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Chelsea: elitist and bohemian, with a unique history

From the aristocracy to artists, a mix of characters has endowed this part of London with a fascinating history. The district has witnessed a varied history, from kings to the birth of the punk movement.

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Miriam Valero

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The streets of Chelsea are somewhat more perfumed than other London streets. In the upper class, jet setting neighbourhood of Chelsea, visitors arrive at Sloane Square into a world of immaculately dressed high-heeled women, and suited men; walking among elegant red brick houses and grand entrances.

Chelsea is a beautiful place. Located to the north of the River Thames, in the west of the city, the neighbourhood has, since the 16th Century, risen up through the ranks to reach the apex of high society.

It has its own harbour and yachts: and an average house price of £1.3 million.

In the 500 years since it became an urban area, London aristocracy, intellectuals and artists from all over the world have chosen this district as their place of residence; economics permitting.

The characters who have lived there through the years have woven an interesting history, up to the present, when visitors come to catch a glimpse of film stars emerging from their distinguished homes, or visit the fashionable restaurants and designer stores on Sloane Street.

The birth of Chelsea

The first known registers of the area date from 787 AD, when it was known as the Synod of Chelsea. It was not until the year 1536, in the rein of King Henry VIII, that the neighbourhood was modernised.

Chelsea then became popular with the aristocracy, who brought with them the first members of the royal family. Elizabeth I, future queen and daughter of the king, lived in the area until her coronation as the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty.

Thomas More (Tomas Moro) who is now remembered with a statue in the neighbourhood was one of the first intellectuals of the period to live in Chelsea. The author of ‘Utopia’ (1516) would spend the last days of his life in the Tower of London, eventually being hung by order of Henry VIII, for not recognising him as the Head of Church and England after the rupture of the Roman Catholic Church.

From that day forward, Chelsea, having consolidated itself as the most distinguished area of London, continued over the years to maintain its prominent position until it became, in the 19th Century, the British capital’s bohemian district with artists arriving in numbers in Victorian times.

This new era welcomed painters, poets and writers, who moved to the neighbourhood and turned it into a centre for innovation and culture, where artists would meet in cafes to philosophise, or in the Chelsea Public Library which still exists today.

The homes of Chelsea’s distinguished residents would also hold such meetings: At Carlyle’s House, home of the intellectual Thomas Carlyle from 1834, the owner would meet with friends such as Charles Darwin or Charles Dickens. This house: 24 Cheyne Row, is now open to visitors.

Nearby, but some years later in 1895, the writer Oscar Wilde, another Chelsea resident, was arrested at the Cadogan Hotel in Sloane Street facing charges of homosexuality.

In the art world, the Pre-Raphaelite movement was established by painters, poets and English critics in two Chelsea streets: Cheyne Walk and Cheyne Row. Some of its prime movers were Dantre Gabriel Rosseti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt.

This age also saw the inception of the Chelsea Art Club and the Chelsea College of Art and Design though the latter was subsequently moved out of the area.

The 20th Century

In the 20th Century, Virginia Woolf wrote her novel ‘Day and Night’ in her Chelsea residence, and Agatha Christie conceived some of her crime and mystery novels at 58 Sheffield Terrace, in the

North of the district. Meanwhile, the painter Francis Bacon would drink a beer in Chelsea’s pubs after long days working in his studio.

Following this cultural peak, the arrival of the Second World War saw Chelsea fall into decline, becoming a poor neighbourhood with only the memory of more illustrious times in the past.

However, in spite of such pessimism, it bounced back in the 60s when it once again became a fashionable intellectual hub with the Cultural Revolution known as ‘Swinging London’.

The 60s saw the arrival of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and in the mid-70s, in a one room flat in Cheyne Walk, Bob Marley wrote his classic ‘I shot the sheriff’.

The King’s Road then rose to prominence, becoming the epicentre of fashion and style. Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren (the Sex Pistols’ front man) opened the shop ‘SEX’: widely believed to be the start of the punk movement, and inspiration for the punk style.

Chelsea today

Nowadays, there remains little of the creative and innovative spirit of the Victorian era and the 60s; instead, Chelsea maintains the essence of its elitist past, with wealthy residents and film stars frequenting those same streets.

The King’s Road, Chelsea’s main artery, has witnessed all the transformations of the neighbourhood: from Charles II riding through on his horse, to today’s women with their pet dogs, visiting spas, wellness centres and bijou restaurants.

In the neighbouring street, Sloane Street, security guards watch over designer stores greeting passersby, whilst residents such as film director Roman Polanski, the actor Hugh Grant and singers Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton, Madonna y Kylie Minogue come and go through their impressive stairwells.

Whilst the hippest of the high classes sip coffee in the terraces at one end of Sloane Square, at the other end, in Knightsbridge, lies Hyde Park: where stall holders and bicycles await the welcome of the real world once again.

(Translated by Claudia Rennie)

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