Chelsea Harbour - A journey through time (Part 1)

We thought it would be fun and informative to give you some of the background history to Chelsea Harbour and its surrounding environs.  In the first part, we take you back to the 18th century, when the land on which Chelsea Harbour is now built was no more than peaceful water meadows.  How it has changed!   What happened next will be told in our Spring / Summer 2007 issue of Portal….

300 years ago the site on which Chelsea Harbour now stands was made up of peaceful fields and marshy water meadows running down to the north bank of the meandering River Thames on the borders of Chelsea and Fulham. 

These fields were known as The Town Meads and they spread over a total of some 80 acres. They lay alongside the river and stretched from Broomhouse Dock (beside what is now the Hurlingham Club) to Chelsea Creek (at Lots Road) which marks the boundary between Fulham and Chelsea.  A ferry formerly existed at Broomhouse Dock, previously a riverside hamlet consisting of cottages occupied by market gardeners and labourers. The shrub called broom or furze grew on the sandy soil which was a geological feature of this area. The Town Meads were named Elm Tree, Charlow (famed for providing willows used in basket making) Owl Acre, St James Acre, Fan Mead, Wild Mead and Frogmill Bank.   They were originally Lammas lands on which the tenants of the Manor of Fulham had the right to pasture their cattle and to cut furze for firewood. The Town Meadows were used for agriculture until the late nineteenth century when wharves and related industries began to be established along the river. Today, the name Townmead Road is a reminder of the area’s pastoral past.

By the beginning of the 18th century, a smattering of large, gracious, riverside manors were built on the open fields of Fulham and Chelsea.  Large houses in the area included Carnwath House, among whose occupiers were members of the aristocracy, and Broom House, home of the Sulivan family.  Both houses have since been demolished but the 18th century Hurlingham House (shown on the map as Erlingham House), which is now the Hurlingham Club, has survived to this day.  Cremorne House or Chelsea Farm was the elegant residence of the Countess of Huntingdon, a great grand-daughter of William Penn who founded Pennsylvania and the grounds covered nearly 10 acres of land from the Kings Road down to the river.  The neighbouring Ashburnham House was a ‘surburban’ country home of Lord Ashburnham until it merged with Cremorne Gardens in 1859.

The open fields of Chelsea and Fulham participated in the great expansion of market gardening around London between the 17th and 19th centuries. Market gardening started to emerge as a way of providing fresh vegetables (carrots, parsnips, peas, herbs and beans) for the fast expanding population of London and its rapid rise came about because of a new fashion amongst the rich for including vegetables in their diet. The vogue spread like wildfire through the ranks to the middle classes who thought it smart to follow the trend.

Building fever gripped the Victorians in the mid-to-late 19th century and buildings spread to cover every available acre.  ‘Rights’ became a contentious issue to those living on the land which culminated in scenes where fences were put up, gates were blocked and other militant tactics adopted in order to try and prevent the use of land for development.

In the early years of the 19th century, the most easterly meads were threatened, not by overgrazing or straying cattle, but by the then Lord Kensington who, on looking at the stream (Chelsea Creek) flowing through his land on the Chelsea/Fulham borders, saw in it a business opportunity and not a foul stream which had once grown fresh watercress and was now no more than an open, stinking sewer.
Canal building was the money-spinner of the 19th c entury and Lord Kensington had, on his doorstep, an easy way of improving access to his estate in Kensington and, at the same time, adding considerably to his bank balance from the tolls collected.  In the early 1800’s a small part of Fan Mead was sold to the canal owners to allow them to carry their waterway across it.  A sum of £50 was agreed by way of compensation to the owners but it took almost 20 years to pay it and, by that time, the canal had proved a financial failure. 

The canal (variously known as Counter's Creek, Chelsea Creek, the New Cut River, or Bull Creek) opened in 1828, with capacity for craft of 100 tons, and led from The Thames at Chelsea Creek all the way up to Kensington, where there was a basin near Warwick Road with one lock at the entrance.  However, the canal was continually beset by problems with silting and mud which made navigation difficult, particularly at low tide.  In addition, traffic was poor and the canal was eventually sold to the Bristol Birmingham and Thames Junction Railway in 1836.

The company built a line from the north to the canal basin in Kensington where traffic from the railway could be transferred to canal barges.  The railway company, renamed the West London Railway in 1840, leased its line to the London and Birmingham Railway in 1846 leaving the West London Railway owning the canal.

An Act of 1859 authorised a joint venture of several railway companies to extend the railway south from Kensington to Clapham Junction and, in so doing, closed a section of the canal north of the Kings Road to use as a track bed.  Only a short stretch of the canal remained, and this was then owned by the West London Extension Railway as it was called.  The southern section, from Kings Road down to The Thames, continued to be used by businesses and wharves along its banks, its principal customer being the gas works at Sands End.

