Chelsea: The Hospital

Old and New London: Volume 5. Originally published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, 1878.

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Edward Walford, 'Chelsea: The Hospital', in Old and New London: Volume 5, (London, 1878) pp. 70-84. British History Online [accessed 20 May 2024].

Edward Walford. "Chelsea: The Hospital", in Old and New London: Volume 5, (London, 1878) 70-84. British History Online, accessed May 20, 2024,

Walford, Edward. "Chelsea: The Hospital", Old and New London: Volume 5, (London, 1878). 70-84. British History Online. Web. 20 May 2024,

In this section


CHELSEA (continued).—THE HOSPITAL, &c.

"Go with old Thames, view Chelsea's glorious pile,
And ask the shattered hero whence his smile."
Rogers's "Pleasures of Memory."

Foundation of the Hospital—The Story of Nell Gwynne and the Wounded Soldier—Chelsea College—Archbishop Bancroft's Legacy—Transference of the College to the Royal Society—The Property sold to Sir Stephen Fox, and afterwards given as a Site for the Hospital—Lord Ranelagh's Mansion—Dr. Monsey—The Chudleigh Family—The Royal Hospital described—Lying in State of the Duke of Wellington—Regulations for the Admission of Pensioners—A few Veritable Centenarians—The "Snow Shoes" Tavern—The Duke of York's School—Ranelagh Gardens, and its Former Glories—The Victoria Hospital for Sick Children.

On the west side of the Physic Garden, with its lawns and flower-beds stretching almost down to the river, stands a noble hospital, the counterpart of that at Greenwich, still providing an asylum for invalid soldiers—as its rival did, till recently, for sailors worn out in the service of their country.

It is well known that the foundation of this splendid institution was the work of Charles II. John Evelyn has the following entry in his "Diary," under date 27th of January, 1682:—"This evening Sir Stephen Fox acquainted me againe with his Majesty's resolution of proceeding in the erection of a royal hospital for merited soldiers, on that spot of ground which the Royal Society had sold to his Majesty for £1,300, and that he would settle £5,000 per annum on it, and build to the value of £20,000, for the reliefe and reception of four companies—viz., 400 men, to be as in a colledge or monasterie." It appears that Evelyn was largely consulted by the king and Sir Stephen Fox as to the details of the new building, the growth of whose foundations and walls he watched constantly, as he tells us in his "Diary."

It was not without a pang that the British public saw Greenwich "disestablished;" and, observes a writer in the Times, "the parting with the woodenlegged veterans, in their antique garb, and with their garrulous prattle—too often, it is to be feared, apocryphal—about Nelson, Duncan, Jervis, and Collingwood, was like the parting from old friends. The associations connected with Chelsea Hospital," continues the writer, "possess nearly the same historical interest with those awakened by Greenwich. Both piles—although that upon the river-bank is by far the more splendid edifice—were built by Sir Christopher Wren. Chelsea has yet a stronger claim upon our sympathies, since, according to popular tradition, the first idea of converting it into an asylum for broken-down soldiers sprang from the charitable heart of Nell Gwynne, the frail actress, with whom, for all her frailties, the English people can never be angry. As the story goes, a wounded and destitute soldier hobbled up to Nellie's coachwindow to ask alms, and the kind-hearted woman was so pained to see a man who had fought for his country begging his bread in the street that she prevailed on Charles II. to establish at Chelsea a permanent home for military invalids. We should like to believe the story; and, indeed, its veracity may not be incompatible with a far less pleasant report, that the second Charles made a remarkably good thing, in a pecuniary sense, out of Chelsea Hospital."

Before entering upon an account of Chelsea Hospital, it may be desirable to notice here a collegiate building, which formerly occupied the site of this great national edifice. This college was originated, soon after the commencement of the seventeenth century, by Dr. Matthew Sutcliffe, Dean of Exeter, for the study of polemical divinity. King James I. laid the first stone of the edifice, in May, 1609, and bestowed on it the name of "King James's College at Chelsey." According to the Charter of Incorporation, the number of members was limited to a provost and nineteen fellows, seventeen of whom were required to be in holy orders; the other two might be either laymen or divines, and they were to be employed in recording the chief historical events of the era. Dr. Sutcliffe was himself the first provost, and Camden and Hayward were the first historians. Archbishop Laud called the institution "Controversy College;" and, according to "Alleyn's Life," "the Papists, in derision, gave it the name of an alehouse."

It is, perhaps, worthy of a passing note that Archbishop Bancroft left the books which formed the nucleus of the library at Lambeth Palace, to his successors in the see of Canterbury, with the condition that if certain stipulations were not complied with, his legacy should go to Chelsea College, if built within six years of his own decease.

From a print of the original design, prefixed to Darley's "Glory of Chelsey College new Revived," a copy of which is published in Faulkner's "History of Chelsea"), it would appear that the buildings were originally intended to combine two quadrangles, of different, but spacious, dimensions, with a piazza along the four sides of the smaller court. Only one side of the first quadrangle, however, was completed, and the whole collegiate establishment very soon collapsed. Evelyn tells us that the plan of Chelsea College embraced a quadrangle, with accommodation for 440 persons, "after the dimensions of the larger quadrangle at Christchurch, Oxford." Shortly after the death of the third provost, Dr. Slater, which occurred in 1645, suits were commenced in the Court of Chancery respecting the title to the ground on which the college stood, when it was decreed that Dr. Sutcliffe's estates should revert to his rightful heirs, upon their paying to the college a certain sum of money. The college buildings were afterwards devoted to various inappropriate purposes, being at one time used as a receptacle for prisoners of war, and at another as a riding-house.

