If a hurried traveller had only time to roam about one of the London boroughs I think he should choose Chelsea, because in that small area of houses built along a mile and a half of the Thames riverside there is much that is typical of quite different phases of London life, from the sixteenth century to the present day.
It lies between the Kings Road and the Embankment, beginning at Lower Sloane Street -Chelsea Bridge Road, and is reached by the district railway to Sloane Square Station or by the No. 11 bus passing the Strand, Trafalgar Square and Victoria: by Nos. 19 or 22 from Hyde Park Corner, and from Kensington by the 31, with its terminus at Limerston Street, and by the Nos. 49 and 49a.
Perhaps the reason why this quarter has always been beloved is because while other districts have had their moment of fame and now live on their past in somnolent content, Chelsea has fallen in and out of fashion with a fine carelessness and has always guarded the creative gift of dwellers of all ranks, so that the name of the little village has been famous for such a diversity of things as literature and custards, art and water-works, china and buns, horticulture and learning.
There is something cosy and charming about the name Chelsea, a good old Anglo-Saxon word that once meant, “The Gravel Isle, Chesel-sey.”It has not become quite so unrecognisable as its neighbour Battersea, but it has no more just cause for converting into “sea”the ey that means island with which it once ended. But you cannot lay down stern rules for a name that has taken the bit between its teeth like Chelsea. It started its career in the Domesday Book as Chelched, and by the time it got to the sixteenth century Sir Thomas More is dating a letter to Henry VIII. “At my pore howse in Chelcith.”
Of the two Thomases whose memory pervades Chelsea, Sir Thomas More is perhaps the most lovable. His son-in-law once said of him: “whom in sixteen years and more, being in his house conversant with him, I could never perceive as much as once in a fume.”
It is in Roper’s Life that you read how his neighbours loved him with reason. Once, when he had been away on a mission to Cambrai in 1528, he went to report to the King at Woodstock, and then heard that part of his house and barns in Chelsea had been burnt. He had no thought of his own loss, but sent to comfort his wife and tell her to find out the extent of his neighbours’ loss and indemnify them as far as possible.
There have been many other saintly men whom one reveres, but surely none with such wide sympathies. He entertained Erasmus with learned talk, but he also entertained John Heywood the playwright and Court jester. He was wise, but he was also witty, and of which modern philosopher could it be told “that when an interlude was performed, he would make one among the players, occasionally coming upon them with surprise, and without rehearsal fall into a character, and support the part by his extemporaneous invention and acquit himself with credit.”
Dear Sir Thomas More of delectable memory -it is good to come across signs that you still live in English hearts, even if they take the form of stucco decorations on a Lyons tea house in Carey Street.
It was Sir Thomas More who first made Chelsea the fashion, though an old Manor house that stood near the church had many lordly owners before Henry VIII. bought it and, following More’s example, built himself the big country mansion of which there are still traces in the basements of the houses on the corner of Cheyne Walk and Oakley Street. The King is also said to have had a hunting lodge near by and part of it still exists at the end of Glebe Place in a small rather dilapidated building.
Sir Thomas More had built his house on the site of the present Beaufort Street and it stood there till Sir Hans Sloane, the Chelsea Baron Haussmann of that day, pulled it down in 1740. The lovely gardens went down to the river. Henry VIII. used to come and dine here, and walk with his arm round the neck of the friend he afterwards brought to the block, and here More received his other famous friends, among them Erasmus, and Holbein, who stayed with him for three years, painting many portraits.
It is pleasant to think that the spirit of More’s hospitality lived again during the war and curiously enough at this very place and in one of his own houses. For though his country home was destroyed, his town house, Crosby Hall, built as the great town mansion of Sir John Crosby, a merchant prince, in 1466, was brought from Bishopsgate piece by piece in 1910, and four years later the marvellous timbered roof looked down on the groups of Belgian fugitives that were sheltered there.
If you ask the porter at NTore’s Gardens, a big block of flats on the north-east corner of Battersea Bridge, for the key of Crosby Hall, he will unlock a door in an ugly hoarding facing the embankment, close to Chelsea Old Church.
