Religious history: Religious buildings

Pages 236-238

A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 12, Chelsea. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2004.

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This account of the buildings is based on material from the sections of Settlement and Building above, and on accounts of individual churches and chapels and other sources as indicated.

Building to 1820

Chelsea's parish church was an unexceptional late medieval rubble and flint building of a type familiar in many Middlesex villages. In the 16th and early 17th centuries, as medieval houses in the riverside settlement were enlarged or improved, leading parishioners installed substantial funerary monuments in both progressive and conservative taste. In the More chapel, created in 1528, the conventional late medieval tomb of Sir Thomas More contrasts with court-influenced Renaissance ornament. (fn. 1) Work done in the late 17th century, including the replacement of the nave with a hipped-roofed brick box designed to be seen from the river, the building of a new west tower, and the erection of a Baroque monument to Viscount Newhaven, belongs to the rapid development of Chelsea between the old village and the new Royal Hospital. Church, Hospital, and the closely-built rows of good quality houses shared the same reticent brick classicism, varied more in the quality of craftsmanship and subtleties of design than in degrees of display.

In the eighteenth-century Chelsea gained only two religious buildings, the chapel of the Moravian colony, established in 1750 in the grounds of Beaufort House where it incorporated 16th-century fabric of the mansion's outbuildings, (fn. 2) and a simple brick Anglican proprietary chapel built close to Little Chelsea, perhaps to help stimulate development. Park Chapel was rebuilt in 1810 with aisles, galleries and a two-storeyed Italianate façade, after new houses had begun to appear in Chelsea Park. (fn. 3) Several new chapels were built during the first two decades of the 19th century, all in the prevailing Greek Revival style. They included the large galleried nonconformist chapels provided in the fast-developing south-east of the parish - the Congregationalists' Ranelagh chapel of 1818 by W.F. Pocock, (fn. 4) and the Methodist church designed in 1812 by the famous ministerarchitect Revd Jenkins (fn. 5) - and the Roman Catholics' chapel, built closer to the better-class part of Hans Town by G.J. Wigley, with funds from leading Catholics families and with an ungalleried interior of some sophistication. (fn. 6) The institutional chapel of the period was also Greek, the style of the Royal Military Asylum to which it belonged. (fn. 7)


Four out of Chelsea's ten Anglican churches were established in the next three decades of the 19th century, as part of the national church extension scheme to cater for the parish's rapidly expanding population. (fn. 8) They were all designed in the Gothic style, favoured by High Church commentators as distinctively Anglican and by the Church Building Commissioners as particularly suitable for additional churches in rural parishes. (fn. 9) The wealth enjoyed by leading local landowners and residents in the years after 1815 is displayed by the lavish new parish church of St Luke, sited near the centre of the parish and built on parochial initiative and mostly at parish expense. Because of the large budget the requirements of the Commissioners, who contributed one third of the cost, were stretched to include a burial vault, Bath-stone facing, stone ornament throughout, and even a stone vault constructed on authentic Gothic principles. The church designed by the same architect, James Savage, to be a chapel of ease at the east end of the parish, south of Hans Town, was entirely funded by the Commissioners and so followed their strictures regarding economical design and construction. (fn. 10) Three large brick district chapels, Christ Church, St Saviour, and St Jude, followed in the late 1830s and early 1840s to serve respectively the south, far north-east, and south-east of the parish, where despite population growth, particularly of lower middle- and working-class parishioners, space was still available for further development. (fn. 11) The aisled and galleried plans of all three followed the Commissioners' preferences, though Blore's Christ Church, which served a working-class congregation, (fn. 12) was unusual in combining an innovative and influential asymmetrical exterior with a centralized interior dominated by the large pulpit. (fn. 13) By the time St Jude's was built in the 1840s, asymmetrical plans were commonplace, and shortage of public funds meant that new solutions, eschewing stone ornament, were tried. At St Jude, Basevi imitated, almost entirely in brick, an English country parish church of the 14th century with a battlemented south-western tower. (fn. 14) When first built all three churches had open settings. The south-west front of the same architect's St Saviour's originally faced nurseries, which was still open as the Prince's cricket ground in 1862, (fn. 15) but its north-east end had become the termination of the view down Walton Place, also laid out by Basevi, and its west side part of Walton Street. Christ Church, built on garden ground behind houses, had been engulfed by 1865. (fn. 16)