Its next destination would appear to have been of a higher order; for it appears that the king gave it, or offered it, to the then newly-founded Royal Society. John Evelyn writes, in his "Diary," under date September 24th, 1667:—"Returned to London, where I had orders to deliver the possession of Chelsey Colledge (used as my prison during the warr with Holland, for such as were sent from the Fleete to London) to our Society [the Royal Society], as a gift of his Majesty, our founder." And again, under date September, 14th, 1681, Evelyn writes:—"Din'd with Sir Stephen Fox, who proposed to me the purchasing of Chelsey College, which his Majesty had some time since given to our Society, and would now purchase it again to build a hospital or infirmary for soldiers there, in which he desired my assistance, as one of the council of the Royal Society."

On the failure of the college, the ground escheated to the Crown, by whom, as stated above, it was afterwards granted to the Royal Society. This body, in turn, sold the property to Sir Stephen Fox, for Charles II., who "generously gave" it as a site for a Royal Hospital for Aged and Disabled Soldiers, but at the same time pocketing Dr. Sutcliffe's endowment, and leaving the building to be erected at the cost of the nation.

On part of the site of the college was erected, towards the close of the seventeenth century, the mansion of the Earls of Ranelagh, whose name was perpetuated in that of the gardens which were ultimately opened to the public on that spot.

We read in the Weekly Post, of 1714, a rumour to the effect that "the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough are to have the late Earl of Ranelagh's house at Chelsea College;" but the arrangement does not appear to have been carried out, for in 1730 an Act was passed, vesting the estates of the Earl of Ranelagh in trustees; and a few years later the house and premises were sold in lots, and shortly afterwards opened as a place of public entertainment, of which we shall have more to say presently. Lord Ranelagh's house and gardens are thus described by Bowack, in 1705:—"The house, built with brick and cornered with stone, is not large, but very convenient, and may well be called a cabinet. It stands a good distance from the Thames. In finishing the whole, his lordship has spared neither labour nor cost. The very greenhouses and stables, adorned with festoons and urns, have an air of grandeur not to be seen in many princes' palaces."

Again, in Gibson's "View of the Gardens near London," published in 1691, these grounds are thus described:—"My Lord Ranelagh's garden being but lately made, the plants are but small, but the plats, border, and walks are curiously kept and elegantly designed, having the advantage of opening into Chelsea College walks. The kitchengarden there lies very fine, with walks and seats; one of which, being large and covered, was then under the hands of a curious painter. The house there is very fine within, all the rooms being wainscoted with Norway oak, and all the chimneys adorned with carving, as in the council-chamber in Chelsea College." The staircase was painted by Noble, who died in 1700.

A portion of the old college seems to have remained standing for many years, and ultimately to have become the residence of Dr. Messenger Monsey, one of Dr. Johnson's literary acquaintances, and many years Physician to the Royal Hospital.

From Boswell's "Life of Johnson" we learn that the character of Dr. Monsey, in point of natural humour, is thought to have borne a near resemblance to that of Dean Swift, and like him, he too will be long remembered for the vivid powers of his mind and the marked peculiarity of his manners. "His classical abilities were indeed enviable, his memory throughout life was wonderfully retentive, and upon a variety of occasions enabled him, with an inexhaustible flow of words, to pour forth the treasures of erudition acquired by reading, study, and experience; insomuch that he was truly allowed to be a storehouse of anecdote, a reservoir of curious narrative for all weathers; the living chronicle, in short, of other times. The exuberance of his wit, which, like the web of life, was of a mingled yarn, often rendered his conversation exceedingly entertaining, sometimes indeed alarmingly offensive, and at other times pointedly pathetic and instructive; for, at certain happy intervals, the doctor could lay aside Rabelais and Scarron to think deeply on the most important subjects, and to open a very serious vein." The following anecdote, told in Faulkner's "History of Chelsea," is very characteristic of the doctor's turn of temper, and is said to be well attested:—"He lived so long in his office of Physician to Chelsea Hospital, that, during many changes of administration, the reversion of his place had been successively promised to several medical friends of the Paymaster-General of the Forces. Looking out of his window one day, and observing a gentleman below examining the college and gardens, who he knew had secured the reversion of his place, the doctor came down stairs, and going out to him, accosted him thus:—'Well, sir, I see you are examining your house and gardens, that are to be, and I will assure you that they are both very pleasant and very convenient. But I must tell you one circumstance: you are the fifth man that has had the reversion of the place, and I have buried them all. And what is more,' continued he, looking very scientifically at him, 'there is something in your face that tells me I shall bury you too.' The event justified the prediction, for the gentleman died some years after; and what is more extraordinary, at the time of the doctor's death there was not a person who seems to have even solicited the promise of the reversion."

THE CHELSEA BUN-HOUSE, 1810. (From Mr. Crace's Collection.)

Dr. Monsey's death is recorded as having taken place in December, 1788, "at his apartments in Chelsea College," at the great age of ninety-five. Johnson, though he admired his intellect, disliked his private character; and Boswell quotes him, saying of old Dr. Monsey, of Chelsea College, that he was "a fellow who swore and talked indecently." Here, as Taylor tells us in his "Recollections," the Doctor "had a large box in his chamber, full of air-holes, for the purpose of carrying his body to his friend, Mr. Forster, in case he should be in a trance when supposed to be dead. It was provided with poles, like a sedan-chair. In his will, which is to be seen in the Gentleman's Magazine (vol. 50), he gave instructions that his body should not be buried with any funeral ceremony, but be dissected, and then thrown into the Thames, or wherever the surgeon who operated might please. "It is surprising," observes John Wilson Croker, "that this coarse and crazy humourist should have been an intimate friend and favourite of the elegant and pious Mrs. Montagu." In all probability, however, he knew how to conduct himself in the presence of ladies and bishops, for Dr. Percy, the Bishop of Dromore, says that he never knew him guilty of the vices ascribed to him by Johnson.


