Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Chelsea, London

Chelsea is a district of London, loosely defined by the area around the King's Road, beginning at Sloane Square at one end, and the "World's end" public house at the other, the River Thames and the Victorian artists' district to the south, and some parts between the King's Road and the Fulham Road. The eastern boundary is defined by the River Westbourne, which is now in a pipe above Sloane Square Underground and Counter's Creek provided the original western boundary.

Table of contents
1 History
2 The borough of artists
3 Sights
4 Famous Residents


The King's Road was named for Charles II, recalling the king’s private road from St James's Palace to Fulham, which was maintained until the reign of George IV. According to Encyclopedia Britannica "the better residential portion of Chelsea is the eastern, near Sloane Street and along the river; the western, extending north to Fulham Road, is mainly a poor quarter". And it is so today.

The memorials in the churchyard of St Luke near the river, known as the Old Church, illustrate much of the history of Chelsea. These include Lord and Lady Dacre (1594—1595); Sir John Lawrence (1638); Lady Jane Cheyne (1698); Francis Thomas, "director of the china porcelain manufactory"; Sir Hans Sloane (1753); Thomas Shadwell, poet laureate (1692). Sir Thomas More's tomb is also there.

Chelsea was once famous for the manufacture of Chelsea buns (a Chelsea bun is made from a long strip of sweet pastry tightly coiled, with currants trapped between the layers, and topped with sugar). Chelsea is still famous for its "Chelsea China" ware, though the works were sold in 1769, and moved to Derby. Examples of the original Chelsea ware fetch high values.

The best-known building is Chelsea Royal Hospital for invalid soldiers, set up by Charles II (supposedly on the suggestion of Nell Gwynne), opened in 1694. The beautifully proportioned building by Wren stands in extensive grounds. There was also until recently the Chelsea Barracks off the King's Road, now a shopping mall.

The borough of artists

Chelsea originally had a reputation as London's bohemian quarter, and likes to think of itself as the haunt of artists, radicals, painters and poets. Little of this seems survives now: the comfortable squares off the King's Road are homes to the English military establishment, American investment bankers and film stars, and latterly the sexy pop siren Kylie Minogue.

In fact it has always reflected an odd mixture of the petrified English upper class, and the cultural ever-so-slightly-avant-garde.

Chelsea's reputation stems from a period in the nineteenth century when it became a sort of Victorian artists' colony: painters such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, J.M.W. Turner, James McNeill Whistler, William Holman Hunt, and John Singer Sargent, as well as writers such as George Meredith, Algernon Swinburne, Leigh Hunt, and Thomas Carlyle all lived and worked here. There was a particularly large concentration of artists in the area around Cheyne Walk (pronounced Cheynee) and Cheyne Row, where the pre-Raphaelite movement had its heart.

Jonathan Swift lived in Church Lane, Richard Steele and Tobias Smollett in Monmouth House. Carlyle lived for 47 years at No. 5 (now 24) Cheyne Row. After his death, the house was bought and turned into a shrine and literary museum by the Carlyle Memorial Trust, a group formed by Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf set her 1919 novel Night and Day in Chelsea, where Mrs. Hilbery has a Cheyne Walk home.

In a curious book, Bohemia in London by Arthur Ransome which is a partly fictional account of his early years in London, published in 1907 when he was 23, there are some fascinating, rather over-romanticised accounts of bohemian goings-on in the quarter. The American artist Pamela Colman Smith, the designer of A.E. Waite's Tarot card pack and a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, features as "Gypsy" in the chapter "A Chelsea Evening".

Chelsea shone again, brightly but briefly in the 1960's Swinging London period and the early 1970's. The Swinging Sixties was defined on the King's Road which runs the length of the area and both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones lived here at one time. In the 1970's the "World's End" of the King's Road was home to Vivienne Westwood's shop ("Sex"), and saw the birth of the Punk movement. Then Youth culture decamped forever, the Goths moving to the newly fashionable quarter of Camden Town and the hippies to Notting Hill.


Famous Residents

Chelsea probably has more Blue Plaques than any other district of London. Some of the great and not-so-good who have lived here include

Bob Marley composed his hit "I Shot The Sheriff" in a one-bedroom flat off Cheyne walk in the mid-Seventies.

Gwyneth Paltrow has recently put in an offer for a £1.25 million apartment just off the King's Road. Johnny Depp rented a property on the King's Road for the duration of filming Neverland, which follows the life of J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan.