Nowadays, you say “Chelsea” and many people think “Made in” – the reality TV show which has taken West London and the world by storm. Surprisingly enough though, Chelsea’s story didn’t start in 2011. Chelsea is a fascinating place, from a seventeenth-century “Village of Palaces” to the fashionable hub King’s Road became from the 1950s.
It’s an important area historically. The location of grand estates belonging to Henry VIII and Thomas More in the sixteenth-century. King’s Road, which literally started its life as the King’s road – Charles II’s private royal road between St. James’s Palace in Westminster and Fulham in the seventeenth-century. If you’re a fan of the Arts and Crafts or Pre-Raphaelite movements, look no further than Holy Trinity Sloane Square with its huge east window by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. It’s where you’ll find the Royal Hospital Chelsea, founded in the seventeenth-century by Charles II for those “broken by age or war”. It’s still home to around 300 war veterans, known as the Chelsea Pensioners.
There are some interesting literary connections in Chelsea too: P.L Travers and Bram Stoker lived in Chelsea, authors of Mary Poppins and Dracula respectively. Can you imagine two characters less like each other?? Although, let’s remember, both of them can fly and they both seem to be immortal, so maybe there’s more there than we think… Ian Fleming’s James Bond also lived in an unnamed square off King’s Road.
Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on in Chelsea, but I thought I’d limit it to just five main points for today. I’d love to hear your favourite Chelsea facts, secret spots, and memories as well – let me know in the comments!
1) Chelsea Physic Garden
Chelsea Physic Garden is an absolute treasure, partly because it is London’s oldest botanic garden, founded in 1673 by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries. It was originally intended as a way to train apothecaries in those plants that heal (as well as the ones that harm!), and while the garden is no longer used to teach apothecaries, they still welcome medical students to educate them in the history of plant-based medicine. Wonderfully, it is now also open to the public and has been since 1983!
The site on the Thames was chosen especially for its warm air currents which would benefit the cultivation of plants. This may sound like wishful thinking (warm weather in London??), but it’s true! This microclimate in Chelsea means that the garden boasts the world’s most northerly outdoor grapefruit tree and the UK’s largest outdoor fruiting olive tree. In 1976, it produced a record crop of 7lb of ripe olives, which is a London crop record! (Although I don’t know how much competition there is for olive-growing in our capital city. Even so, let’s not belittle the achievement of the noble Chelsea olive tree.)
In 1682, Chelsea Physic Garden established an international seed exchange with the Botanic Garden at Leiden University called the Index Seminum, which, incredibly, has continued to this day. It has grown to inclue 368 other botanic gardens and universities, and has allowed countless Botanic Gardens all over the world, including Chelsea, to introduce new plants in their respective countries. The longevity of the seed exchange programme has also ensured that Chelsea Physic Garden has had a sterling international reputation going back centuries.
Almost 350 years later, Chelsea Physic Garden is still going strong, occupying a site of four acres and continuing its important role in the cultivation and study of plants. To this day, the Garden maintains a unique living collection of around 5,000 different edible, useful and medicinal plants.
2) Commercial Firsts
We’re going to spend a bit of time on King’s Road now – the main road which runs through Chelsea, one of London’s most expensive shopping streets, which started its life as that private royal road which I mentioned in the introduction. It continued to be a private road until 1830! There’s quite a cool installation in the pavement on King’s Road near the Saatchi Gallery which shows a map of the street as it once was and also includes some of the round tokens, like tickets, which people had to purchase to gain access to this exclusive private route.
It is also a street which boasts being the location of the world’s first mechanically frozen ice rink in 1876 and the UK’s first Starbuck’s in 1998!
Let’s concentrate on the ice rink because that’s marginally more exciting than the Starbuck’s… Although, just before we move on, it’s worth mentioning a BBC article I was reading about this very special Starbuck’s, which expressed some surprise that coffee drinkers in Britain were now willing to spend up to £2 on a cappuccino or mocha latte! Even the notion?!
But back to ice rinks. In January 1876, John Gamgee opened his ice rink just off King’s Road, known as the Glaciarium – what a majestic name. It had quite a curious method of construction and operation: the base was concrete, with layers of earth, cow hair and timber planks on top. Over that were copper pipes through which flowed a solution of glycerine, ether, nitrogen peroxide and water. This then froze the water on top, creating the sheet of ice. In March the same year, it moved to a permanent venue at 379 King’s Road – a 40ft by 24ft (12.2m by 7.3m) ice rink surrounded by walls decorated with views of the Swiss Alps!
There was an earlier Glaciarium in 1844, but it used a slightly less conventional kind of ice rink… One that had been showcased for the first time in 1841. Picture the scene: Marylebone, December 1841. Henry Kirk had the “honour” of opening the world’s first artificial ice rink. I use the term “honour” gingerly, as I’m sure the skaters treated the rink, because this ice rink was lacking a very important ingredient: the ice. The technology just wasn’t there yet to freeze vast swathes of water. Instead of ice, Kirk made do with a strange mix of salts, copper sulphate, and hog’s lard. Yes, you read that correctly. Hog’s lard. The smelly substance was used, by the inventor’s own description, “to render it more slippery”. Thank God we can now freeze ice.
