Chelsea

Photo: Katherine Fawssett

The Cheyne Walk moorings have been described as the original houseboat village. The moorings are managed by the Chelsea Yacht and Boat Company which holds a River Works Licence with the Port of London Authority (PLA), a public trust which is in charge of management and conservation of the River Thames from the estuary to Teddington weir. The moorings stretch from Old Ferry Wharf at the Lots Road end of Cheyne Walk to the entrance known as Beaufort Stairs by Battersea Bridge, approximately three and a half thousand metres of river frontage.

Most of the smaller forty-six foot houseboats are superstructures built on top of steel hulls once used as WWII converted landing craft. The larger seventy foot boats are situated at the Lots Road end of the mooring closest to the boatyard office whilst smaller forty-six foot boats are arranged in two lines nearer the bridge. There are also a few larger boats at the bridge end whilst the Dutch barges that used to have engines are further out in the river by the bridge. There is also a dry dock facility for flat keeled boats up to a maximum of sixty foot which is available to boat owners and one of the few remaining working Thames boatyards.

There is little reference to them as ‘boats’; owners referring to them mostly as ‘houseboats’. Each vessel has direct pontoon access with vacuum sewage system and mains gas and electricity. Although these moorings are described as "residential" as opposed to short term leisure moorings, and although houseboats are homes, similar in size to land based apartments, they have no protection under the Housing Act. Houseboats are defined in law as "chattel" and as such, occupiers renting from a landlord have no security of tenure. Owner-occupiers are subject to the terms of their lease, which is usually a ten-year licence on the moorings managed by the Chelsea Yacht & Boat Company [1]. There is no stamp duty on the sale of houseboats. However, because of their chattel status, it is almost impossible to get a mortgage.

In the early nineteenth century Charles Greaves, a Chelsea boat builder and waterman, also JMW Turner’s boatman, founded a boatyard on Chelsea Reach. The business was later developed by his sons Henry (died 1904) and Walter (died 1930) who were both artists and engravers and assistants to the artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903).

The creation of the embankment in the 1870s ended many of the wharves and their trades but a considerable variety of business was still handled by the remaining wharves concentrated west of Battersea Bridge. Lots Road had many wharves, some used for boat hire and repair as late as the 1930s. 

The current boatyard and moorings were established by Charles Fleming, "an ex-Army officer of impeccable manners and style", who opened the Chelsea Yacht and Boat Company in 1935. Photographic records from the time show a notice displayed on the office notice board that read - Chelsea Yacht & Boat Company (inc. Chelsea Smallcraft) First Class Shipwrights and Marine Engineers Dry Docking Refits Overhauls and Repairs. New Used Boats of all kinds bought, sold and Chartered & Conversions & Moorings to Let. 105 Cheyne Walk [2]. During the war the company became contractors to the Admiralty for war production work and in 1942 there were more than a hundred people on the workforce.

Records reveal that a number of converted Thames Sailing Barges were moored at Cheyne Walk from the late 1930s and used as live aboard accommodation. Chronicle (built in 1894) was a house barge from 1939. Colne (built in 1890) was a residential vessel from 1946 to 1975. Annabelle (built in 1898) was there from 1949 until she was removed and broken up in 1970. Humber (built in Rochester in 1897) was there from 1954. [3]

After the war, decommissioned LCA’s (Landing Craft, Assault), MTB’s (Motor Torpedo Boats), and sailing barges arrived back at the boatyard from the Normandy landings. The Chelsea Yacht and Boat Company bought up a number of these former military craft, converted them and “sold them to people desperate for accommodation.”[4] A serious post-war housing shortage was the root of this desperation, forcing many people across the country to seek alternative housing options. Many of the original residents at Chelsea Reach moved afloat because it was the cheapest way to live in the capital. However, a 1958 article observed that “what began as an emergency quickly became a fashion”, with people attracted to the river “by the lovely atmosphere” as well as the low cost [5 & 6]. Others were also inspired to live afloat by naval backgrounds and a connection to particular vessels, such as Peter Bray, an ex-naval acoustic engineer who moved aboard the sixty year old barge Eureka with his family in 1949 [7].

The popularity of living afloat was such that by 1953 the mooring was fully occupied, with fifty residential vessels at Chelsea Reach [8]. Press cuttings from the 1940s and 1950s reflect the popularity of living on the river. Although those living afloat frequently emphasis the 'ordinariness' of their community, reporters have consistently taken a different view. "Boat dwellers are a race apart. Not ostentatiously different from other people, but with a fairly pronounced taste for the unconventional. Some moved by nostalgia for the unsettled exciting war years; some spurred on by the Walter Mitty that is in all of us, others have simply solved a pressing problem of where to live." [9] Many on the mooring were in their twenties and thirties. It tended to be (and it still is) a middle class preserve, There was a variety in the types of boats on the moorings, with the LCAs and MTBs being joined by converted steel canal barges, lighters, Thames Sailing barges, an Oxford College Barge and steam pinnace.

