At the forefront of fashion in the sixties and seventies, Chelsea has been considered chic since the fifteen hundreds.
Elvis Costello may not have wanted to go there, but Chelsea has long been one of London’s most sought-after neighbourhoods. Once a wharf for chalk or limestone (which is what its name originally meant), it was already hosting church synods in the eighth century. By the seventeenth century it was a village, still separated from London by open country. You could walk it, sure, but the road was bad, and frequented by highwaymen.
That fact didn’t stop Henry VIII’s saintly Catholic Lord Chancellor Thomas More from having a residence built here in 1520, which he lived in for the next fifteen years, before he was led off the Tower to part company with his head. Similarly detached, Kensal Town, the area around Trellick Tower in North Kensington, was an exclave of the parish of Chelsea, and was known as “Chelsea-in-the-Wilderness”. When Chelsea became a metropolitan borough in 1900, Kensal Town was forcibly removed and given to neighbouring Kensington, only to be reunited with Chelsea when the two boroughs were amalgamated in 1965.
The King’s Road really was at one time the king’s private road (to and from his palace at Kew), but with a queen on the throne in the 1960s, the Mods made the street into something of a fashion centre. Mary Quant’s boutique, Bazaar, in particular was a big favourite with Mod women. A decade later, Punk was the main youth movement, and it was Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren who kept the King’s Road in the fashion limelight with their clothes shop, SEX. Since then, shopping here has gone rather more upmarket, and street-level youth movements have moved on elsewhere.
Chelsea is famous for its boots, its buns, its pensioners and its tractors. It’s hosted its annual Flower Show since 1913. The buns were invented at Chelsea’s original Bun House, which stood on what’s now Royal Hospital Road from the early eighteenth century until its last owner’s death in 1839. Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift ate one in 1711. It cost him a penny and he didn’t like it, but he was in a minority (he was after all a misanthrope and a Tory), and the buns became so popular that there were often huge queues to buy them. Even royalty were known to sample them, and several of the Georges who reigned in Georgian times were big fans, so it wasn’t just pudding and pie that they ate.