Before we start I have a little story. Sometime before 2004, the author and journalist Tom Pocock introduced me to a man called J W Figg, (known as Bill) whom I knew as the author of an interesting book called Hidden Chelsea published by the local bookshop Chesea Rare Books. Mr Figg, it seemed, was an amateur scholar and photographer whose main interest (he had many more) was the history of Chelsea. He had worked with the Library many years back in the 50s and 60s and we had some of his photographs in our collection. Tom’s idea was that I should be as charming as possible in the hope that Bill would bequeath his personal collection of Chelsea photographs to the library. That wasn’t really a difficult thing to ask. Bill and I got on immediately. I showed him round the archives and we began an email exchange, sending each other obscure pictures of Chelsea for identification. (I never caught him out.) This was sadly curtailed quite early on when Bill died suddenly. I thought no more about the lost photographs, and never bothered his family. Tom Pocock died a little while after that in 2007, another loss to people who love the history of Chelsea.
Then, a few weeks ago, quite out of the blue a lady phoned me up and asked me if I was interested in a collection of Chelsea books and photographs which she and her husband were now looking after. I said yes, we would be happy to have the collection and when she brought the first installment to the Library I noticed a box full of copies of Hidden Chelsea. “Bill Figg!” I exclaimed. The collection of books and photographs which I had heard about so many years before had finally made their way to the Local Studies collection.
As I started looking through the material I kept finding photographs of places and buildings I had never seen pictures of, which is unusual for me as I’ve been looking at pictures of Chelsea since the 1980s. There is plenty for me and my team to work through, conserving and preserving this collection for posterity and making it available for future research. You saw some of his electricity related pictures in previous weeks – Bill worked in the industry, which often gave him access to locations and vantage points closed to the average person. (Like the surveyor Bernard Selwyn, whose areas of interest included Kensington, North Kensington, Earls Court and Hammersmith even occasionally Chelsea)
I guess this story would normally go in the postscript. But it acts as a kind of introduction to any number of posts to come so this time it goes at the front. Now, on with the pictures.
[Moravian Tower, a former Council block, about 1990, when it started to be known as 355 King’s Road ]
If you know a street very well and walk along it regularly, you take the way it looks for granted even though you know that it looked different in the past. If like me you’re familiar with old photographs there are some vanished scenes which are as familiar as the present. And some which take you by surprise. Chelsea residents will know the corner where the King’s Road makes a curve by the former Moravian Tower , opposite the former Man in the Moon pub. At the base of the tower is Rymans, a paint and DIY shop, the post office, a second hand bookshop and a phone shop (I’ve used all of them at some point), before passing the entrance to the Moravian burial ground (where those who rest in peace are not standing upright) a restaurant (another former pub with various names – the Water Rat and the Globe to name a couple of them), and heading down Milmans Street. There’s a car showroom and opposite that the Vivian Westwood shop. But what if on that corner there was no wide curved pavement but just another block of houses and shops?
This is that block where the tower was built. You can see the pub (The Globe then) and the view towards Milmans Street, a little more than thirty years earlier, in the late 1950s.
Here’s the view looking in the opposite direction towards Park Walk with the Man in the Moon pub in the centre, and St Andrew’s Church in the distance.
Round the corner is the view up the King’s Road. the essential structure is very similar to day, with a few modifications.
The shop on the extreme left is Paramount Cleaners (dyers and cleaners), next door to which is a branch of Mac Fisheries, (a national chain of fishmongers). The corner shop could be a branch of Cullen’s. But we’re not going down there yet. Let’s turn back.
There is the Globe again and next to the gate to Moravian Close, David Gray (dining rooms). On the right, the former police station, at this time a community centre.
We’re moving further west along the King’s Road. You can see the block which was demolished and in the right foreground you can see the absence of the Cremorne estate with its parade of shops. This makes it likely that some of these black and white pictures may be from the early 1950s (the Cremorne Estate was completed in 1956) Possibly building work is going on behind some hoardings.
Those shopfronts on the left look familiar though.
Below you see Limerston Street, where the old 31 bus (now the 328) used to park.
Here it is in 1990.
Just a few details changed.
Still in 1990, a view of the block with the Vivian Westwood shop World’s End.
Next to it an entrance to the basement restaurant, and beside that an Oxfam shop, which can be seen below.
As Timmis and Richards, another branch of a chain, this time of chemists. The name lingered on for many more years.
We won’t go down to the actual World’s End today, but we will go as far as the block of shops next to Dartrey Road, just past the World’s End pub. Ten years or so after the black and white pictures the King’s Road was looking much livelier.
The Moravian burial ground was once used to exercise the famous lion of Chelsea, Christian, before he went back to Africa and became a star on YouTube. Here he is in one of his early homes, where he lived with the two young Australian men who bought him at Harrods. Bill Figg says in his notes that he knew the man who sold the young lion. I have heard that children used to go down to Sopistocat, a shop in that black, to see him in the window and here is one of them to prove that.
Fur coats were quite fashionable back then, even for kids, but never as appropriate as on this occasion. Now, does anyone know who the little girl is?
Tom Pocock was himself a remarkable man, the author of many books (including “Chelsea Reach” the definitive book about the Chelsea artist Walter Greaves), a journalist and reviewer for the Evening Standard, and one of the first war correspondents to visit the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. (He encountered the artist and novelist Mervyn Peake there and once told me how much of that experience had entered Peake’s work). Tom was a friendly, unassuming man with a love of Chelsea. I didn’t know him well but I’m grateful to have been able to talk to him about our shared interests. I’m glad to have finally seen the end of one of Tom’s projects. Lovers of Chelsea can look forward to many future posts based on Bill’s photographs.