You step through it into a remote space where a medi~eval building stands in the midst of the little rock gardens planted by the Belgian refugees to while away their anxious, tedious hours. Many men have passed through the old hall since Sir John Crosby built it, for at different times it had belonged to the Duke of Gloucester (Richard III.), Sir Thomas More, his son-in-law William Roper, and various ambassadors and nobles. In 16o9 it was the home of that Countess of Pembroke whose charms evoked from William Browne the epitaph so often attributed to Ben Jonson:
Underneath this sable herse Lies the subject of all verse; Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s mother; Death! ere thou hast slain another Fair and learned and good as she, Time shall throw a dart at thee.
One wonders what they would all have thought of these latest comers to the old mansion which carried on the English tradition of hospitality so well that the poet among the visitors wrote, and you may see his words on a brass tablet opposite the fireplace:
Je sens dans 1’air que je respire Un parfum de Liberte,
Un pen de cette terre hospitaliere, Le sol de 1’Angleterre.
The reconstitution of Crosby Hall was never finished; first because of the death of King Edward, who took a great interest in the scheme, and then owing to the war; but there it stands, its perpendicular lines, mullioned windows and oriel and the wonderful oaken roof making it one of the best examples that remain to us of fifteenth -century domestic architecture.
Chelsea is full of memories of every period since Sir Thomas More’s day.
Queen Elizabeth as a child stayed at her father’s manor house here, and later, as a girl of thirteen, she is said to have lived for a time at Sir Thomas More’s house, when it had passed into the hands of her stepmother, Catherine Parr.
The charming Georgian houses of the Cheyne Walk of today carry on the tradition of the beautiful Chelsea homes of those times, such as Shrewsbury House which stood on the west side of Oakley Street before it was pulled down in 1813. It was owned by the husband of the famous Bess of Hardwicke, the Earl of Shrewsbury, who guarded Mary Queen of Scots in her captivity.
The delightful little houses in Paradise Row with their dormer windows and tiled roofs were pulled down only a few years ago. Pepys said that one of them was “the prettiest contrived house that ever I saw in my life.”Ormonde Court now reigns in their stead, so there is no trace today of the little house in Paradise Row that the fair but frail Duchesse de Mazarin, niece of Anne of Austria’s Cardinal Prime Minister, rented from Lord Cheyne when she had fallen on such evil days that her aristocratic guests used to leave money under their plates to pay for their dinner. She was not the only favourite of Charles II. to have a summer home in Chelsea. Nell Gwynne lived at the Sandford Manor House and the route by which the Merry Monarch rode to visit her is still called the King’s Road.
I hesitate to tell that Nell Gwynne’s very house is still in existence for fear of taxing too much the ready courtesy of the occupants, two members of the staff of The Imperial Gas Works Co., owners of the property, who divide the house between them.
My kindly guide had disquieting doubts as to whether Nell ever really lived there, but he admitted that a thimble, unquestionably hers, and a masonic jewel belonging to the King, were found in the house when it was being repaired. Thimbles are not usually associated with the memory of “pretty witty Nellie,”but the Chelsea air may have moved her to industry. At all events there is the Jacobean house, shorn now of its top story to lessen the weight on the bulging walls, and with its brick carving but faintly seen under successive coats of rough plaster. But not even the Queen Anne door can destroy the picture any lively imagination may summon of the nonchalant Nell tripping up and down the same staircase to be seen today, its design of six steps and a door repeated to the top of the house, belying the legend that Charles once rode his pony up the stairs. The walnut trees Nell planted have disappeared, but what is left of the old house stands in a pleasant green hollow, an oasis in the acrid surroundings of a gas factory, the paling of which separates it from the outside world not a stone’s throw from unsuspecting passengers on a No. II bus.
Joseph Addison lived for a time in the old Manor House, and two of his letters, written to the Lord Warwick whose mother he afterwards married, describe the bird concerts in the neighbouring woods.
If anyone wants to know exactly what the place looked like in Nell Gwynne’s day, a very interesting account of it may be found in a book written by a French London-lover, called Fulham Old and New. It is now out of print, but may be consulted at the Fulham Public Library, reached by any of the buses travelling westward along the Fulham Road.
