The history of London's royal road
Words by Bertie Russell
To mark the coronation of Kings Charles III, we look at the history of the King’s Road, once the royal family’s private thoroughfare to London
The Private Road
In the late seventeenth century, another Charles – Charles II – was king of England. His London palace was the sprawling Whitehall, with two more palaces – one at Hampton Court, the other at Kew – south-west of the city. In 1694 he decided to build a private road connecting these palaces, allowing the royal family to travel more easily between them.
At the time, Chelsea had some 3000 inhabitants. This was where Charles II founded his nursing and retirement home for army veterans, known as the Royal Hospital Chelsea. It made sense that his new road would pass through the village, the last stopping point before London started.
Image copyright Shutterstock.
By 1720 members of the public could also use the road, provided they paid. However, it was not until 1830, under Queen Victoria, that the King’s Road was made into a public highway. By this point the royal family no longer lived at Hampton Court or Kew, but the neighbourhoods lining the road were expanding to become parts of London. The new road made the transport of food and products into the city much easier, including Chelsea china and the beer brewed at Fulham.
Image copyright Shutterstock. Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee procession along King's Road.
Image copyright Shutterstock. King's Road/Sloane Square intersection current day.
Image copyright Shutterstock. Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee procession along King's Road.
Come the mid-nineteenth century, the King’s Road had a bohemian reputation. Chelsea was now known as ‘the borough of artists’, home to celebrated Victorian painters like J.M.W. Turner, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt. In addition, acclaimed authors such as Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot and Oscar Wilde were also locals. Its Georgian terraces were soon mixed with large Victorian townhouses and mansion blocks, to meet the growing demand for property.
London's Culture Epicentre
One century later, the street again became the centre of London’s cultural scene. This started in 1955, when Mary Quant and Alexander Plunkett-Greene opened the Bazaar boutique at 138a King’s Road. Soon the road was lined with trendy shops and attracted numerous musicians. For example, the Beatles stayed at the Royal Court Hotel on Sloane Square when recording in London, and Mick Jagger rented a flat at World’s End, where Keith Richards and Brian Jones also lived.
During this period, the street’s most well-known shop was the Chelsea Drugstore at 49 King’s Road. Inspired by American-style malls and open sixteen hours a day, seven days a week – both novelties in Britain at the time – it sold music, clothes, food, drinks and pharmaceutical products. It also offered a ‘flying squad’ delivery service, with women in purple catsuits delivering items to people’s home via motorbike. Little wonder the shop was referenced in the 1969 song ‘You can’t always get what you want.’
Image copyright Shutterstock. Mary Quant's King's Road boutique.
By the 1970s, 484 King’s Road was the headquarters of Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records, while David Bowie and Bob Marley both lived on nearby Oakley Street. Then, in 1974, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood opened the infamous SEX boutique at 430 King’s Road, helping to popularise the punk movement.
At the same time, the large houses and attractive garden squares towards the lower end of the King’s Road made it popular with another cultural type: the upper-class young men and women known as Sloane Rangers. In the 1981, the most famous Sloane – Lady Diana Spencer – married into the royal family. Next year saw the publication of The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, helping to popularise the term.
Image copyright Shutterstock. Vivienne Westwood's SEX boutique.
Image copyright Shutterstock. King's Road punks.
Image copyright Shutterstock. Vivienne Westwood and the Sex Pistol's manager.
Image copyright Shutterstock. King's Road record shop.
Image copyright Shutterstock. A girl riding a bike along the King's Road.
Todays King's Road
Today, the punk boutiques have been replaced by international brands. However, many of the area’s historic landmarks remain, from the Royal Hospital to the Chelsea Drugstore (now home to McDonalds). Walking along the King’s Road means taking a journey from Stuart royalty to Victorian artists, from Sixties rock stars to Eighties Sloane Rangers. And, now that another Charles is king, who knows what the future will hold?
Image copyright Shutterstock. King's Road current day.
Image copyright Shutterstock. Duke of York Square.
Image copyright Shutterstock. Sloane Square.
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