To stroll around Chelsea is to walk in the footsteps of kings and queens, writers and revolutionaries, politicians and painters, thinkers and thespians. The name may mean “chalk wharf” or “shelf of sand” in Anglo Saxon. Like similar settlements on the Thames , Chelsea owed its existence to the proximity of firm gravel to the water's edge, which allowed easy landing.
Chelsea was noted in the doomsday book as a Middlesex village. In 1520 Sir Thomas More, a high-flying lawyer and recently engaged by Henry VIII, decided that he needed a new and sumptuous place to live, appropriate to his new position. He choose Chelsea. Chelsea quickly became known as the "village of palaces" as older ennobled families moved in, and the area's new reputation survived More's fall from grace in 1535. Henry himself built a manor house here which was to remain a royal favourite and Queen Elizabeth I was brought up there. The district was perfect, close to the centres of power but isolated from the frenzy of town by the swamps of the Five Fields - modern-day Belgravia!
In 1682 Christopher Wren established the Chelsea Hospital to be home for old soldiers, as it still is today. Charles II perhaps more than any other set the seal on Chelsea's ascendancy, he set to enclose and make private an old farm track as the straightest route from Whitehall to Hampton Court Palace. Only bearers of a solid copper pass bearing the imprint of the monarch of the day could use what naturally became known as the King's Road. Not until 1830 were mere mortals allowed to travel on the highway. With the opening of the old wooden Battersea Bridge in 1772 (so lovingly portrayed on various occasions by Whistler) Chelsea was opened to the world, Chelsea Bridge was built in 1851 and the Embankment was created in 1874.
In the nineteenth century Chelsea retained its huge popularity with artists and writers - the Victorian roll call of literary and artistic giants who resided here was second to none in London. Elisabeth Gaskell was born here and George Eliot died here. Thomas and Jane Carlyle held court to a spellbound audience that included Dickens, Tennyson, Mazzini, Chopin, the Brownings and Darwin.
One of the new spectacular places of entertainment was Cremorne Gardens . It opened in 1843 on a 12 acre site in west Chelsea between the river and the King’s Road offering theatres, dancing, concerts, supper rooms, gardens, grottos, mazes and circus performers. But by far the most popular attraction was the balloon ascents. Unfortunately many residents complained of the noise and unruly behaviour of the visitors and Chelsea Vestry finally withdrew its licence in 1877, citing that Cremorne attracted ‘loose people’. In 1887 J R Whitely opened an entertainment ground on derelict land between the railway lines at Earl’s Court. Annual exhibitions and ‘spectaculars’ such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show were staged, attracting huge audiences. Permanent attractions included the Big Wheel, a helter-skelter and a water chute. The grounds closed in 1914 and were replaced in 1937 by the Earl’s Court Exhibition Hall. The Ideal Home Exhibition, The Motor Show, The Boat Show, the Royal Tournament and pop concerts are just a few of the events held here since the 1940s.
The main road by the river, Lots Road, recalls in its name the lots of ground that belonged to Chelsea Manor and the Lammas grazing rights the parishioners had. ?In 1902 work began on Lots Road Power Station. Four 18,750 kilowatt turbines were built to power London Underground, a job it performed admirably until 2001 when the tube was hooked to the National Grid and the station site was turned over to redevelopment. For the first time in a century there will be pedestrian access to the river by Chelsea Creek. This follows from the late 1980s reworking of Chelsea Harbour, 16½ acres of prime riverside land which now encompass residential and commercial elements around the marina.
A stream once flowed into Chelsea Creek called Stamford Creek. It crossed Fulham Road at Stamford Bridge, which in time would be the chosen site for an athletics stadium built in 1877. In 1904 the ownership of the ground changed and the site was offered to Fulham Football Club, who turned it down. The Mears brothers, intent on founding a new football club, leapt at the chance and Chelsea Football Club was born. The 12½ acre site now has not just the largest stadium in London but in Chelsea Village all the regular accoutrements of a top flight sporting side: two hotels, five restaurants, conference facilities, a nightclub, a health club and a business centre.