In the 30 years after 1845, only one Anglican church was added to the existing stock. St Simon Zelotes was built in 1858-9 to serve a lower middle-class neighbourhood in east Chelsea (fn. 17) and asserted a bold presence in streets of modest houses by means of its roguish Gothic style. Its facing of Kentish Rag and the polychrome brick of its interior, roofed elaborately in timber, were a decade out of date and its plan, with broad galleried transepts, low-church. (fn. 18) Though most of the nonAnglican congregations established before 1865 adapted existing buildings, the nonconformists and Roman Catholics continued to make noticeable architectural and social contributions to the parish. The Congregationalists, who amongst nonconformists most closely followed Anglican architectural fashions, were responsible for an over-ambitious Gothic church with schoolrooms in Markham Square to succeed their Ranelagh chapel. They built more modestly in Gothic style in West Brompton in 1865-6. (fn. 19) The Roman Catholics' efforts, though piecemeal, were architecturally more significant. They commissioned A.W.N. Pugin, who then lived in Cheyne Walk, (fn. 20) to build a Gothic cemetery chapel, and his son, E.W. Pugin, to add a Blessed Sacrament chapel to their existing building, as part of a larger complex including school, convent and almshouses. (fn. 21)


Red brick, in decorative combination with dressed stone at the Anglican French Gothic St John, Tadema Road, (fn. 22) was the material preferred by all denominations from the mid 1870s until well into the next century. The exterior of A. Blomfield's St Andrew's, which replaced Park Chapel in 1912-13, followed much the same formula, as did St Columba's Church of Scotland, designed by J. Macvicar Anderson and opened in 1883-4. (fn. 23) J.F. Bentley's St Mary's, with which the Roman Catholics replaced their chapel in 1875-6, differed chiefly in the colour of the brick and the refined design of its interior. (fn. 24)

Only two Anglican churches were built between 1875 and 1914. Instead the chief investment was made in enlarging, altering or rebuilding the earlier Gothic boxes, and in modernizing their interiors. The development of the open ground near the church and other improvements on the Cadogan estate were accompanied by the enlargement of St Saviour's in 1878, which was followed in 1890 by a remodelling for Anglo-Catholic usage. High churchmanship also influenced the rebuilding of Holy Trinity in 1888-9 (fn. 25) to a design by J.D. Sedding that recalled in an enriched late Gothic form its predecessor's twin-turreted façade and incorporated Arts-and-Crafts furnishings of exceptional opulence. Elsewhere churches were extended and remodelled to fill already cramped sites and make them more prominent in the streetscape. Certain alterations, such as the addition in 1888 of a south-western tower and spire at St John's and of a decorative west front at Christ Church in 1900, (fn. 26) also belonged to the amelioration of conditions in those areas. Improvements to the streets north of Cheyne Walk included the building of Goldie's classical Holy Redeemer church for the Roman Catholics in 1894, though street-widening caused changes of plan even before it was complete. (fn. 27)

Twentieth-Century Chelsea

After 1900 Anglicans built nothing completely new except St Andrew's, Park Walk, which replaced Park Chapel soon after the area to the east of Park Walk was built up. (fn. 28) St Luke's church and churchyard alone remained in almost pristine state, preserved by a huge seating capacity and lack of redevelopment in the immediate area. The most important early 20th-century church building was the Christian Scientists' first branch church in England which, in accordance with the religion's grand vision of its place in the city, was located in a fashionable residential district where it could attract a wealthy congregation and was made conspicuous by means of siting, design, and gleaming white stone. (fn. 29)