All this is ancient history, of which there is little trace today. The shades of Sir Robert Walpole, Dean Swift, Fielding and Smollett, and good Dr. Burney, Fanny’s father, who was organist of Chelsea Hospital and buried in its now closed cemetery, may still haunt Chelsea; but the actual homes of the people of living memory make a more vivid appeal. Chelsea still keeps up the reputation of being the haunt of famous people. Unlike the inhabitants of the Paris Latin Quarter, artists and poets who have once breathed her air do not remove to more fashionable Mayfair streets when they have “arrived.”
And what a brilliant band of them were found in the Chelsea of the nineteenth century! Meredith wrote The Ordeal of Richard Feverel at No. 7 Hobury Street; Charles and Henry Kingsley spent their youth in the old rectory in Church Street when their father was rector of Chelsea Old Church; George Eliot moved her household gods to No. q. Cheyne Walk, the beautiful house where Daniel Maclise, the early Victorian painter, had lived, only three short weeks before her death; and Cecil Lawson, the painter of The Harvest Moon in the Tate Gallery, lived at No. 15.
A volume might be written about Cheyne Walk alone; those pleasant red-brick houses with their wrought-iron railings were the homes of some of the greatest geniuses of the Victorian age. Turner lived at 118 for the four years before his death in 1851: Rossetti lived at No. 16 with Swinburne and W. M. Rossetti. Meredith had some idea of joining this menage, but recoiled at the sight of Rossetti’s oft-quoted poached eggs “bleeding to death”on cold bacon very late in the morning. He paid a quarter’s rent and decided to live by himself. The Rev. Mr. Haweis was a later tenant of this famous house, which, in spite of popular tradition, has no connection with Catherine of Braganza. Mrs. Gaskell, the authoress of Cranford, was born at No. 93. Whistler spent twelve years at No. 96, and here he painted the portraits of his mother and Carlyle.
The painter had many Chelsea houses, from 101 Cheyne Walk, where he lived for four years from 1873, to the White House in Tite Street which he built, and, after his quarrel with the architect, adorned with a truly Whistlerian inscription, now removed, “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it. This house was built by Mr. X.”
William de Morgan and Leigh Hunt lived in Chelsea, but the man whose memory is the most vivid of all this brilliant group was Thomas Carlyle. His house at 24 Cheyne Row is a memorial museum open to any visitor on the payment of one shilling, sixpence on Saturday. The house is kept exactly as it was in the days which Mr. Blunt has so charmingly described in his book The Carlyles’ Chelsea Home.
I can tell no more about it except from hearsay, for the terrible loneliness of Hugo’s house in the Place des Vosges and of Balzac’s in the Rue Raynouard in Paris dissuaded me from visiting any more houses turned into museums of their owners’ belongings.
I would rather go to the Chelsea Hospital, that is very much alive with the presence of remarkably long-lived old men: one of them lived till he was 123 years and another to 116. They think nothing there of mere centenarians -they even tell you of one pensioner who had served for eighty-five years and married at the age of 100. They think that was a mistake on the whole, but they are secretly proud of it, and also of the lady warriors-one of them had the domestic-sounding name of Hannah Snell -who lie buried in the old churchyard among their comrades.
Visitors can see the hospital every week-day from 10 till dusk, except for an hour from 12.45 to 1.45, and they may attend the chapel services on Sunday at 11 A.M. and 6.30, when the pensioners in their brave scarlet coats remind one of Herkomer’s picture. My advice to you, if you want to see Chelsea Hospital really well, is to enlist one of the pensioners as guide. He will show you the old leather black-jacks, and Grinling Gibbons’ statue of Charles II. in a toga, and the colonnades of the old Wren building, so fine in its severe simplicity-and the flags in the chapel, so filmy now with age that they look as if a breath of wind would blow them to pieces-and the old portraits and many other arresting things. But what he will like best to exhibit will be the fragments of the bomb that hit one of the buildings during an air-raid. He won’t allow you to hold on to the belief that Nell Gwynne had anything to do with the foundation, but he will tell you a lot of interesting details about the regulations of the Hospital -how very little like an institution it is, and you will leave the building with an added respect for Charles II.
