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A walk down Chelsea’s oldest road


Words by Bertie Russell

We explore the centuries of architectural history found on Old Church Street

Chelsea's first recorded street

Old Church Street is the first recorded street in Chelsea. That record dates to 1566, when it was known as Church Lane. However, the church itself is much older, constructed back in the twelfth century.

Chelsea Old Church was once the local parish church. It was founded in 1157, with a thirteenth-century nave and a tower from the seventeenth century. Sadly, the building was badly damaged during the Blitz, when a parachute mine landed near the western end. Its tower toppled over, crashing into the nave and nearly destroying them both.

Fortunately, the church was rebuilt after the war almost exactly as before. Many of the tombs and monuments salvaged from the rubble were patiently put back together. Finally, in 1958, it was reconsecrated in the presence of the Queen.

A popular village

Today the road leads from the church in the south to the Fulham Road in the north, crossing over the King’s Road in the middle. Many of its original houses date to the eighteenth century, when Chelsea became a popular village close to the capital. The most impressive building from this period is Old Rectory, a beautiful Georgian manor built in 1725 and originally home to the rector of Chelsea Old Church. Nowadays, it is said to have the largest private garden in London after Buckingham Palace.

At the time, the riverbank at Chelsea was busy with trade from the city. This was one reason why the village was chosen for the site of the first factory in Britain: the Chelsea Porcelain Works. Following the discovery of soft-paste porcelain in continental Europe, several countries began to sponsor their own china-making operations.

The Chelsea factory occupied the space between Lawrence Street and Old Church Street, with a frontage along the river. It operated between 1745 and 1769, its clients including merchants, aristocrats and even monarchs. George III was a fan, while several pieces crafted by the factory remain in royal ownership.

The Old Rectory

The Chelsea Arts Club

By the nineteenth century, Chelsea was home to numerous artists and writers. Towards the end of that century, the Chelsea Arts Club was founded as a place for them to gather. Since 1902, the club has occupied No.143 Old Church Street, with many actors, film makers and musicians among its members. Exhibitions of members’ works are held throughout the year, while the building’s façade is often painted in eye-catching designs to celebrates it cultural heritage.

Opposite the club stand two of the most striking buildings in the neighbourhood: a pair of Modernist houses designed in the 1930s. No.64 was the work of Walter Gropius, the founder of Bauhaus School, along with the English architect Maxwell Fry. No.66 was the work of Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, two of the pioneers of Art Deco architecture in Britain. Together, they were some of the first examples of Modernist housing in London, and though No.66 has since been dramatically altered, No.64 preserves its streamlined shape and white facade.

Old Church Street was also home to Sound Techniques, one of the most important recording studios of the Swinging Sixties. The studio was located in No.46a, a former dairy that hosted numerous folk-rock musicians in the early stages of their careers, such as Nick Drake, John Martyn and Steeleye Span. Over time it attracted a wider range of musicians, including Pink Floyd, Elton John, Jethro Tull and The Who.

Innovating architecture

The variety of architecture on Old Church Street is surely unique in London. What’s more, the street keeps innovating, as can be seen in the new Essoldo House development. Standing on the corner of Old Church Street and the King’s Road, the first cinema on this site was built in 1910. By 1949 it was named the Essoldo Cinema, its building incorporating Art Deco motifs into the design, including classical columns and a geometrical corner tower.

Although the original cinema has now been replaced, the new design combines a contemporary aesthetic with hints of that history, such as the modern take on the corner tower. As well as containing a new Everyman Cinema, it also houses a range of exceptional new flats. In this way, the oldest street in Chelsea keeps updating to suit the modern city.

The new Everyman cinema in the Essoldo House development


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