The Chudleighs, the father and mother of Elizabeth, Duchess of Kingston, (fn. 1) lived in the college, and the future duchess, as a girl, used to romp and play in its galleries and gardens. They were friends of Sir Robert Walpole, who resided at no great distance.

Here died, in 1833, John Heriot, Comptroller of the Hospital. He was a native of Haddington, in Scotland, and wrote some novels. He was the first editor of the Sun, when that paper was started as an evening paper in the interest of Pitt's Administration, and it soon rose to 4,000 a day—a very large circulation for the time, considering the scarcity of educated readers and the heavy stampduty then imposed on newspapers.

As we have already observed, a considerable part of the old college grounds, and probably part of the college itself, ultimately became the site of the Royal Hospital for Wounded and Superannuated Soldiers. Dr. Jortin, with his usual sprightliness, observed on this that, "with a very small and easy alteration it was made a receptacle of maimed and discarded soldiers. For if the king's project had been put into execution, the house would most probably have become a house of discord, and 'peace be within thy walls' would have been a fruitless wish, and a prayer bestowed in vain upon it."

King Charles himself laid the first stone of the new building (which had been designed by Wren), in the presence of the chief nobility and gentry of the kingdom, and the whole structure was finished in 1690, at a cost, it is said, of £150,000. The building is of red brick, with stone quoins, cornices, pediments, and columns; and consists of three courts, two of which are spacious quadrangles; the third, the central one, is open on the south side towards the river, and has its area laid out in gardens and walks. A Latin inscription on the frieze of the large quadrangle tells us that the building was founded by Charles II., augmented by James II., and completed by William and Mary, for the aid and relief of soldiers worn out by old age or by the labours of war. In the central area is a bronze statue of Charles II. in Roman imperial armour, supposed to be the work of Grinling Gibbons; and in the grounds is a granite obelisk erected to the memory of the officers and men who fell in the Indian campaigns. There is also here a statue, by Noble, to Sir J. McGrigor, the Physician-General to the army under Wellington in Spain. In the eastern and western wings of this court are the wards of the pensioners; they are sixteen in number, and are both spacious and airy.

At the extremity of the eastern wing is the governor's house. The ceiling of the principal room is divided into oblong compartments, appropriately ornamented, and the walls are hung with several portraits of royalty, from the time of King Charles II. In the western wing are the apartments of the lieutenant-governor.

The north front is of great extent, and faced by avenues of limes and chestnut-trees. In the centre of the structure is a handsome portico of the Doric order, surmounted by a lofty clock turret in the roof. Beneath are the principal entrances. On the eastern side of the vestibule, a short flight of steps leads to the chapel. This is a lofty apartment, with an arched ceiling; it is rather over 100 feet in length, by about thirty in width, and is paved with black and white marble. The pews for the various officers of the establishment are ranged along the sides, and the pensioners sit in the middle on benches. Over the communion-table is a painting of the Ascension, by Sebastian Ricci. King James II. presented a handsome service of plate, an altar-cloth, pulpit-cloth, several velvet cushions, and four handsomely-bound prayer-books. From the walls on either side of the chapel are suspended a large number of colours captured by the British army, including thirteen "eagles" captured from the French at Barossa, Talavera, and Waterloo. The dining-hall is on the western side of the vestibule, and is of the same dimensions as the chapel.

The furniture of this room is massive and simple. Above the doorway, at the eastern end, is a gallery; the upper end is occupied by a large painting, which was presented by the Earl of Ranelagh. It was designed by Verrio, and finished by Henry Cooke, an artist who studied Salvator Rosa. The chief figure of the composition is King Charles II., mounted on a richly-caparisoned horse; in the background is a perspective view of the Royal Hospital; and fanciful representations of Hercules, Minerva, Peace, and "Father Thames," are introduced, by way of allegory. The sides of the hall are hung with numerous engravings of military subjects, and there is also a large painting of the Battle of Waterloo, and an allegorical picture of the victories of the Duke of Wellington, by James Ward, R.A. A dinner for the pensioners is regularly placed in this hall every day (with the exception of Sunday), at twelve o'clock; but they do not dine in public, as every man is allowed to take his meal in his own apartment in the wards. The hall serves also as a reading-room for the old pensioners, and here they are allowed to sit and smoke—for they are allowed one penny a day for tobacco, which is called "Her Majesty's bounty"—and while away the time with card-playing and other amusements, and also with the perusal of books and newspapers. In this hall the remains of the "great" Duke of Wellington were deposited, in November, 1852, preparatory to the public funeral in St. Paul's Cathedral. Her Majesty, accompanied by Prince Albert, the Prince of Wales, and Princess Royal, visited Chelsea Hospital during part of the ceremony of lying in state; afterwards the veterans of Chelsea were admitted; on one day the admission was restricted to those who were provided with tickets from the Lord Chamberlain's office; and then, for four days, the public were admitted without tickets, when the crush was so great that several persons were killed in the attempt to gain admission.

The east, or "Light Horse" court, comprises the apartments of many official persons connected with the institution, such as the governor, the deputytreasurer, secretary, chaplain, apothecary, comptroller, steward, and other officials. The west court is partly occupied by the board-room, used by the commissioners for their meetings, and by the apartments of various officers connected with the establishment. Still further to the west is the stable-yard; and, on the site of the mansion formerly occupied by Sir Robert Walpole is the infirmary, which is admirably adapted for the patients admitted within its walls.

