Chelsea, Kensington & Chelsea

A fashionable district for nearly half a millennium, Chelsea lies on the north bank of the Thames between Pimlico and Fulham

geograph-5147791-by-Julian-Osley - Royal Hospital - Chelsea

Spec­u­la­tion on the ori­gin of Chelsea’s name has set­tled on some­thing between a chalk wharf and a grav­el bank.

This was farm­land from the time of Domes­day Book until the ear­ly 1520s, when Sir Thomas More built Beau­fort House. Hen­ry VIII devel­oped a lik­ing for Chelsea dur­ing his vis­its to More (whom he lat­er had exe­cut­ed), and bought a manor house here, but found it too small and built a new one in what is now Cheyne Walk. This start­ed a trend, and a suc­ces­sion of grand retreats appeared over the fol­low­ing 200 years, with a sup­port­ing vil­lage of work­ing peo­ple grow­ing up on the riv­er bank. The sep­a­rate ham­let of Lit­tle Chelsea sprout­ed in an area of heath­land and nurs­eries clos­er to Ful­ham.

Sev­er­al emi­nent lit­er­ary and sci­en­tif­ic fig­ures lived in Chelsea in the 17th cen­tu­ry, but their fine hous­es have all dis­ap­peared. Per­haps the great­est was Shaftes­bury House, which stood from 1635 to 1856, spend­ing its lat­ter years as the parish work­house.

In 1682 Charles II found­ed the Roy­al Hos­pi­tal, which was com­plet­ed by Christo­pher Wren in 1690 and shown in the pho­to­graph above.* This was, and remains, a home for old or dis­abled sol­diers, who became known as Chelsea pen­sion­ers.

King’s Road orig­i­nat­ed as a pri­vate high­way from Lon­don to Hamp­ton Court, cre­at­ed by Charles II. In 1693 the Crown made a down pay­ment on the con­struc­tion of an inter­sect­ing pro­ces­sion­al route that would con­nect the Roy­al Hos­pi­tal with Kens­ing­ton Palace, but only a short sec­tion south of King’s Road was com­plet­ed, which sur­vives as Roy­al Avenue.

Ranelagh Gar­dens, now part of the hospital’s grounds, were orig­i­nal­ly the estate of Richard Jones, first Earl of Ranelagh, and were laid out as plea­sure gar­dens after his death. Unlike many such places of amuse­ment, the gar­dens man­aged to keep out hoi pol­loi and remained a play­ground of the rich and titled until the Napoleon­ic Wars. They are now the set­ting for the immense­ly pop­u­lar Chelsea flower show, held every May. A lit­tle fur­ther west is the Chelsea Physic Gar­den, one of the world’s old­est botan­i­cal and med­i­c­i­nal gar­dens, found­ed in 1673 by the Wor­ship­ful Soci­ety of Apothe­caries of Lon­don.

Dur­ing the 18th cen­tu­ry Chelsea’s prox­im­i­ty to West­min­ster was the down­fall of its palaces and gar­dens. Lodges and town­hous­es replaced them and the mod­ern street plan was laid out. King’s Road opened for­mal­ly to the pub­lic in 1830, by which time hous­es and inns were scat­tered along most of its length. One of the old­est build­ings was the World’s End tav­ern, which gave its name to the neigh­bour­ing local­i­ty, to which Chelsea’s poor­er inhab­i­tants retreat­ed when the rest of the dis­trict became unaf­ford­able to them. World’s End was the sub­ject of slum clear­ance and munic­i­pal build­ing of flats in the mid-20th cen­tu­ry.

The Saatchi Gallery
The Saatchi Gallery*

Mary Quant opened King’s Road’s first bou­tique in 1955 and by the mid-1960s the street had become a fash­ion cen­tre that was rivalled only by Carn­a­by Street. Gandalf’s Gar­den and the Chelsea Drug Store were among the many hang-outs for hip­pies and curi­ous onlook­ers. Punk cloth­ing appeared at World’s End in the ear­ly 1970s, a few years before its musi­cal accom­pa­ni­ment. King’s Road has become more straight­for­ward­ly com­mer­cial and less cut­ting-edge since those times, but remains immense­ly pop­u­lar, as much for its bars and restau­rants as its fash­ion retail­ers and gal­leries. The vicin­i­ty of the Duke of York’s Head­quar­ters was rede­vel­oped with shops, cafés and an open paved area in 2003. The Saatchi Gallery moved into the head­quar­ters build­ing itself in 2008.

Chelsea’s contributions to a variety of crafts are reflected in some of the names it has spawned. Chelsea buns and Chelsea porcelain were popular in the 18th century. In the 1960s, ankle-length, elastic-sided footwear sold in the King’s Road acquired the name Chelsea boots. More recently sports utility vehicles have been called ‘Chelsea tractors’.

Chelsea has been particularly popular with artistic and literary characters, and famous residents have included the writers Charles Kingsley, Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker, the composer and actor Noel Coward and the artist David Hockney.

Postal districts: SW3 and SW10
Riverboat pier: Cadogan
Further reading: Brian Girling, Chelsea Through Time, Amberley, 2015
See also: Hans Town


* The picture of the Royal Hospital at the top of this artiicle is adapted from an original photograph, copyright Julian Osley, and the picture of the Saatchi Gallery is adapted from an original photograph, copyright Anthony O’Neil, both at Geograph Britain and Ireland, made available under the Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Licence. Any subsequent reuse is hereby freely permitted under the terms of that licence.