Chelsea Old Church: Description

Survey of London: Volume 7, Chelsea, Part III: the Old Church. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1921.

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'Chelsea Old Church: Description', Survey of London: Volume 7, Chelsea, Part III: the Old Church, (London, 1921), pp. 1-4. British History Online [accessed 14 June 2024].

. "Chelsea Old Church: Description", in Survey of London: Volume 7, Chelsea, Part III: the Old Church, (London, 1921) 1-4. British History Online, accessed June 14, 2024,

. "Chelsea Old Church: Description", Survey of London: Volume 7, Chelsea, Part III: the Old Church, (London, 1921). 1-4. British History Online. Web. 14 June 2024,

In this section



The old church by the riverside was the Parish Church of Chelsea until 1819, when the new Church of St. Luke was built, and the old church became a Chapel of Ease. Its original dedication was All Saints, but in the latter part of the 17th century it became known as St. Luke's, a circumstance which is associated with Dr. Baldwin Hamey, to whom the rector, Dr. Adam Littleton, appears to have suggested this dedication in compliment to the doctor's profession. However this may be, Dr. Hamey inscribed a bell, which he presented to the church, to St. Luke, the inscription on which is given on page 5. And from that time until the building of the new parish church it was commonly called St. Luke's.

The Abbey of Westminster claimed the manor by virtue of a charter from Edward the Confessor, until 1536, when it was sold to the King.

The list of rectors, as far as they are known, is given on pages 84–5.

The chancel and the adjacent north and south chapels of the present building are all that remain of the mediaeval work. The chancel probably represents the 13th-century eastern limb, and the original splays of the present modern east window may be the outer jambs of a triplet of lancet windows which lighted the east end. A large window was no doubt inserted at a later period, and drawings of the church in the 18th century show a stone window of five lights which was removed in 1816 to make way for the present lights, as noted by Robert Chambers. (fn. 1) The splays are cut off by the timbers of the roof, showing that the chancel was lowered when it was re-roofed in 1670. One or two of the stones of a lancet window appear to have been reset to form a recess or locker in the east wall north of the altar.

The arch opening from the chancel into the North Chapel fell down in 1784, and the following inscription is to be seen on the north pier of the chancel arch:

This PIER was
In the Year 1784.

Only half of the arch (to the east) was rebuilt, the remainder of the wall being supported by the Jervoise monument, which originally stood free. The eastern respond of the arch is semi-octagonal with large splays, but at the level of the springing is a square stone with splayed angles and a moulded capital of uncertain date, probably recut. A plain squint behind this respond gave a view of the high altar from the chapel, now almost obscured by the arch to the Bray monument.

The north chapel was a separate freehold attached to the Manor House and goes by the name of the Lawrence Chapel, from Thomas Lawrence, who occupied the old Manor House in Lawrence Street. It passed from him through the Offley family to Colonel the Honourable Francis Needham. From him it went to the Lewer family, and Henry Lewer sold it to the Rev. R. H. Davies in 1894 for £250, to be presented by him to the church trustees. From the evidence of a range of three windows in the north wall it would appear that the chapel was built early in the 14th century. These windows were evidently built at one time, and the tracery in the eastern window—which is now blocked on the inside, but shows its external work in the new vestry—dates from c. 1320. The next window westwards was removed to make way for a circular-headed brick doorway (mentioned in the parish records in 1621), which retains its original oak door and strap hinges, but the shape of the window-head, rear arch, and label moulding is similar to that above described. It has lately been re-glazed (see p. 9), and some stones from its tracery are preserved in the church. The western window is most complete, and is similar to the others in the shape of the opening and the label moulding, and retains its original splay and twocentred rear arch. The tracery, however, is of later date and was probably inserted c. 1380. The lower part of the window has been removed to make way for a late 14th-century doorway, now blocked, but retaining the staple of the door hinge. The window in the east wall is modern, but a portion of the north splay adjoins a late 14th-century cinquefoil niche which remains to the north of it. The roof of this chapel is ceiled.

The south chapel is known as the More Chapel, and was remodelled by Sir Thomas More when he lived in Chelsea. In an inventory of church goods in the year 1549 it is called "the Lady More's Chapel." Like the Lawrence Chapel, it was a freehold, and passed, on Sir Thomas More's attainder, to the various possessors of his house, namely to the King, Sir William Paulet, Marquis of Winchester, the second Marquis of Winchester, his stepdaughter Lady Dacre, Lord Burleigh, Sir Robert Cecil, Henry Clinton, Earl of Lincoln, and his son-in-law, Sir Arthur Gorges. With Sir Arthur Gorges it ceased to be connected with Sir Thomas More's house, and went to the Milman family, who lived in Gorges House; it was sold by auction on 11th April, 1808, to Thomas Flight of Hackney, and passed successively to B. I. and J. Flight, Richard Mann and his son, and lastly to I. F. Crew, who sold it to the Rev. R. H. Davies in 1874. This chapel also Mr. Davies presented to the church trustees.