Chelsea Hospital affords a refuge for upwards of 500 inmates. The number of out-pensioners, from whom they are selected, is about 64,000; and of these, on an average, nearly 8,000 are over seventy years of age. Here the veterans, whether wounded, disabled, or merely advanced in years, find a home, and for their accommodation, comfort, and medical treatment, a liberal provision is made. An applicant for admission must be on the permanent pension list, must be of good character, must have no wife or children dependent on him for support, and he must be incapable of supplementing his pension by labour. He must show that he has given good service "by flood and field." A monthly list of applications is kept, in the order in which they are received; and at the end of the month the commissioners, having regard to the number of vacancies and the eligibility of the candidates, according to the terms of the Royal Warrant of 1862, sanction the selection and admission of the most meritorious. All the wants of the inmates are liberally provided for. Their clothing is certainly rather of an antique style; but, nevertheless, it is picturesque. They wear long scarlet coats, lined with blue, and the original three-cornered cocked hat of the last century; but then, as the quartermaster once said to the War Office Committee, "they are old men." Their diet consists of beef on Sundays and mutton on week-days; but, in order to break the monotony, at their own request, bacon has been substituted for mutton on one week-day. A pint of porter daily is the allowance for each man; and there is a fund of about £540 a year, derived from private legacies, which is devoted to maintaining the library and providing extra personal comforts and amusements. The pensioners are divided into six companies, the captains and other officers of each company being responsible for the cleanliness of the ward and the preservation of order.

The expenditure of the hospital is chiefly met by an annual Parliamentary vote; but the institution enjoys a small independent income from property and interest on unclaimed prize-money. With all this liberal provision, however, it appears, from the War Office Committee reports which have been published, that Chelsea Hospital is not popular with soldiers. The inmates, indeed, are contented; but it is admitted that soldiers serving under the colours look forward to out-pensions at the close of their military career, and that the severance of home-ties, the monastic character of the institution, and a certain amount of disciplinary restraint, outweigh the advantages of the hospital, except in the instance of men (perhaps who have earned only small pensions) aged, infirm, and helpless, without family or friends able and willing to support them. Even the very old prefer providing for themselves out of the hospital if they can; there are only about 230 men in the hospital over seventy—generally fewer than that.

Adjoining the hospital is a burial-ground for the pensioners, wherein repose a few veritable centenarians, if the records of their deaths are to be relied upon. Thomas Asbey, died 1737, aged 112; Robert Comming, died 1767, aged 116; Peter Dowling, died 1768, aged 102; a soldier who fought at the battle of the Boyne, died 1772, aged 111; and Peter Bennet, died 1773, aged 107.

In Pimlico Road—or, as it was formerly called, Jew's Row, or Royal Hospital Row—"there is," writes Larwood, in 1866, in his "History of Signboards," "a sign which greatly mystifies the maimed old heroes of Waterloo and the Peninsula, and many others besides. I refer to the 'Snow Shoes.' But this hostelry is historic in its origin. Its sign was set up during the excitement of the American War of Independence, when 'Snow Shoes' formed a leading article in the equipment of the troops sent out to fight the battles of King George, against old Washington and his rebels." John Timbs, in his "Curiosities of London," says that the tradition of the foundation of the hospital being due to the influence of Nell Gwynne is kept in countenance by the head of that royal favourite having been for very many years the sign of a public-house in Grosvenor Row. More than one entry in Evelyn's "Diary," however, proves that Sir Stephen Fox "had not only the whole managing" of the plan, but was himself "a grand benefactor" to it. He was mainly advised by Evelyn, who arranged the offices, "would needes have a library, and mentioned several bookes."

North of the hospital is the Duke of York's School, or Royal Military Asylum. This institution was founded by the late Duke of York, for the support and education of children of soldiers of the regular army, who remain there until of a suitable age, when they are apprenticed, or sent into service. The building is constructed chiefly of brick, with stone dressings and embellishments, and it comprises three sides of a quadrangle. In the centre of the chief front is a stone portico of the Doric order; four massive pillars support the pediment, the frieze of which is inscribed as follows—"The Royal Military Asylum for the Children of Soldiers of the Regular Army;" and the whole is surmounted with the royal arms. In this part of the building are the dining-rooms and school-rooms for the children, and also bath-rooms and a committeeroom. The north and south wings contain the dormitories for the boys and girls, and apartments for several officers of the establishment. In the front the ground is laid out in grass plats and gravel walks, and planted with trees; attached to each wing is a spacious play-ground for exercise, with cloistral arcades for the protection of the children in inclement seasons. The affairs of the Royal Military Asylum are regulated by commissioners appointed by the Government, who have to apply to Parliament for an annual grant for the support of the institution. The commissioners also have the selection of the children, whose admission is regulated in accordance with the following rules:—Orphans, or those whose fathers have been killed, or have died on foreign stations; those who have lost their mothers, and whose fathers are absent on duty abroad; those whose fathers are ordered on foreign service, or whose parents have other children to maintain." The children are supported, lodged, and educated, until they are of a suitable age to be disposed of as servants and apprentices. The boys undergo a regular military training; and it is a pleasing sight to witness them going through their exercises, with their military band of juvenile performers. According to the original intention of the founders of this institution, the number of children admitted into the asylum is not to exceed seven hundred boys and three hundred girls, exclusive of such as, on an exigency, may be admitted to the branch establishment in the Isle of Wight. The boys are clothed in red jackets, blue breeches, blue stockings, and black caps; and the girls in red gowns, blue petticoats, straw hats, &c. The latter are taught the ordinary branches of needlework and household work.

