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A brief women’s history of Chelsea

Chelsea is brimming with landmarks of women’s history – you just have to know where to look. Journalist and critic Amy Raphael shares the highlights

1 March 2023

Vivienne Westwood in her World's End store, on the King's Road. Image: Alamy
George Eliot's house at 4 Cheyne Walk. Image: Alamy
Portrait of Mary Shelley. Image: Alamy
Jane Austen's blue plaque
Anya Hindmarch, CBE
Polly McMaster, founder of The Fold

In 1880, after writing some of the most respected novels of the Victorian era, George Eliot (also known as Mary Ann Evans) spent the last few weeks of her life at number 4 Cheyne Walk. The 18th-century house, with its sweeping staircases and views across the river, is now home to the former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, and though Cheyne Walk is often noted as being home to the likes of JMW Turner, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, its history of women residents is just as illustrious.

Just a few decades later, between 1906 and 1909, Sylvia Pankhurst, a political activist and campaigner for women’s rights, lived just down the road at 120 Cheyne Walk – although she spent part of that period in prison for using militant tactics while fighting for women’s right to vote.

Yes, Chelsea is bristling with the ghosts of brilliant women. In 1815, Mary Shelley stayed at 41 Hans Place – she had eloped with husband Percy Bysshe Shelley at the age of 16 and, at 17, gave birth to their first child in the building. Sadly, the baby died when only a few weeks old and, a year later, the pair moved to Lake Geneva, where Mary wrote Frankenstein. Around the same time, Jane Austen was travelling from her home to London to see her brother Henry, who lived at 64 Sloane Street and, later, 23 Hans Place. Today, you’ll find a blue plaque outside the former to commemorate her residence there from 1814 to 1815.

In those days, Sloane Street connected Knightsbridge with the east end of Chelsea. And though it was still relatively rural, it was already becoming a fashionable area, anticipating the likes of Anya Hindmarch, the luxury handbag and accessories designer, who opened her first shop on Walton Street in 1993. 30 years later, Hindmarch has an expansive boutique on Sloane Street and a much-loved, ever-changing “Village Hall” concept store on Pont Street. Fittingly, the Women’s Institute is currently in residence at the venue with a takeover celebrating women and craft.

Today, just a short wander from Pont Street you’ll find The Fold‘s flagship boutique. Founded by Polly McMaster, the brand specialises in empowering women through beautiful workwear and philanthropic schemes. Elsewhere in contemporary female icons, there is Mary Quant and Vivienne Westwood, who both shaped fashion on global scale.

A pioneer in fashion and the punk movement, Westwood began with a clothing store, called SEX (among many other names) at 430 King’s Road in partnership with Malcolm McLaren. It is still open under the guise ‘World’s End’ and is easy to spot thanks to the giant, backwards-ticking 13-hour clock on the facade. Quant, meanwhile, outfitted the “Chelsea Set” in the ‘60s and popularised the mini skirt, as well as coloured and patterned tights, from her boutique at 138a King’s Road. It is marked by a brown plaque today.

Back to Austen, then. She no doubt wrote during her trips to London, but her work was only fully celebrated posthumously; during her lifetime, the title pages of Austen’s novels withheld her name while only stating her gender – ‘By a lady’ (and indeed, George Eliot was the nom de plume used by Mary Ann Evans, since only men were encouraged to write serious novels in the mid-19th century).

These days, thankfully, women in the arts are much more welcome, and 2023 will mark a decade since the appointment of Vicky Featherstone as the Royal Court Theatre’s artistic director. Her tenure at the venue is distinguished by her championing of emerging writers and feminist themes.

Although there is no official record of Mary Shelley and Jane Austen hanging out in Chelsea (or anywhere else, for that matter), it’s easy to imagine them taking tea together as you wander around the garden square. Speaking of gardens, the Chelsea Physic Garden was the venue that prompted one Elizabeth Blackwell – born in 1700 in Aberdeen and who stayed opposite the Garden in Swan Walk – to start drawing plants in order to earn money while her husband was away in prison.

Blackwell’s drawings of the Garden’s medicinal plants were finally published in 1737 with the snappiest of titles: ‘A Curious Herbal containing five hundred cuts of the most useful plants, which are now used in the practice of physick, to which is added a short description of ye plants and their common uses in physick’. Importantly, the president of the Royal College of Physicians endorsed ‘A Curious Herbal…’ at the time of its publication. Blackwell’s delicate drawings are still widely admired, and this year, on 12 March, the Physic Garden is celebrating the artist in partnership with her biographer, Pamela Holmes, to mark International Women’s Day (8 March). In fact, there is a whole programme of women’s events at the Garden to coincide with the day.

Chelsea often attracted bright, capable young women who were brought up outside London. Mary Astell, the radical thinker and feminist, had no formal education herself but upon moving from Newcastle to Chelsea in around 1687, devoted her life to the education of women. She authored a few books, notably, ‘A Serious Proposal to the Ladies’ (1694), which argued that girls should be educated and was written, according to early additions, by “a Lover of her SEX” (there’s a theme emerging here…). Astell might not be a household name, but you can find a stone plaque in Chelsea Old Church commemorating her and three other Chelsea women who were “distinguished by their learning and piety.”

By the early 20th century – and thanks, in part, to Pankhurst et al – women were taking a more prominent role in society and could spend their spare time in places like The Sloane Club on Lower Sloane Street. Founded in 1922 as the Service Women’s Club, it welcomed female serving and former officers of the Armed Forces in World War II, and is certainly the kind of place Vera Atkins might have hung out. Atkins was a Romanian-born Jewish British intelligence officer who joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and oversaw missions of secret agents to France. SOE agents – who were sort of secret agents whose job it was to sabotage and subvert behind enemy lines – were the only women permitted a combat role during World War II.

Atkins, who had received Commander of the Order of the British Empire, the Croix de Guerre and the Legion of Honour by her death in 2000, ran a team of over 400 spies in occupied Nazi France between 1941 and 1945 and was thus one of the most influential women in the SOE. She lived at 725 Nell Gwynn House in Sloane Avenue – wander past today and you’ll see a moving historical marker in her memory, accompanied by a Biblical quote from Joshua 1:9 that might well apply to all these incredible women as we celebrate International Women’s Day: “Be strong and of a good courage”.

Amy Raphael is a journalist and critic who has contributed to The Face, Esquire and The Guardian, among many others. She has written more than 10 books, including A Seat at the Table: Interviews with Women on the Frontline of Music.

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