From Market Garden to Modern Mecca: A Brief History of Chelsea
Known for its affluent residents, its famous football club and being the birthplace of the eponymous bun, the luxurious London district of Chelsea is in high demand for both domestic and commercial residency. It started off, however, with a very different purpose altogether, and has gone through many different incarnations before becoming the recognisable area it is today. To celebrate the opening of LEO’s latest serviced offices and meeting rooms at Michelin House, we take a look at the history of Chelsea, from its beginnings as a royal residence to its modern states as one of the most desirable areas of London to live and work.
The name of the area derives from an Old English term that meant ‘landing place [on the river] for chalk or limestone’, and ‘Chelceth’, established some time before 1042, was a thriving Anglo-Saxon settlement outside of London.
Chelsea Manor, built before the Norman Conquest and purchased by Henry VIII in 1536, was a royal residence – Princess Elizabeth (who later became the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I) called it home between 1536 and 1548, and it was lived in afterwards by Anne of Cleves, and who died there in 1557. It was demolished in 1825 by Earl Cadogan, but gives its name to many of the surrounding buildings and streets.
By the 1700s, the area had a population of 3,000, many of them very wealthy indeed. Chelsea still remained separate from the rest of London as a market garden, providing the east of the city with its fruit and vegetables. In this century it was also known as a centre of silk production, with silkworm-laden mulberry trees lining the paths in Chelsea Park.
In 1873, the Royal Albert Suspension Bridge was opened. Spanning the Thames and connecting Chelsea to Battersea, it was described by John Betjeman as one of the ‘beauties of the London river’ and remains one of the most distinctive features of the area, gaining Grade II* listed status in 2008. The bridge is painted pink – a decision made in 1992 to make it more visible after a number of berth accidents – and it is covered in 4,000 lightbulbs.
London’s Bohemian Quarter
In the 19th century, the area became something of a literary and artistic hub, with artists and writers such as Turner, Rossetti, John Singer Sargeant, Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde all living and working here. Virginia Woolf had family connections with the area, and the setting of her 1919 novel ‘Night and Day’ took place around Cheyne Walk. Additionally, Cheyne Walk and Cheyne Row were home to a particular concentration of artists fundamental to the Pre-Raphaelite movement – walk around the area today and you will see a large number of blue plaques commemorating the great minds who lived and worked in these buildings.
In the 1960’s and early ‘70’s, Kings Road was the place to be. Running the length of the area, it was home to seminal fashion boutiques such as Granny Takes a Trip and The Sweet Shop, which sold silk and velvet kaftans, tabards and floor cushions. Customers included Keith Richards, Twiggy and many other icons of the decade. Home to Beatles and Rolling Stone members, Chelsea also saw the birth of punk, with Vivienne Westwood’s shop, “SEX”, also based on King’s Road.
Chelsea Football Club
Founded in 1905, Chelsea Football Club are a superpower of English football. They were reasonably well-regarded in their early years, but it wasn’t until the thirties that they established themselves as a truly competitive team. They were promoted to Division One, and enjoyed 31 consecutive years there. In 1955, under the management of Ted Drake, they won their first league title.
In 1962, they were relegated, but returned at the first attempt, and then they finished in the top half of the table for nine seasons in a row. They finally claimed the FA Cup in 1970, beating Leeds 2-1 in the “dirtiest game in English football history”. The following season they won their first European Trophy, beating Real Madrid.
After a number of years of varied fortunes, Chelsea FC began to be more consistent in their successes, slowly building to 1997 when they won 12 major trophies over 13 years.
In modern times, the name ‘Chelsea’ is synonymous with the affluence and luxury prevalent in the district. With house prices in the locality currently averaging between £3m and £7m, Michelin-starred restaurants such as the Five Fields and Michelin House’s Bibendum present on almost every street, and superb character office spaces available to businesses of all sizes, Chelsea’s superior pedigree is evident. It is not, however, an area resting on an entrenched existing reputation: stellar reviews of many of its restaurants and eateries, continue to drive Chelsea’s status as one of the most prosperous and exclusive parts of London to live, work, and visit.