"Last orders" for the pubs of Chelsea

It was with remarkable prescience that the Chelsea Society made a major contribution to the 2005 Chelsea Festival with a magnificent study of the existing pubs of Chelsea. The Exhibition, under the same title as this article, was appearing just as the new 2003 Licensing Laws were coming into effect. This allows All-Day Drinking but also required existing pubs to re-register embodying all requests for extended hours and other changes to their licences.

It was exactly the moment for Chelsea residents to examine their own views on public-houses in their immediate vicinity, and indeed the role of the pub in the Twenty-First Century. Things are changing apace, with pubs being converted into coffee-bars or more significantly into private apartments. Was this to be the new age of the gastro-pub and the all-night drinking den? Was Chelsea to become a new Soho with nightclubs closing at 3 am and hardened drinkers emerging from all over London as earlier-closing pubs funnelled their customers and continental tourists in Chelsea's direction?

The Exhibition in Chelsea's Old Town Hall was organised by a committee of the Chelsea Society with support from the Festival itself and particular help from the borough's Local Studies department of the Library. Michael Bach was responsible for most of the design and presentation - and excellent it was.

Indeed there must be a case for re-assembling a mobile version of this Exhibition and displaying it in other neighbourhoods as an example of just what can be done with local words and pictures - plus good hard research.

The exhibition and its accompanying catalogue is a genuine monument. It asked questions about the origin of Chelsea's pubs, and made comparisons with those of Belgravia, and even those of neighbouring South Kensington. The pubs of Belgravia, for example, are mostly tucked away in mews originally to cater for coachmen, coal men and the servants of the gentry.

The pubs in Chelsea's much more mixed community were nearer to the old time village alehouse. They were often actually built into respectable terraced rows of houses in residential areas or along main shopping thoroughfares, rather than being tucked away in back streets.

There are twenty-eight pubs in Chelsea (2005) and almost the same number of pubs where the pub building still exists, but it is now no longer a pub. As a Chelsea resident for over 47 years, your correspondent has drunk in all the existing pubs and knew the majority of what he would call the newly "lapsed" pubs, in particular those in the Kings Road itself. Some of these he remembers from wartime days, when his own scene was north of the Park.

Some of the lapsed pubs have become banks or boutiques, others converted into restaurants or private dwellings. I think of that familiar Kings Road landmark, "The Markham Arms" now a Building Society-cum-coffee-shop; and "The Colville" nearer to Sloane Square but now a clothing emporium.

"The Princess of Wales" in Dovehouse Street and the "Marlborough Arms" are both restaurants and though congenial (and expensive) no longer the pubs of my younger days. I miss too the "Shuckburgh", and the "Roebuck", and "The Stanley Arms" , and even the old "Water Rat" which was almost a private club so regular were its many local denizens. Each pub had a character and a clientele of its own, and they did serve a social purpose, existing as little community pockets where a local resident could count on meeting friends and neighbours on an equal and inclusive footing.

Admittedly many changes have been taking place over the last fifty years or more - the major ones occurring just after the Second World War and perhaps in those Swinging Sixties that we now mostly read about in old biographies. The Chelsea Society and I are of exactly the same age, and it is good of the Society to remind us so expertly of what came before us.

It is also good to be reminded of the original role the beer houses and alehouses of mediaeval days represented, and in particular in Chelsea because of the influence of the river in those long ago days. With much travelling then done along the river, the village of Chelsea had many more pubs catering for riparian voyagers and workers rather than people living in more central areas of London, who today instead enjoy the Congestion Charges of our own all too cluttered roads.

As the nineteenth century began, speculative terraced housing began to be built all over Chelsea, with pubs included as an integral part of the new terraces, but probably only identified by a swinging pub-sign outside or on a wall. In the second half of that century more purpose-designed pub buildings made an appearance, intended to be more flamboyant and grand scale than previously. That was when the bigger Kings Road pubs came into being.

A major change came at the end of that century following the forming of the Embankment in 1874, and the sweeping away of the old riverside pubs as the Kings Road and Sloane Square began to play a bigger part in Chelsea life.

And this is where the 2005 Town Hall exhibition by the Chelsea Society, represented particularly by its Catalogue, became a really valuable historic contribution. It records a steady decline in the number of pubs in Chelsea, but also examines their social purpose in today's new and different society.

The catalogue lists the existing 28 pubs of Chelsea and a similar number where the original building stands but is no longer a pub. It also lists another one hundred pubs that have long since disappeared. Admittedly some of these are only known about because they appear in early Census returns dating from 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1871, and the exactness of their presence is often complicated by the fact that many pubs in Chelsea have undergone changes of name - some of these, as this old resident feels, "quite unnecessarily"!

What this history of Chelsea pubs made clear is that pubs have almost no legal protection. Only five Chelsea pubs have ever been listed as buildings of historic importance and none of these five are still in use as pubs.

"The planning system of the last 20 years (as the catalogue states) has almost promoted the loss of pubs. They could change without planning permission to cafes, restaurants and bars, and permission was readily given for change of use to shops, offices, and, in the last five years, to housing."

A belated outcry by Chelsea residents about the extended late hours that pubs and restaurants and nightclubs are seeking under the new Licensing laws might just persuade the government to think again about the standing of pubs.

The government has always used Licensing laws to control the supply of alcohol to the public, but one sometimes wonders if this new indulgence in supposed continental customs is really an answer to binge-drinking and to late-night inner city mayhem. Could it be that government and Council controls should be exercised a little more in favour of resident Council Tax payers and a little less to those mainly concerned with financial profit and even money-laundering ventures?

For instance is it not time to recognise the importance to a community of the traditional English public-house in our Councils' planning policies? At the simplest level, why shouldn't proposals to convert pubs to flats or dwellings be on condition that the existing pub on the ground floor be kept?

And why not update the protection of pubs by listing them as architectural and historic treasures, which many of them undoubtedly are. After all, the last such survey having been done 20 years ago listed only five.

But it is not all gloom on the pub front. Already several Residents' Associations have successfully challenged proposed changes to pub timings in their streets. And the intervention of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) against threatened closures of pubs across the country is another hopeful sign.

And several Chelsea pubs - such as the independently-owned "The Crown" situated so conveniently between the Royal Marsden and Brompton Hospitals in Dovehouse Street - sensibly decided in advance to keep their existing patterns and not spoil our midnight hours. And where else in London can one still get that excellent West Country beer — Otter — which was originally only obtainable in the House of Commons?

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