3) Quant and the Miniskirt
King’s Road was once synonymous with the hottest trends in fashion, and this all started in the 1950s with Mary Quant. She has been remembered as one of the most influential designers of the Swinging Sixties. Next time you buy your Avo Shake from Joe and the Juice, have a look up and you’ll spot the plaque dedicated to Quant where she opened her shop Bazaar in 1955. At first, she played it safe and stuck to selling regular wholesale items, but she quickly became frustrated with the limited quality and range of clothing on offer. Thankfully for the future of fashion, she decided she was going to do something about it and starting designing her own products. She was an entirely self-taught designer and honed her craft attending evening classes on cutting and adjusting, allowing her to transform mass-market printed patterns to achieve the looks she was after.
Her clothes were simple, but they were modern and relaxed, more suited to the realities of daily life. Her shop, as well, was very welcoming to young people: loud music, late openings, and free drinks (complimentary alcohol – the way to a young person’s heart). The shop windows were often cleverly and wittily designed, drawing eyes, tempting people in. It was all fresh, it was new, it was intriguing.
Quant is most famous for the miniskirt. It’s not clear if she actually invented the miniskirt, but she certainly popularised it and was famous for her ultra-high hemlines. A fan of the Quant mini was iconic ’60s model, Twiggy, who took the miniskirt to an international level. Among Quant’s other achievements: she invented hotpants in 1966 and was the first designer to use PVC for clothing. Amazingly, within 15 years of opening Bazaar, she was the UK’s most high-profile designer: it was estimated that up to seven million women had at least one of her products in their wardrobe.
Unsurprisingly, fashion and fashionistas followed Quant to Chelsea – shops like Granny Takes a Trip and Hung On You, and the rebranding of Lewis Separates to Chelsea Girl, specifically to associate themselves with Chelsea’s elite status in ’60s fashion (out of interest, Chelsea Girl would go on to become River Island in 1988). King’s Road in the 1960s was frequented by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, and Mick Jagger. This all spilled over into the 1970s when punk and Vivienne Westwood arrived on King’s Road. But that’s a story for another day.
4) Christian the Lion
We’ve already established that Chelsea in the Swinging Sixties was the place to be. An important resident of King’s Road in 1969 was Christian. He lived in a flat over a furniture shop and spent his days exercising in nearby Moravian Close, enjoying a well-earned steak from his local restaurant, and drinking from toilets. Oh, did I forget to mention? Christian was a lion. Knowing that, it makes it even more appropriate that the furniture shop he lived above was called Sophistocat.
In 1969, John Rendall and Anthony Bourke went to the zoo in Harrods and bought a lion cub called Christian (because that used to be a thing you could do). John and Anthony worked at the aforementioned Sophistocat so Christian had pretty much free rein of the shop and their flat above. He was certainly a very popular resident; photographed with models like Emma Breeze and racing driver James Hunt, and interviewed by the BBC. Anthony and John knew when they bought him, however, that they only had a limited amount of time with Christian, about 6 to 12 months. They were under no impression that they would be able to keep a fully grown lion in Chelsea – no matter how crazy the 1960s were!
They organised with wildlife conservationist George Adamson to have Christian released into the wild in Kenya. This was not only a rare solution for an exotic animal which had been raised in captivity, but also risky, particularly for a fifth-generation zoo-bred lion like Christian. Could he make the transition from cushy Chelsea to the Kenyan bush? Would his instincts kick in? Would he still expect to be driven round in a Mercedes?
They needn’t have worried about Christian; he absolutely thrived! You may have seen the video of Anthony and John going to visit Christian in Kenya in 1971, about a year after he’d been released. It’s so heart-warming to see him recognise his old friends and bound towards them! It went viral a number of years back, spurring renewed interest in Christian and his story. Sightings of Christian became sporadic in 1973 as he adjusted to his wild lifestyle and while it’s been 50 years since Christian was released, there may still be lions running around Kenya descended from Christian of Chelsea.
5) Lewis Carroll photographed Rossetti
I don’t know, I might be the only one who’s excited about this, but I love a collaboration between great historic figures which I didn’t expect. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, wasn’t just an academic and the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, he was also a keen amateur photographer.
In 1868, he came from Oxford to London to take pictures of various figures in the arts and literature. Carroll described them in his diary as his “photographic victims”. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, artist and co-founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (an artistic movement which looked to a style of art pre-Renaissance, literally “pre-Raphael”) was living in Chelsea at this time at 16 Cheyne Walk. Over a four day session, Carroll photographed him and his family in his Chelsea garden.
By the end of 1863, Carroll, shockingly, had still not delivered the photos to Rossetti! What’s really cool is that a letter from Rossetti to Carroll has survived which shows the Rossetti chasing him for the much-desired images!
“My dear Mr Dodgson,Letter from D.G. Rossetti to C.L. Dodgson, 3rd Dec. 1863
If you take good photographs of people, you know you cannot help them wanting to see them. So I come boring you about the ones you took here. Everyone concerned has reached such a pitch of excitement about them that I am compelled to turn their spokesman or penman. Is there a chance of the photos turning up soon? I hope you were equally fortunate with others after I saw you last.
With kind remembrances, I am yours ever truly, D.G. Rossetti.”
A sense of exasperated impatience, for sure, but also evidence of the affection which he seemed to have held for Carroll. You’ll be glad to hear that the prints finally arrived at Cheyne Walk in March 1864.
I’m afraid that’s all from me for today – thanks for reading!
Yeah, really. I’m sorry, that’s it. Remember, I only promised you five things.
If you were fascinated by this brief jaunt through Chelsea, you might consider one of my virtual or in-person tours of the area! We touch on a few of these stories and so much more, from Bob Marley in the 1970s to Thomas More in the sixteenth-century! Contact me here if you’re interested.