From the evidence of the fine arch connecting the chancel with this chapel it would appear that the latter was of earlier date than the north chapel. The arch is two-centred, of two chamfered orders with semioctagonal responds, and is built of Godstone stone. It has apparently at one time been reset, but the smallness of the stones and its general character indicate a date as early as the 13th century. When Sir Thomas More reconstructed the chapel he inserted in the responds of this arch a charming memorial of his time. This consists of two very beautiful stone capitals which are now generally accepted as being from the design of Holbein, (fn. 2) who was probably on a visit to Sir Thomas More in 1528, the date shown on the eastern capital. Their design is based on the Composite order, that is, each face of the octagon is treated as an Ionic capital in the upper part, with volutes at the angles, and the remainder is carved with acanthus foliage. The western capital has human heads carved in the centre of the abacus, these being replaced in the eastern one by winged cherubs' heads, smaller heads being used as terminals to the spiral of the volute. The following objects also occur on the carved facets: (eastern capital) an achievement of Sir Thomas More's arms, a panel with date 1528, a sword crossed with a sceptre, a mace; (western capital) a bundle of tapers, two crossed candlesticks, a pail (of holy water) and brush, and a missal with clasps. The carving of the latter capital is continued on the wall of the chapel in very delicate flowing foliage. The windows of the More Chapel (the east window and two in the south wall) retain their four-centred arches and internal splays only, the openings having been filled with semi-circular headed windows of brick. The roof, however, retains its old oak beams. It is of two bays, divided by a heavily moulded tiebeam of 14th-century date, a similar half beam appearing against the east wall. These beams were evidently re-used, as the king and queen posts supported by them and the brackets (towards east and west) which carry the moulded purlins are probably not earlier than the date of More's reconstruction.


The old nave and west tower were pulled down in the 17th century and the present structure built in their place. Subscriptions towards the rebuilding were asked for in 1669–70, and Mr. Randall Davies has shown that the work was probably not begun until after Lady Cheyne's funeral, 1st November, 1669. It was completed in January, 1671–2, with the exception of the tower, which was finished in 1674.

Although built at a time when Wren's new London churches were being designed and raised, the 17th-century work at Chelsea has a character quite of its own, and the great brick tower might easily be mistaken, at a first glance, for a product of the reign of Henry VIII. It was doubtless a local design, wrought by Chelsea people, who were still far enough away from London to be able to retain their own individuality and to give to their building its local colour. The whole of the new structure was built of brick—a fine warm-toned brick—with scarcely any admixture of stone. The south and north elevations have each two lofty semi-circular headed windows, with moulded mullions and transomes and pointed arched lights. Between these is a doorway on each wall (now blocked) with a semi-circular headed window above and a circular light at a still higher level. The architraves, sills, and key blocks are all of brick, and the south door has an architectural brick frame with pilasters, entablature, and pediment. Under the eaves is a deep plaster cove, which surrounds the nave beneath the hipped roofs. Inside, a semi-circular stone arch separates the chancel from the nave, and similar arches (elliptical in shape) give on to the chapels. The arches are moulded with keystones carved with winged cherubs' heads, and rest on square piers of Portland stone, with moulded capitals and plain bases. Across the west end of the church runs a gallery (vide infra), and the ceiling is in plaster, with a deep cove and moulded cornice with six winged cherubs' heads.

The tower is five stages in height with an octagonal staircase turret at the N.W. angle, and clasping buttresses of slight projection at the other angles. The stages are marked by moulded brick string courses, and in the belfry, or fourth floor, are brick windows of two pointed lights. The parapet is of plain brick, and was formerly surmounted by a cupola, placed there in 1679 to receive the Ashburnham bell (q.v.). On the south side of the tower is a stone let into the western buttress, inscribed as follows:



The cupola was removed in 1815, but the weather vane remains.

The tower opens on to the nave with a high acutely pointed arch of brick of two orders, flanked by oak posts. It has been suggested that this brickwork may conceal the mediaeval tower arch. North and south of the tower are staircases to the gallery, on each side of the main entrance to the church which is now through the ground floor of the tower. The north stair is of oak, and is a good example of the time of Charles II. It has square newels with ball finials, and turned pendants, bold spiral balusters, and heavily moulded handrail and string. The south stair is of a plainer character.


  • 1. Antiquities in the Church of St. Luke, Chelsea, MS. 1816. (Chelsea Public Library.)
  • 2. See article by F. M. Nichols, F.S.A., in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, 2nd Series, Vol. XVII (1898).