No Anglican churches were built in the interwar years and St Jude's was demolished for luxury flats. World War II caused more losses - at St John, Tadema Road, which after 20 years of dereliction had to be demolished, (fn. 30) at Holy Trinity, Sloane Street, where the roof was replaced, (fn. 31) and at St Luke where the original glass was blown-out. (fn. 32) Most tragic was the loss of the Old Church, flattened except for the More chapel. It was rebuilt immediately after the war, incorporating salvaged monuments. In all these cases reconstruction was not completed until the late 1950s, together with the rebuilding of the RC convent chapel of the Sisters of Adoration Réparatrice (fn. 33) and the Congregationalists' mid 19th-century Edith Grove chapel. The demolition in 1952 of the latter denomination's Markham Square church was unrelated to the war and was a result of a reduction in the local congregation. (fn. 34) Only the Church of Scotland rebuilt on a significant scale, to the designs of a conservative English architect, Sir Edward Maufe, who replaced the 19th-century St Columba, bombed in 1941, with a replacement for what was the chief representative of the national church outside Scotland. (fn. 35)

Significant change resumed in the last decade of the 20th century. An informal building for less formal worship was adopted at St John's, relocated in the World's End estate. (fn. 36) Financial pressures and falling congregations affected churches as diverse as St Saviour, where the building was partly converted to housing, (fn. 37) and at the Christian Science church which became offices. (fn. 38) Housing was also included in the reconstruction of the Wesleyan Methodists' King's Road church which, remarkably, had exploited its site by incorporating shops along the frontage as early as 1903. (fn. 39)


  • 1. Below, par. ch (All Saints or Chelsea Old Ch.).
  • 2. Below, foreign chs (Moravians).
  • 3. Below, Park chapel.
  • 4. Below, prot. nonconf. (Congs.); Colvin, Brit. Architects, 649; Images of Chelsea, gallery 481-5.
  • 5. Colvin, Brit. Architects, 458; below, prot. nonconf. (Methodists).
  • 6. Images of Chelsea, gallery 486; below, rom. cathm (St Mary's).
  • 7. Below, institutional chapels.
  • 8. Above, Intro. (pop.).
  • 9. Bradley, 'Gothic Revival', 20, 81.
  • 10. M.H. Port, Six Hundred New Chs (1961), 85; Images of Chelsea, gallery 474-480.
  • 11. Thompson, Map (1836); CL, Tithe Map and Award.
  • 12. Below, dau. chs (Christ Ch.).
  • 13. Bradley, 'Gothic Revival', 406-7.
  • 14. Ibid., 297.
  • 15. Old OS Map, London 74 (1871 edn).
  • 16. Old OS Map, London 87 (1865 edn).
  • 17. Below, dau. chs (St Simon).
  • 18. The Builder, XVI (1858), 424; Images of Chelsea, gallery 471-3.
  • 19. Below, prot. nonconf. (Congs).
  • 20. A. Wedgwood, A.W.N. Pugin and the Pugin Family (1985), 85.
  • 21. Below, rom. cathm (St Mary's); Images of Chelsea, gallery 489.
  • 22. Photograph, NMR AA76/909B. See fig. XX.
  • 23. Below, foreign chs (Ch. of Scotland).
  • 24. Below, rom. cathm (St Mary's).
  • 25. Below, dau. chs (Holy Trinity).
  • 26. Below, dau. chs (St John, Tadema Rd).
  • 27. Below, rom. cathm (Our Most Holy Redeemer).
  • 28. Below, dau. chs (St And.).
  • 29. P.E. Ivey, Prayers in Stone. Christian Science Architecture in the US 1894-1930 (1999). 5, 22-8, 35, 49-50; below, prot. nonconf. (Christ. Sc.).
  • 30. Below, dau. chs (St John).
  • 31. Ibid. (Holy Trinity).
  • 32. Below, par. ch (All Saints).
  • 33. Below, rom. cathm (Sisters of Adoration); below, prot. nonconf. (Congs).
  • 34. Below, prot. nonconf. (Congs).
  • 35. Below, foreign chs (Ch. of Scotland).
  • 36. Below, dau. chs (St John's Community Ch.).
  • 37. Ibid. (St Saviour).
  • 38. Below, prot. nonconf. (Christ. Sc.).
  • 39. Ibid. (Methodists).