After strolling about Chelsea one’s mind turns with insistence to the thought of buns, “r-r-rare Chelsea buns,”as Swift wrote to Stella. There is now nothing left but the name of Bunhouse Place, at the corner of Union Street and the Pimlico Road, of the famous shop where 100,000 buns used to be sold of a Good Friday Eve one hundred and forty years ago, and where the Georges and their Queens used to drive to fetch their buns. It was taken down in 1839, but the fasting sightseer-being in Chelsea and not in Bloomsbury or Bayswatercan easily find other places to stay his hunger. If he does not belong to the decorative sex the phrase is Mr. Wagner’s, not mine-he will doubtless follow that very knowledgeable guide and betake him to the “Six Bells,”195 King’s Road -a short distance from the Chelsea Town Hall, and there find the comfort that attracts its artist clientele.
There are other restaurants that are much frequented by the artists of the quarter:-the “Blue Cockatoo,”in Cheyne Walk, near Oakley Street, and the “Good Intent,”316 King’s Road, and a new and yet more attractive one on the corner of Arthur Street with the enticing name of “The Good Humoured Ladies.”
Chelsea is full of interesting shops. The Chelsea Book Club is on the Embankment by Church Street-its delights must be sampled to be realised-and next door there is a queer handmade toy shop called Pomona-why Pomona? Across the road is Chelsea Old Church, with its high seventeenth-century tower. To me its interior is the most satisfying in London. The spirit of ancient days dwells there, untouched by modern currents of unrest, and in the tranquil beauty there is no jarring note. Sir Thomas More was one of its celebrated parishionersyou may see his monument and the epitaph he wrote himself.
What a pleasant, kindly, independent spirit had this great Chancellor, who donned the humble surplice of a parish clerk and sang in the choir unperturbed by the remonstrances of even so great a personage as the Duke of Norfolk. I always liked the tale of how the latter came to dine with Sir Thomas in Chelsea and “fortuned to find him at the church in choir with a surplice on his back singing, and as they went home together arm in arm, the duke said, ‘God’s Body, God’s Body, my Lord Chancellor, a parish clerk-a parish clerk! You dishonour the King and his office!’ And Sir Thomas replied mildly that he did not think the duke’s master and his would be offended with him for serving God his Master or thereby count his office dishonoured.”
I love Chelsea Old Church better than any other London church. It has nothing of the heavy solidity that smacks of broadcloth and thick gold watch-chains. The congregation on a summer Sunday evening might be met with in any village in England. The very altar has no pomp of embroidered frontal and massive ornaments; it looks almost like a Jacobean dining-room with its simple oaken table and dignified chairs on either side.
The church is filled with enchanting old treasures-chained Bibles and old monuments to the great dead who worshipped there, but I cannot find it in my heart to catalogue them for you as if it were a museum. Enter those dim walls and see for yourself, and you will love it as did that lover of England from across the sea whose epitaph is not the least among the beautiful things of Chelsea Old Church:
In memory of Henry James, Novelist Born in New York, 1843. Died in Chelsea, 1916 Lover and interpreter of the fine amenities of brave decisions and generous loyalties: resident of this parish, who renounced a cherished citizenship to give his allegiance to England in the first year of the Great War.
In other churches with their solemn balconies and air of chill emptiness, it is difficult to imagine the things that have happened there in other days. But in Chelsea Old Church, which somehow always seems peopled with friendly ghosts and never lonely, one can almost see Henry VIII. being married secretly to Jane Seymour before the public ceremony, and hear the cadence of Dr. John Donne’s voice as he preached the funeral oration of the woman he had immortalised in The Autumnal Beauty.
No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace As I have seen in one autumnal face.
I think of all the great people who lie buried here the most fascinating is this Lady Danvers, George Herbert’s mother, whose “great and harmless wit, cheerful gravity and obliging behaviour,”attracted so many friends and among them Dr. Donne. She must have been an adorable mother. I sometimes wonder if the care of her ten children ever made her late for church, and if it were some memory of his boyhood days that made her saintly son write with the cheerful gravity he may have inherited,
Oh be drest,
Stay not for the last pin,
Thus hell doth jest away thy blessings and extremely flout thee
Thy clothes being fast but thy soul loose about thee.
Mrs. Herbert came to live in Chelsea when she married Sir John Danvers, after she had “brought up her children carefully and put them in good courses for making their fortunes.”Danvers House, where she and her husband lived, gave its name to Danvers Street, at the corner of which Crosby Hall now stands.