About the lost world of riverside inns and what you can do to save one of the last remaining historic pubs in Chelsea!
I fear the day when a customer will enquire about a tailor-made pub walk in Chelsea. I may have to reply; 'I regret to inform you that there are hardly any historic pubs left in this area of London. I may only offer a 'ghost' pub walk and refer you to old images that show a great number of pubs immortalised by local artists and photographers.
Chelsea was once blessed with many public houses, some with wonderful views across the Thames. Chelsea riverside with its houses, shops and pubs appear in many paintings and drawings by Walter Greaves and his brother Henry, sons of a waterman and boat operator. The brothers were local artists who ferried Whistler about the river, just like their father once rowed J M W Turner who spent his last years living anonymously at no 119 Cheyne Walk just next door to The Aquatic, the pub that (needless to say) is no longer there.
Every time I look at the image of Chelsea riverside by Walter Greaves that hangs in my sitting room, I am reminded what Chelsea used to be and is no more. Here is the picturesque Adam and Eve, just west of the Old Church, The Old Ferry Wharf and The Lime Wharf. The Adam and Eve was probably built in the 17th century. The inn's galleries overlooked the river, while the walls were decorated with fowling pieces, relics of the days when the marshy area here was abundant with birds. The image had been painted before Chelsea embankment was built.
One of the oldest named pubs in Chelsea was the Swan mentioned by the famous diarist Samuel Pepys who in April 1666 travelled to Chelsea in the company of his female friends 'thinking to be merry', but had to abandon his plans in haste as the inn 'was shut up with the sickness [plague].' The Swan was also the finishing post for the Doggett's Coat and Badge Race started by Thomas Doggettt, comedian and manager of Drury Lane in 1715 to mark the accession of George I. It was converted into a brewhouse, and another inn, The Old Swan was built to the west of Chelsea Physic Garden. This pub became a favourite subject of the Greaves brothers.
The Adam and Eve, The Old Swan and many other riverside pubs, houses, shops even whole streets, though picturesque and beloved of artists had to be pulled down to give the way for the embankment, which was formally opened on 9 May 1874. It helped to solve the drainage and sewage problems and prevented the area from getting regularly flooded.
Though Chelsea residents must have missed the intimacy with the river, there were still some old pubs left where one could yearn the old tales while enjoying a pint. One of the riverside pubs that survived the arrival of the embankment was the King's Head and Eight Bells. In a photo by James Hedderly taken in 1871 it was boasting that it had been 'established for over a century' while notices advertise Pale Ale at 4d a pint, Guinness and Bitter 2d. Historian Tom Pocock noted that in the post-war years the place seemed 'the ultimate Chelsea pub with bearded artists, boozy writers (Dylan Thomas was a regular), Chelsea pensioners and the pub's darts team practising in the public bar (with sawdust on the floor).'The pub was frequented by soldiers and Dylan Thomas was once knocked by one of them on one occasion after he had expressed his anti-war views. This riverside tavern was also popular with David Frost, Mick Jagger and Keith Richard and features in le Carre's spy novels. The pub was put up on sale in 2002 and has been since then a brasserie.
Another historic pub that survived the advent of progress in 19th century is The Cross Keys in Lawrence Street whose name is said to commemorate one of the marks used on the pottery from Chelsea China factory that used to be located nearby. It is here that artist William Holman Hunt met one of his models Annie Miller when living on the corner in early 1850s in the house that had long since been demolished. It was another Pre-Raphaelite painter, Chelsea resident and visitor to the pub Dante Gabriel Rossetti that the girl posed for later on.
I love the atmosphere of The Cross Keys and will never forget the joy of sitting at that small table just in front of the fireplace one winter evening warming myself up sipping a pint and chatting about my favourite places in Chelsea. A couple of months ago it came as a shock to see the pub boarded up with the note saying that the pub is no longer viable and therefore has to close.
Earlier this month I received an email informing me that while the fate of The Cross Keys is being decided (in fact I am relieved to find out just now that the latest news sounds promising), The Phene (also known as The Phene Arms), another historic pub is under threat of being closed and converted into a luxury house. 'The house in question will have a basement swimming pool, all three floors will be served by a lift and it will be worth around £10 million. If you think that's wrong - and if you believe that the pub should continue to serve the community it's served so well for 150 years then add your name to the petition now.'
At the moment of writing this post there are just 2 weeks left before the petition is going to be submitted.
You can sign the petition and learn how you can help to save one of the last historic pubs in Chelsea visit the website savethephene.
Please note that the article expresses my personal views on the subject and not necessarily those of my employers and business associates.