The land lying on the south-west side of Chelsea Creek was known as Chelsea Basin (now the marina at Chelsea Harbour) which was built in the 1830’s and, for many years, provided a harbour for barges carrying coals for the Lots Road power station.  It had access from The Thames via a lock approach and, at one time in its industrial heyday, the basin had 15 lines of railway sidings and a scrap metal yard. 

After nationalisation of the railways in 1947-8, the railway came under the jurisdiction of the British Transport Commission and, in 1959, the right to navigate the southern section of the canal was removed and a dam was built.  From 1963, the remaining stretch of the canal passed to the British Waterways Board but traffic became less and less frequent but it remained a favoured habitat for black-headed gulls, wagtails, heron and mallard who appreciated the mud and shingle exposed at low tide.

As trade in goods declined in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the clean air act removed the need for domestic and industrial coal.  Almost certainly as a consequence, the area fell into decline and disuse and gradually acquired a seedy reputation.  It became a dumping ground for all kinds of scrap metal and discarded household items such as bedsteads and domestic appliances.  Chelsea Basin effectively lay dejected and derelict until the 1980’s when the first glimmer of regeneration appeared on the horizon… (end of part one)

Chelsea Harbour - A journey through time (Part 2)

In the summer of 1984, Ray Moxley (architect and visionary behind the Chelsea Harbour dream), came across the urban wasteland that was to become Chelsea Harbour.  Strewn with dead cars and poisoned by toxic waste, its only claim to fame (since the last coal barge discharged its cargo to the Lots Road power station in 1960), was a suitably atmospheric and menacing location for a police TV drama series, The Sweeney.

The 18 acre site which eventually became Chelsea Harbour was found to be blighted by a large road scheme, destined to become the largest inner ring road the world had ever seen. ‘Ringway 1’ was to have been an urban motorway encircling about 60 square miles of central London, including the whole of the City, Westminster and the entire present-day Congestion Charging zone.  Eventually the scheme was abandoned by the GLC and the architects were able to approach the owners of the site – the British Railways Property Board. They decided to hold a ‘design and bid’ competition which was thrown open to six firms selected from an international list of 21 in January 1985.

Clearly there would no point in winning the competition unless the winner was certain of getting planning permission so the British Railways Property Board wisely decided to ask the planning committee of the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham to judge the competition!  Their officers wrote a detailed brief which stipulated that a third of the site should cater for employment-generating activity and two-thirds of it should be for residential development. Leisure uses were a requirement together with retirement homes, ‘starter’ homes, a community centre and some shopping facilities.

So, the architects and developers got to work and Ray Moxley and his team followed the spirit of the brief and fleshed it out with some enthusiasm.  Most of the other architects departed significantly from the planners’ competition brief and Moxley & Jenner, backed by developers, P&O, were declared the winners in May 1985  - the rest, as they say, is history.

Ray Moxley, the driving force behind Chelsea Harbour and a long-time resident, says of his idea, “it seemed obvious to excavate the old harbour, rebuild the lock, repair the walls and form a new yacht harbour.  Harbours are always pleasant to watch and enjoy and property values are higher on the waterfront.  Honfleur (in northern France) was a reference and inspiration for Moxley - it has shops, bars, tall houses and flats, workshops, studios and a lock to the mouth of the River Seine.  This gateway to the sea adds to the sensation of romance and adventure, yet there is protection from storms and peril.  A harbour traditionally conveys the feeling of home and safety.  These are potent symbols, present at Chelsea Harbour, and the mixture is much the same. 

Moxley’s architectural plan shows Chelsea Harbour tightly ringed by a variety of buildings, ‘containment’ being the name of the game.  The configuration is similar to an old town square, or fishing village, where the houses, flats, hotels, pubs and restaurants crowd round it and generate a sense of place.  Some ‘visual leakage’ occurs via the lock access to the wide River Thames sweeping past Chelsea and the City on its way to the sea.  The signature building, The Belvedere, a tall, 200 ft tower, stands by the lock like a sentinel and forms the focal point to the entire scheme.

Within hours of being granted planning permission at 11pm on 15 April 1986, the first concrete was being poured at 8am the following morning and, within days, the first buildings were beginning to take shape.  Unbelievably, the first residents began moving in after little more than 12 months and, two and a half years after construction started, Chelsea Harbour was all but completed.

* Researched and compiled by Caroline France.

Acknowledgements: We would like to thank Hammersmith and Fulham Archives and Local History Centre for their kind permission to reproduce the images appearing in this article.  Further reading on the history of Chelsea and Fulham areas may be obtained from British History Online, The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Libraries and Hammersmith & Fulham Archives and Local History Centre. For easy web links to the above and many other resources please visit our website at