A considerable part of the grounds lying immediately at the south-east corner of Chelsea Hospital once formed the site of Ranelagh Gardens, as we have already observed. "Ranelagh," writes Mr. Lambert, in his "History of London and its Environs," published in 1806, "was the seat of an Irish nobleman of that title, in whose time the gardens were extensive. On his death the estate was sold, and the principal part of the gardens was converted into fields, though the house remained unaltered. Part of the gardens also was permitted to remain. Some gentlemen and builders having become the purchasers of these, a resolution was taken to convert them into a place of entertainment. Accordingly, Mr. William Jones, architect to the East India Company, drew the plan of the present Rotunda, which is an illustrious monument of his genius and fancy. The chief material employed was wood, and it was erected in 1740." He describes it as "a noble edifice, somewhat resembling the Pantheon at Rome, with a diameter externally of 185 feet, and internally of 150 feet. The entrances," he adds, "are by four Doric porticoes opposite each other, and the first storey is rustic. Round the whole on the outside is a gallery, the stairs to which are at the porticoes; and overhead is a slated covering which projects from the body of the Rotunda. Over the gallery are the windows, sixty in number, and over these the slated roof. The interior is elegantly decorated, and, when well illuminated and full of company, presents a most brilliant spectacle. Indeed, it may be said of Ranelagh that, as a public place of amusement, it is not to be equalled in Europe for beauty, elegance, and grandeur. Before the Act of Parliament passed in 1752, which prohibited all places of entertainment from being opened before a certain hour in the afternoon, the Rotunda was open every day for public breakfasts. It was not, however, a place of much note until it was honoured with the famous masquerades in the late reign, which brought it into vogue. But the immorality so frequently practised at masquerades has lessened their reputation, and they are not now attended, as formerly, by persons of rank and fashion. The entertainments consist of music and singing, and upon particular occasions fireworks also are exhibited; and during the summer season the gardens may be seen in the day-time on payment of a shilling. The price of admittance in the evening is half-a-crown, including tea and coffee, which are the only refreshments allowed; but on extraordinary occasions the price is raised."

Sir Richard Phillips, in his "Modern London," published in 1804, in noticing Ranelagh, writes:—"This place is situated about two miles west of London, in the village of Chelsea. It consists of a splendid Rotunda and gardens. The Rotunda itself, used as a promenade, is very spacious, and brilliantly illuminated, with a neat orchestra. The amusements of Ranelagh, generally speaking, are limited to miscellaneous performances, vocal and instrumental; and in the gardens there are fireworks and illuminations. Masquerades are sometimes given in a very good style; but the genius of the English people seems not well calculated for this species of amusement. Ranelagh has lately been engaged by the 'Pic-Nic Society,' and it is supposed will be appropriated to their entertainments."

Besides the Rotunda there was a small Venetian pavilion in a lake, to which the company were rowed in boats, and the grounds were planted with trees. The decorations of the various buildings were designed by Capon, an eminent scene-painter. In each of the refreshment-boxes was a painting; in the centre of the Rotunda was a heating apparatus, concealed by arches, porticoes, and niches, paintings, &c.; and supporting the ceiling, which was decorated with celestial figures, festoons of flowers, and arabesques, and lighted by circles of chandeliers.

In the Gentleman's Magazine for 1742 is the following description of Ranelagh Gardens from a foreigner's point of view:—"I repaired to the rendezvous, which was the park adjoining to the Palace Royal, and which answers to our Tuilleries, where we sauntered, with a handful of fine company, till it was almost twilight—a time, I thought, not a little unseasonable for a tour into the country. We had no sooner quitted the park but we found ourselves in a road full of people, illuminated with lamps on each side; the dust was the only inconvenience; but in less than half an hour we found ourselves at a gate where money was demanded, and paid for our admittance; and immediately my eyes were struck with a large building, of an orbicular figure, with a row of windows round the attic storey, through which it seemed to be liberally illuminated within, and altogether presented to the eye such an image as a man of a whimsical imagination would not scruple to call a giant's lanthorn. Into this enchanted palace we entered, with more haste than ceremony; and at the first glance I, for my part, found myself dumb with surprise and astonishment, in the middle of a vast amphitheatre; for structure, Roman; for decorations of paint and gilding, gay as the Asiatic; four grand portals, in the manner of the ancient triumphal arches, and four times twelve boxes, in a double row, with suitable pilasters between, form the whole interior of this wonderful fabric, save that in the middle a magnificent orchestra rises to the roof, from which descend several large branches, which contain a great number of candles enclosed in crystal glasses, at once to light and adorn this spacious Rotunda. Groups of well-dressed persons were dispersed in the boxes; numbers covered the area; all manner of refreshments were within call; and music of all kinds echoed, though not intelligibly, from every one of those elegant retreats, where Pleasure seemed to beckon her wanton followers. I have acknowledged myself charmed at my entrance; you will wonder, therefore, when I tell you that satiety followed. In five minutes I was familiar with the whole and every part; in the five next indifference took place; in five more my eyes grew dazzled, my head became giddy, and all night I dreamed of Vanity Fair."

The Rotunda was first opened with a public breakfast in April, 1742; and, for a short time, morning concerts were given, consisting of selections from oratorios. Walpole, in a letter to Sir Horace Mann, written during the next month, gives us the following particulars of this once famous place of amusement:—"There is a vast amphitheatre, finely gilt, painted, and illuminated, into which everybody that loves eating, drinking, staring, or crowding, is admitted for twelve pence. The building and disposition of the gardens cost sixteen thousand pounds. …I was there last night, but did not find the joy of it. Vauxhall is a little better, for the garden is pleasanter, and one goes by water." Ranelagh, however, appears soon to have eclipsed its rival on the other side of the water, for two years later we find the following record by the same gossiping chronicler:—"Every night constantly I go to Ranelagh, which has totally beat Vauxhall. Nobody goes anywhere else—everybody goes there. My Lord Chesterfield is so fond of it that he says he has ordered all his letters to be directed thither." And again, some four years afterwards, he tells us: "Ranelagh is so crowded, that in going there t'other night in a string of coaches, we had a stop of six-and-thirty minutes."


