Survey of London: Volume 11, Chelsea, Part IV: the Royal Hospital. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1927.
This free content was digitised by double rekeying and sponsored by English Heritage. All rights reserved.
II.—THE SITE OF THE COLLEGE AND THE ROYAL HOSPITAL
The land granted by James I for the purpose of building Chelsea College is described in the Report of Lord Chancellor Ellesmere, (fn. 1) who selected the site, as part of the King's manor of Chelsea and late part of the possessions of John Duke of Northumberland. The descent of the Manor has been traced in an earlier volume in this series. (fn. 2) At the time of the foundation of the College it was held by the second wife of Charles Howard, Earl of Nottingham, for life and an additional term of forty years. This lease, as far as it concerned the site of the College, was assigned to the Provost by the Earl, and the reversion was conferred on the College by the King. It seems that only 6 acres were at first made over for the use of the College, but it had been the intention to devote the whole of a parcel of 28 acres lying south of the road from Westminster to Chelsea (now the Royal Hospital Road) and west of the Westbourne. The land is described with apparent exactitude in the Parliamentary Survey already quoted, (fn. 3) and consisted of (a) Stoneybridge Close (5 acres), lying next the Westbourne, over which the road crossed by means of Stone Bridge; (b) 19 acres called Thameshot, in a common field called Eastfield, lying west of Stoneybridge Close; (c) 3 acres west of Thameshot; and (d) the College and its yards, 1 acre in extent.
These 18 acres formed roughly one half of a tract of arable land enclosed on the north-west by the highway, on the north-east and south-east by the Westbourne, and on the south by the Thames. In the reign of Charles II the other half had become the property of Charles Lord Cheyne, then Lord of the Manor, with the exception of one or two small parcels belonging to the Grosvenor Estate which adjoined the property on the other side of the Westbourne, where lay St. Martin's Meadows. Lord Cheyne also possessed the land to the south-west of the College grounds, all except a reputed 10 acres to the south, bordering the Thames, which belonged to William Green in 1685, and which, in whole or in part, seems to have gone by the name of Earl's Court Lands, and remained until quite recently a detached portion of Kensington parish.
In 1682 Lord Cheyne conveyed to the King 18 acres south-east of the old College property, and 3 acres to the south-west between the College and other land of his called Swede Court. In 1685 William Green in like manner conveyed 8 acres of his land. Other purchases were subsequently made, for in 1692–3 Sir Thomas Grosvenor petitioned for payment for 2½ acres in Chelsea Mead. In 1686 Lord Cheyne made over Swede Court and in 1687 Burton Court, the large 13-acre field to the north-west. The Royal Avenue thence to the King's Road, carried over glebe and common land, was in process of construction between 1692 and 1694. (fn. 4) In 1690 over 7 acres south-west of the Burial Ground were let on lease to the Earl of Ranelagh, who built a house here, and his holding being increased to 23 acres, he was given a grant of the property at an annual rent of £5. His grounds were converted later into the celebrated Ranelagh Gardens, where the Rotunda was built in 1740, and it was not until many years later that the Royal Hospital repurchased the property. (See plan of Ranelagh Gardens, in 1777, reproduced on Plate 8.)
The sale by the Royal Hospital of another portion of its estate (on the west) to William Jephson in 1690, and the subsequent occupation of the land has been described in an earlier volume. (fn. 5)
When the Royal Hospital was built, the way to Chelsea from Westminster was diverted round Burton Court, and the thoroughfare was not restored until recent years. Another change was effected when the making of the Chelsea Embankment interposed a strip of reclaimed land between the Hospital and the river. About 4 acres was in this way acquired by purchase from the Crown in 1858, and at the same time the old formal lay-out of the grounds and the long canals (fn. 6) of the time of James II were effaced and the present gardens were planted. The cutting of Chelsea Bridge Road made necessary various adjustments, but in substance the Royal Hospital has recovered all its original property, which is sufficient to form a fine setting for Wren's noble buildings.
It is difficult to determine exactly the site of King James's College, or to define the boundaries of several of the parcels of land that made up the first grant and the subsequent possessions of the Royal Hospital. It seems probable, however, that the south-western boundary of the 6 acres of the College was a continuation of the south-western boundary of Burton Court, and these 6 acres extended in a south-westerly direction as far as a line half-way between the road and the Westbourne, where the latter flows into the Thames. On this line was the row of elm trees referred to in the Parliamentary Survey, and a strip of one acre, bordered by the trees on the south-east, seems to have been the site of that portion of the College which was actually built, leaving 5 acres between it and the road. Some confirmation of this position has been obtained during a recent excavation by H.M. Office of Works, when the foundations of a wall 130 feet long were discovered beneath the south-west wing (south-east wall) of the present buildings. The foundations were obviously earlier than those of the Hospital and were moreover slightly out of alignment, as will be seen in the plan on page 4, which has been kindly furnished by H.M. Office of Works. Certain of the cross walls of the basement of the older building can still be observed in the interior of the wing.