  You have to hope they choose sensibly, if they go for option three the odds are strong that street performers will leave for good, leaving Covent Garden in the hands of those awful living statues, who are exempt from all this.

If you feel strongly about saving street performances in Covent Garden, here’s a petition in support of the performers that will be delivered to Westminster Council on November 24.

The best new London theatre to book for in 2023 and 2024.

The best open-air theatre in London.

Stay in the loop: sign up for our free Time Out London newsletter for the best of the city, straight to your inbox.