The Jubilee Masquerade, "after the Venetian manner," held here in 1749, about seven years after the gardens were first opened, is thus described by gossiping Horace Walpole:—"It was by far the best understood and prettiest spectacle I ever saw—nothing in a fairy tale ever surpassed it. One of the proprietors, who is a German, and belongs to court, had got my Lady Yarmouth to persuade the king to order it. It began at three o'clock; at about five, people of fashion began to go. When you entered, you found the whole garden filled with marquees and spread with tents, which remained all night very commodely. In one quarter was a May-pole, dressed with garlands, and people dancing round it to a tabour and pipe, and rustic music, all masked, as were all the various bands of music that were disposed in different parts of the garden; some like huntsmen, with French horns; some like peasants; and a troop of harlequins and scaramouches in the little open temple on the mount. On the canal was a sort of gondola, adorned with flags and streamers, and filled with music, rowing about. All round the outside of the amphitheatre were shops, filled with Dresden china, japan, &c., and all the shopkeepers in masks; the amphitheatre was illuminated, and in the middle was a circular bower, composed of all kinds of firs, in tubs, from twenty to thirty feet high; under them orangetrees, with small lamps in each orange, and below them all sorts of auriculas in pots; and festoons of natural flowers hanging from tree to tree. Between the arches, too, were firs, and smaller ones in the balconies above. There were booths for tea and wine, gaming-tables and dancing, and about two thousand persons present. In short, it pleased me more than the finest thing I ever saw."


Not many weeks after this there was another "Subscription Masquerade" here, also described at some length by the same old Court gossip, Walpole:—"The king was well disguised in an old-fashioned English habit, and much pleased with somebody who desired him to hold their cups as they were drinking tea. The Duke [of Cumberland] had a dress of the same kind, but was so immensely corpulent that he looked like 'Cacofoco,' the drunken captain in Rule a Wife and Have a Wife. The Duchess of Richmond was a Lady Mayoress of the time of James I.; and Lord De la Warr, Queen Elizabeth's 'Garter,' from a picture in the Guard Chamber at Kensington; they were admirable masks. Lord Rochford, Miss Evelyn, Miss Bishopp, Lady Stafford, and Miss Pitt, were in vast beauty, particularly the last, who had a red veil, which made her look gloriously handsome. I forgot Lady Kildare. Mr. Conway was the 'Duke' in Don Quixote, and the finest figure that I ever saw. Miss Chumleigh was 'Iphigenia,' and so lightly clad that you would have taken her for Andromeda. … The maids of honour were so offended they would not speak to her. Pretty Mrs. Pitt looked as if she came from heaven, but was only thither in the habit of a Chanoineness. Lady Betty Smithson (Seymour) had such a pyramid of baubles upon her head that she was exactly the Princess of Babylon in Grammont."

In 1754 the evening amusements here were advertised under the name of Comus's Court; and in 1759 a burlesque ode on St. Cecilia's Day, written by Bonnell Thornton, was performed; and we are told that "among the instruments employed there was a band of marrow-bones and cleavers, whose endeavours were admitted by the cognoscenti to have been a great success."

From Boswell we learn that even the sage and grave Dr. Johnson was as fond of Ranelagh as he was of the Pantheon. When somebody said, cynically, that there "was not half a guinea's worth of pleasure in seeing Ranelagh," he replied, "No; but there is half a guinea's worth of inferiority to other people in not having seen it." Indeed, if we may believe the statement of his friend, Dr. Maxwell, some time assistant preacher at the Temple, Dr. Johnson "often went to Ranelagh, which he deemed a place of innocent recreation." But this is rather a proof of Dr. Johnson's own purity than a testimony to the morals of the place, for "to the pure all things are pure." The gardens were constantly visited also by Oliver Goldsmith; even when he was in difficulties, he would take an Irish cousin there, and treat her to the admission. Sometimes poor Oliver would stroll thither with Dr. Johnson and Sir Joshua Reynolds, to see the great world of which he at once knew so much and so little.

The King of Denmark and his suite paid a visit to Ranelagh in 1768, when, we are told, his Majesty "examined the Temple and other buildings, which gave him great satisfaction."

The scene of the finish of the first Regatta on the Thames, in June, 1775, must have been one of the crowning glories of Ranelagh. The admission ticket on the occasion, engraved by Bartolozzi, was long held in high estimation by collectors. Plans of the regatta were sold, from a shilling to a penny each, and songs on the occasion sung, in which "Regatta" was the rhyme for "Ranelagh," and "Royal Family" echoed to "liberty." "On the return of the wager boats," writes Mr. Faulkner, in his "History of Chelsea," "the whole procession moved, in picturesque irregularity, towards Ranelagh. The Thames was now a floating town. The company landed at the stairs about nine o'clock, when they joined the assembly which came by land in the Temple of Neptune, a temporary octagon kind of building, erected about twenty yards below the Rotunda, lined with striped linen of the different-coloured flags of the navy, ornamented with streamers of the same kind loosely flowing, and lustres hanging between each. This room discovered great taste. At half after ten the Rotunda was opened for supper, which displayed three circular tables, of different elevations, elegantly set out. The Rotunda was finely illuminated with parti-coloured lamps; the centre was solely appropriated for one of the fullest and finest bands of music, vocal and instrumental, ever collected in these kingdoms, the number being 240, in which were included the first masters, led by Giardini, and the whole directed by Mr. Simpson. . . . . Supper being over, a part of the company retired to the Temple, where they danced without any regard to precedence; while others entertained themselves in the great room. Several temporary structures were erected in the gardens, such as bridges, palm-trees, &c., which were intended to discover something novel in the illumination style, but the badness of the evening prevented their being exhibited."

In 1802 an afternoon breakfast was given here, under the auspices of the Pic-Nic Society, at which about two thousand persons of distinction were present. On this occasion M. Garnerin and Captain Snowden made an ascent in a balloon, and alighted at Colchester in less than an hour. "This," as Hone, in his "Year-Book," observes, "was the most memorable ascent in England from the time of Lunardi."

