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The Annual Rent Ceremony

The Trust establishes its own tradition

During the annual Rent Ceremony our Chairman and Trustees march around the Piazza, accompanied by the local Town Crier, to pay the “peppercorn” rent of five red apples and five posies of flowers for a lease on the buildings known as the ‘Protected Lands’.

The annual Rent Ceremony takes place in the summer and as well as being a chance for a bit of fun, symbolically satisfies the requirements for the creation of a legal contract between the freeholder and the Trust.   

Trustees are accompanied by the Town Crier, musicians and other local entertainers as they parade around Covent Garden’s Piazza, stopping at intervals so that a red apple and a posy of flowers can be handed over to representatives of the freehold. The Town Crier announces the event by ringing his bell loudly and ‘crying’ out that “Covent Garden Area Trust is paying its rent!”.

Once the parade comes to an end, Trustees officially hand over the “peppercorn” rent of five red apples and five posies of flowers – one year’s ‘payment’ for the properties leased to the Trust.

It is a lovely, colourful, ceremony and anyone in the Piazza at the time is welcome to join the parade and enjoy the music and the historic symbolism of the event; the fruit and flowers reminiscent of a time when they were actually sold in the Piazza.

HOW IT STARTED

The first rent ceremony took place in 1994 and was organised by Leana Pooley, the Trust’s Administrator at the time. She explains, “Soon after I joined the Trust I read the lease which stipulated that five red apples and five posies of flowers should be paid every year… I realised we were five years in arrears! The surveyor for Guardian Royal Exchange (the freehold owner at the time) laughed uproariously when I promised to think of a suitably theatrical and noisy way of paying our debt”.  

The following summer the first ever Rent Ceremony took place in Covent Garden’s Piazza. It included a jazz band and the brilliant writer and poet, John Hegley (who started his career performing in Covent Garden), read a witty verse that had been specially written for the occasion. That first ceremony was so much fun that it was agreed the Trust would try to put on a similar show every year.

The Rent Ceremony was ably led by local Town Crier, Peter Moore, until his death in 2009. His place has since been filled by his former friend and colleague Alan Myatt.

Other Rent Ceremonies

One Red Rose

The Knollys Rose Ceremony, which dates back to 1381 and takes place each year in the City of London, features the handing over of one red rose as a “peppercorn” rent.

Sir Robert Knollys, who owned a house in Seething Lane, went abroad to fight alongside John of Gaunt and while he was away his wife, a keen gardener, bought the land opposite their house and turned it into a rose garden. In order to avoid the mud in the lane between house and garden she had a footbridge built over it but omitted to obtain the medieval equivalent of planning permission. The penalty was that she would annually pay a red rose “rent” from the garden (as a symbolic fine) to the Lord Mayor. The footbridge has long since disappeared, but the payment of a red rose was established as one of the City’s traditions.  

The Knollys Rose Ceremony is organised every June by the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames. On the day, a red rose is picked from the garden in Seething Lane and taken to the Mansion House on the altar cushion of All Hallows by the Tower, where it is presented to the Lord Mayor.  

Men In Tights

An even older and more bizarre rent ceremony features men in tights and takes place in the Royal Courts of Justice every year between St Michael’s Day (October 11) and St Martin’s (November 11).

In a ceremony dating back to 1211 the City of London pays rent to the Crown for two pieces of land, even though it no longer knows where they are. For the first piece of land known as The Moors (somewhere in Shropshire) men in tights representing the City pay over two knives – one blunt and one sharp – to the Queen’s Remembrancer who tests the knives and pronounces “Good service!”, thus concluding the ceremony.

The second piece of land was originally a forge located in Tweezer’s Alley (somewhere near the Strand) and its tenant – Walter Le Brun – was a blacksmith. The rent for this land is sixty one nails and six horse shoes. When the Remembrancer receives the horseshoes and nails, he or she announces “Good number” and the ceremony is over. The horseshoes used in the ceremony today date back to 1361 and are said to be the oldest in existence. The same horseshoes and nails are used every year and are lent back to the City of London at the end of the ceremony.

The Queen’s Remembrancer is the oldest judicial position in England and was created in 1164 by Henry II to keep track of all that was owed to the crown. When officiating, he or she wears a judicial wig under a black tricorn hat (the mark of a judge of the Court of Exchequer) and sits at a table covered in a black and white chequered cloth, from which the Court gets its name. In medieval times the black and white squares were used, along with counters, to keep a tally of rents due and rents paid.

A Bunch of Wild Flowers

In complete contrast, a simple and pretty ceremony involving a bunch of wild flowers takes place in south west London every year at the end of June.

Petersham Meadows in Richmond formed part of the estate attached to Ham House from the early 17th century until the late 19th century. While the tenancy of Petersham Farm has passed through many hands, there have always been cows grazing in the meadows and shops have sold their dairy products all over south west London. 

The Petersham Trust was formed in 1998 with the aim of ensuring the cows remained on the meadows in perpetuity and that the farm buildings be rebuilt and restored to allow farming to continue. After a long struggle a lease agreement was signed with Richmond Council in October 2001, allowing the Trust to take over management of the meadows.

In 2009 Petersham Trust handed the meadows and its cows over to the care of the National Trust. The National Trust also took over the payment of the “peppercorn” rent agreed with Richmond Council in 2001 – a posy of wild flowers presented to the Mayor of Richmond. The ceremony takes place on the 29th of June (St Peter’s Day) each year. These days, the cows are of the Belted Galloway variety and were provided by Surrey Wildlife Trust.

Trust Plaques

The first bicycle, working donkeys and the fruit and vegetable traders are all commemorated on plaques installed by the Covent Garden Area Trust in and around central Covent Garden.

Look up above the shopfront of 69-76 Long Acre and you’ll see a plaque that marks the site of the workshop where, in 1819, the first Pedestrian Hobby Horse was made.

Two other plaques can be found in Jubilee Market Hall. One, in memory of the working donkeys of Covent Garden, is located on the Piazza side of Jubilee Market Hall. In the 1860s as many as 2000 donkey barrows would fill Covent Garden Market on a Saturday morning.

Fruit, vegetables and flowers were sold in the Piazza for over 150 years until November 1974 when Covent Garden Market moved to Vauxhall. A large bronze plaque on the Southampton Street side of Jubilee Market Hall celebrates the traders who thronged the Central Market, selling their wares from the early morning hours.