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In our address book


In our address book

The history of Chelsea’s houseboat village


Words by Ed Woolgar

A glimpse inside a creative community living off the shores of the River Thames

How it all began

If you stand on Battersea Bridge and look west, you will see an enchanting view. A row of houseboats, moored beside the Thames, stretching along Cheyne Walk. The boats come in different lengths and colours, ages and conditions, but taken together they make for one of the most picturesque scenes in Chelsea.

Chelsea’s ‘houseboat village’ has been home to a mix of boat-lovers, celebrities, creatives and eccentrics ever since the Second World War. But the story begins in the early nineteenth century, when the shores of Chelsea were lined with wharves and the Thames was busy with boats carrying goods from London.

In 1870 the embankment was built, meaning the wharves and boat yards were moved west towards Chelsea Creek and Lots Road. Then, in 1935, a former army officer called Charles Fleming opened the Chelsea Yacht and Boat Company. The company bought and sold new boats, as well as refitting and repairing old ones. They also created the moorings off Cheyne Walk now used by the houseboat village.

A home for naval officers

During the war, the company was contracted by the Admiralty and employed almost a hundred people. After fighting ended, several decommissioned landing craft and sailing barges arrived at the boatyard following the Normandy landings. At the time, there was a desperate shortage of housing in London, so Fleming’s company bought the craft and converted them into temporary accommodation.

The first inhabitants of the moorings were often former members of the navy with some connection to the boats. They were still adjusting to civilian life and grateful for this community which made its home on the water. However, by 1953, all fifty of the boats were occupied, with an increasing number of young people among the residents.

One of these vessels was a former motor torpedo boat. In 1942 it took part in attacks on the German ships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen. By 1951, it had been converted into a houseboat with furnishings bought from Harrod’s and a mooring off Cheyne Walk. Come the early Sixties, four young women were living on the boat, getting in trouble with the police for dancing on the decks in heels.

Life on a houseboat

By this point the houseboat community was known well beyond Chelsea. Its most celebrated resident was the actress Dorothy Tutin, who lived here from 1953. This was the same year she starred in The Beggar’s Opera with Laurence Olivier, the pair soon becoming a couple. As a result, celebrities began to visit the moorings, with Olivier joined by Vivien Leigh, Richard Burton, Margot Fonteyn and Hattie Jacques. In addition, films starring Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers, Roger Moore and Joanna Lumley all made use of this setting.

However, life on the houseboats was not always glamorous. Many of the residents had conventional jobs – including a barrister, a company director and a naval commander – and they objected to the community’s sudden fame. But there were also bohemian types who were avoiding life on the mainland, and these characters were described in Penelope Fitzgerald’s Booker Prize winning novel, Offshore.

Fitzgerald lived on the south side of the river, among the less fashionable Battersea Reach houseboats. This was in the early Sixties, one of the least happy periods of her life, when money was tight and her marriage was strained. However, when Fitzgerald wrote about that period almost twenty years later, her novel evoked all the kindness and eccentricity she found among the houseboat community.

A selection of images from Chelsea Reach, circa 1970

Penelope Fitzgerald's novel 'Offshore'

A selection of images from Chelsea Reach, circa 1970

Penelope Fitzgerald's novel 'Offshore'

Houseboat life today

Over the next few decades, the moorings were upgraded. Now the boats offer mains services, vacuum drainage and individual pontoons – meaning residents no longer need to climb over one another’s boats to reach their own. Though the vessels still have a colourful appearance, they are also designed with contemporary living in mind.

This is especially true of the new houseboats Pacifica and Darwin. With their air-conditioning and underfloor heating, they are as comfortable as any flat. But, with their wooden decks and floor-to-ceiling windows, they offer views of the Thames that would be impossible on the mainland. What’s more, they form part of a unique neighbourhood, where the creative character and sense of community still survives to this day.


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