In the following year a magnificent ball was held in the Rotunda; it was given by the knights of the Order of the Bath, on the occasion of an "installation," and is said to have been a "gala of uncommon splendour." But even this was surpassed in brilliancy by an entertainment given shortly afterwards by the Spanish Ambassador. "The whole external front of the house," we read, "was illuminated in a novel manner, and the portico immediately leading to the Rotunda was filled on each side with rows of aromatic shrubs. The Rotunda itself, at the first opening to the sight, exhibited a most superb appearance. The lower boxes formed a Spanish camp, striped blue and red, each tent guarded by a boy dressed in the Spanish uniform. The gallery formed a Temple of Flora, lighted by a number of gold baskets containing wax tapers. The queen's box was hung with crimson satin, lined with white, which hung in festoons richly fringed with gold, and at the top was a regal crown. In the orchestra, which was converted into a magnificent pavilion, a table of eighteen covers was laid for the Royal Family. Opposite to Her Majesty's box was a light temple or stage, on which a Spanish dance was performed by children; at another part were beautiful moving transparencies; and a third was a lottery of valuable trinkets, consisting of six hundred prizes. Women, ornamented with wreaths of flowers, made tea; and one hundred valets, in scarlet and gold, and as many footmen, in sky-blue and silver, waited on the company."

From about the year 1780 down to the close of the last century Ranelagh was in the height of its glory. It was visited by royalty, and all the nobility and gentry. "As no place was ever better calculated for the display of female beauty and elegance," writes Mr. Faulkner, in his work above quoted, "it followed, of course, the greatest belles of the day frequented Ranelagh, at the head of whom was the celebrated and beautiful Duchess of Devonshire, a lady eminent for every grace that could adorn the female, and not a few candidates for admiration were in her train."The Rotunda was subsequently used for late evening concerts, and as an assembly-room, and the gardens for the display of fireworks and other out-door amusements. The place soon ceased to be the attractive promenade it had formerly been, and the brilliant display of beauty it had made for years was no more. The whole of the premises were taken down about the year 1805.

Many persons will remember the description of the ideal "Old Gentleman," in Hone's "TableBook." "He has been induced to look in at 'Vauxhall' again, but likes it still less than he did years back, and cannot bear it in comparison with Ranelagh! He thinks everything looks poor, flaring, and jaded. 'Ah!' says he, with a sort of triumphant sigh, 'ah! Ranelagh was a noble place! Such taste! such elegance! and such beauty! There was the Duchess of A——, the finest woman in England, sir; and Mrs. B— —, a mighty fine creature; and Lady Susan what's-her-name, who had that unfortunate affair with Sir Charles. Yes, indeed, sir, they came swimming by you like swans. Ranelagh for me!' "

Whether it be true or not that ladies of bon ton "came swimming by you like swans," there can be no doubt that Ranelagh, in its palmy days, was a favourite haunt of the "upper ten thousand," and that "duchesses" and "Lady Susans" in plenty jostled there against the troops of plebeian City and country dames.

A writer in the Connoisseur (No. 22) complains: "The modest excesses of these times [the reign of George II.] are in their nature the same with those which were formerly in vogue. The present races of 'bucks,' 'bloods,' and 'free-thinkers' are but the spawn of the Mohocks and Hell-fire Clubs; and if our modern fine ladies have had their masquerades, their Vauxhalls, their Sunday tea-drinking at Ranelagh, and their morning chocolate in the Haymarket, they have only improved upon the 'Ring,' the Spring Gardens, the New Exchange assignations, and the morning Puppet-show, which enjoyed the attention of their grandmothers. And so, as it is not apparent that our people of fashion are more wicked, so neither are they more wise than their predecessors." The fall of Ranelagh—like other enchanting places of amusement, the description of whose assemblages give us such graphic pictures of the frail beauties of the last century—is thus mournfully set forth in Murphy's "Prologue to Zobeide:"—
"Adieu, Almack's! Cornelys' masquerade!
Sweet Ranelagh!"

The picture of ruin and desolation which the site of Ranelagh presented after the demolition of the Rotunda and the dismantling of its gardens, is ably reproduced by Sir Richard Phillips, in his "Walk from London to Kew." "On entering Chelsea," he writes, "I was naturally led to inquire for the site of the once gay Ranelagh. I passed up the avenue of trees, which I remember often to have seen blocked up with carriages. At its extremity I looked for the Rotunda and its surrounding buildings; but, as I could not see them, I concluded that I had acquired but an imperfect idea of the place in my nocturnal visits! I went forward, on an open space, but still could discern no Ranelagh. At length, on a spot covered with nettles, thistles, and other rank weeds, I met a working man, who, in answer to my inquiries, told me that he could see I was a stranger, or I should have known that Ranelagh had been pulled down, and that I was then standing on the site of the Rotunda! Reader, imagine my feelings, for I cannot analyse them! This vile place, I exclaimed, the site of the once enchanting Ranelagh! It cannot be! The same eyes were never destined to see such a metamorphosis! All was desolation! A few inequalities appeared in the ground, indicative of some former building, and holes filled with muddy water showed the foundation-walls; but the rest of the space, making about two acres, was covered with clusters of tall nettles, thistles, and docks. On a more accurate survey I traced the circular foundation of the Rotunda, and at some distance discovered the broken arches of some cellars, once filled with the choicest wines, but now with dirty water. Further on were marks against a garden wall, indicating that the water-boilers for tea and coffee had once been heated there. I traced, too, the site of the orchestra, where I had often been ravished by the finest performances of vocal and instrumental music. My imagination brought the objects before me; I fancied I could still hear an air of Mara's. I turned my eye aside, and what a contrast appeared! No glittering lights! no brilliant happy company! no peals of laughter from thronged boxes! no chorus of a hundred instruments and voices! All was death-like stillness! Is such, I exclaimed, the end of human splendour? Yes, truly, all is vanity; and here is a striking example. Here are ruins and desolation, even without antiquity! I am not mourning, said I, over the remains of Babylon or Carthage—ruins sanctioned by the unsparing march of time; but here it was all glory and splendour, even yesterday! Here, but seven years have flown away, and I was myself one of three thousand of the gayest mortals ever assembled in one of the gayest scenes which the art of man could devise—ay, on this very spot; yet the whole is now changed into the dismal scene of desolation before me!"

