Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Gardens and Spas - Manor House Baths and Gardens, Chelsea


Towards the end of the thirties there stood in the King's Road, Chelsea, between the present Radnor Street and Shawfield Street, a deserted mansion known as the Manor-House. It was spacious, if not lofty, and had apparently nothing to do with the two historical manor houses of Chelsea. For some years it had been unoccupied; its windows were broken, its railings rusty, and weeds luxuriated in its front-garden.
Behind the house there had once been a fine garden and orchard, and groves of fruit trees still bore mulberries, apples and pears, which were natural prey of the Chelsea youth. The mansion had some reputation as a haunted house, and at nightfall unearthly sounds were heard by passers-by, which probably proceeded from the depredators of the orchard. But one day in the autumn of 1837 some workmen were observed on the premises, and it became difficult to get access to the orchard.
The old Manor House was, in truth, in process of transformation. A certain Mr. Richard Smith, described as a 'pleasant portly gentleman' and said to have made money by an official connexion with Crockford's Club, had taken the place in hand. The suburbs - or, at least, the suburb of Chelsea - were destitute of public baths, and Mr. Smith proposed to supply the want by erecting on the site of the house, or near it, a capacious building. His baths were opened in 1838, and the popular orchard was utilized as a garden promenade, which he provided with an orchestra and a room for concerts and dancing. In imitation of the panoramas of the Surrey Zoological Gardens, the 'Taking of Fort Bhurtpore' was reproduced in the grounds, and the fireworks and crackers of Professor Turnour rendered the capture of the fortress by the English a lifelike spectacle.
The place was a good deal advertised in 1838 and 1839, and well puffed in papers like The Town; but it was not a success. A frank critic, who was well acquainted with the 'New Vauxhall', as the proprietor named it, says that the company 'consisted chiefly of local sweethearts' who preferred to treat each other to apples and pears snatched from the branches rather than expend superfluous cash in shilling goblets of hot negus. The concerts took place on three evenings in the week, and some 'grand galas' and 'night fetes' were announced. On certain days the boys from the Military School close by promenaded the grounds with their band; but neither the concerts nor the baths were acceptable and in 1840 Smith discontinued the concerts and built a small theatre on part of the orchard. 'The Royal Manor-House Theatre' could hold an audience of 500 paying 2s. and 1s. The Green Room was the emptied tank of the swimming bath. . . . The theatre apparently closed in 1841, and Smith proceeded in a businesslike way to build Radnor Street on the grounds, with a public house (the Commercial Tavern, 119, King's Road) at the corner, which is still standing.

Warwick Wroth, Cremorne and the later London Gardens, 1907