Although not a vestige of the gardens remains, its memory is preserved by naming after it some of the streets, roads, and places which have been built near its site. Mr. Jesse, in his work on "London," published in 1871, tells us that "a single avenue of trees, formerly illuminated by a thousand lamps, and over-canopying the wit, the rank, and the beauty of the last century, now forms an almost solitary memento of the departed glories of Ranelagh. Attached to these trees, the author discovered one or two solitary iron fixtures, from which the variegated lamps were formerly suspended."

According to Mr. John Timbs' "Club Life of London," there was subsequently opened in the neighbourhood a New Ranelagh; but it would appear to have been short-lived, as its memory has quite passed away.

Such, however, was the celebrity of the old Ranelagh, that another Ranelagh, like a second Salamis, was established in the suburbs of Paris; as witness the following extract from a French writer in 1875:—"The name of Ranelagh Gardens, almost forgotten in England, will soon be equally so in Paris. Or rather, it would be, but for the inscription on the neighbouring street, preserving a title which no revolution need trouble to alter. Some alterations now undertaken by the Parisian authorities in the street recall to mind the chequered fortunes of the French Ranelagh. It was started in the summer of 1774 by a simple gardener of the Bois de Boulogne as a private speculation, the name, of course, being borrowed from Chelsea. The gardener was patronised by the Prince de Soubise, and the concerts and balls were at first a great success. But the novelty died out, and about nine years afterwards the proprietor was fain to escape ruin by becoming manager to a private club, with a more select clientèle. Thenceforth, till the Revolution, the place was a success. Marie Antoinette had been seen there, and the club invitations were much sought after. The Republic, pure and simple, would have been fatal to the gardens had not the Directory come to the rescue. Under its less rigid régime came Trénitz, with his troop of Muscadins and Merveilleuses. Morisart died just before the fall of the Empire, and in time to escape the sight of the Cossacks trampling his pet flower-beds and lawns. From 1816 to 1830 another aristocratic club held its réunions at Ranelagh, and under the Orleans dynasty it became again a public place of entertainment. At last came M. Thiers' scheme of fortifying Paris, and his ramparts cut the gardens in half. This was in 1840; and twenty years later a decree suppressed for ever the last lingering vestige of gaiety, and consigned the ground to building purposes."

Queen's Road West (formerly called Paradise Row) has been the residence of many of the "nobility and gentry" of Chelsea in former times. In a large mansion adjoining Robinson's Lane, lived the Earl of Radnor, in the time of Charles II., and here his lordship entertained the king "most sumptuously" in September, 1660. The parish register contains several entries of baptisms and deaths in the Radnor family.

Sir Francis Windham had a house in this road at the commencement of the last century. After the battle of Worcester he entertained Charles II. at Trent, where the king remained concealed for several days. Dr. Richard Mead, the eminent physician, of whom we have already spoken in our account of Great Ormond Street, (fn. 2) resided in this neighbourhood for some time, as appears by the parish books. Another physician of note who lived here about the same time was Dr. Alexander Blackwell, who resided in a house near the Botanic Garden. Dr. Blackwell became involved in difficulties; and after leaving Chelsea he went to Sweden, where he was appointed physician to the king. Subsequently, however, he was found guilty of high treason, "in plotting to overturn the constitution of the kingdom, and sentenced to be broken alive on the wheel."

In the Queen's Road, adjoining the Royal Hospital, with its gardens stretching down towards the river, and close by the spot where formerly stood the residence of Sir Robert Walpole, is the Victoria Hospital for Sick Children. The building, which was converted to its present use in 1866, was formerly known as Gough House. It was built by John, Earl of Carberry—one of the "noble authors' mentioned by Horace Walpole—at the commencement of the last century. The estate afterwards came into the possession of the Gough family, and the house subsequently was made use of for many years as a school for young ladies. The house has lately been raised a storey, and additional wards have been provided. These improvements were effected at an expense of about £3,000, and the hospital was formally re-opened by the Princess Louise.

At the eastern end of Queen's Road, forming one side of a broad and open thoroughfare, connecting Sloane Street with new Chelsea Bridge, stand some fine barracks for the Foot Guards, erected about the year 1870. They are constructed in a substantial manner with light-coloured brick, relieved with rustic quoins of red brick, and they consist of several commodious blocks of buildings, the largest of which contains quarters for the officers, &c. They afford accommodation for about 1,000 men. It has been said, perhaps with some amount of truth, that this is the only handsome structure in the way of barracks to be seen in the entire metropolis. If so, the assertion is not very creditable to our character as a nation, considering the duties that we owe to those who defend our homes and our commerce in the field.

In 1809, the Serpentine—which joined the Thames by Ranelagh—rose so high as to overflow its banks, and boats were employed in carrying passengers between the old Bun-house and Chelsea Hospital.

Mr. Larwood, in his "History of Sign-boards," says that there is, or, at all events, was in 1866, in Bridge Row, a public-house bearing the sign of the "Chelsea Water-works." These water-works, after which it was named, were constructed about the year 1724. A canal was dug from the Thames, near Ranelagh to Pimlico, where an engine was placed for the purpose of raising the water into pipes, which conveyed it to Chelsea, Westminster, and other parts of western London. The reservoirs in Hyde Park and the Green Park were supplied by pipes from the Chelsea Waterworks, which, in 1767, yielded daily 1,750 tons of water.



  • 1. See Vol. III., p. 552.
  • 2. See Vol. IV., p. 560.