One such vessel was MTB 219, a Motor Torpedo Boat built by Vospers in 1941. “MTBs were small and swift, capable of moving unseen over moonlit waters, penetrating minefields and harbour defences and sneaking up close to fire torpedoes at enemy vessels before speeding off in to the night.” [10] She had seen action on several occasions and had participated in the attack on the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen in 1942. On returning to Britain MTB 219 was transferred to the Staines Sea Scouts in 1945 where, she had her engines removed. She was sold in 1948 and converted to a houseboat (with furnishings by Harrod's of Knightsbridge) and moored at Cheyne Walk from 1951. Naomi Harris and three friends lived aboard from 1962 to 1966, having sub-let the vessel from a Mr & Mrs Howes. The girls, all in their mid-twenties, took part in a staged photo shoot on the deck of MTB 219 for an article titled Four Girls on a Boat published in 1962/3 by Woman's Realm. The river police saw the piece and upbraided them for dancing on the decks in heels, something that was particularly frowned upon [11]. Naomi's experience of living afloat provided inspiration for the best-selling author Santa Montefiori's 2005 novel The Last Voyage of the Valentina. In 1966 Alasdair and Carole Campbell purchased MTB 219 for £4,500 and lived on the boat on and off until the 1990s, during which time they raised a family and shared the boat with dozens of individuals from all walks of life. During this period, the MTB was lifted and housed within a Thames lighter, to extend the life of her fragile timber hull. In 2005, Alasdair sold the vessel to Ruth Ivo, a 24 year old showgirl who subsequently became a successful creative producer [12]. In July 2012, after a routine survey, MTB 219 was condemned and later donated to Paul Childs a master restorer of antique military vehicles with a museum in Watchet, Somerset. After two years work, MTB 219 has been restored to operational status – a fitting tribute to coastal veteran forces.

The Chelsea Yacht and Boat Company were mooring managers for all the various boats, collecting monthly payments for the mooring fees and maintenance charges. Later licence fees were introduced in addition to mooring charges. In 1959 mooring fees stood at 2s.6d per foot of boat per month, which amounted on average to about £5 monthly rent [13]. After the death of Charles Fleming, the company was taken over by Alexander Osgood, who had joined the company in 1936 as a General Manager and had become a Director after the war [14]. Alexander then passed it onto his son, Peter Osgood, who ran the moorings up until 2005 when Philip Mason bought the company with business partner Stephen Last. In 2011, they had planned to sell the boatyard, which prompted boat owners including YO! Sushi founder Simon Woodroffe to put together a bid for the yard.

Penelope Fitzgerald, who lived on a converted Thames Sailing Barge called Grace from 1960 to 1962, lamented the £200 per month mooring fee levied at the time and those residents who were “awfully trendy and rich”Fitzgerald reported that“in our time people lived there because somehow they didn’t quite belong on shore and because they were so poor.” [15] In Fitzgerald’s words:

“At the beginning of the Sixties we had to go back to London, and not being able to find a house that we could afford, we settled for a boat… Her name was Grace... There was a very old stove, in which we burned driftwood… we had to get used to Grace, rocking on the high tide, and the echoing wail of the hooters from the passing colliers on their way to the Port of London… the big black tarred hulk sat on its flat bottom on the stinking mudflats of the Thames at low tide, and started to leak as the tide rose. It was always on a slope. Every time the tide went out, the boat sank slightly to one side, and all the cupboards jammed – the girls had to remember to get everything they needed, like their school uniforms, while the tide was up… the boat was always chilly and damp… and boat owners were only allowed to let out waste water, and use the lavatories, on a falling tide. On the morning of 24 June 1963, the girls woke up to find that there was water in their bedroom… During the day Grace began to sink, and that evening she was towed away from the other boats, still afloat but sinking. Two days later, Grace sank” [16].

Despite the apparent formality of proceedings at Chelsea Reach, with monthly mooring fees, deliveries from the milkman (post was distributed from the office and rubbish was cleared from central bins), the community had a reputation of notoriety in the fifties and sixties. This was nurtured by films using the moorings as a backdrop including The Horse’s Mouth (1958) with Alec Guinness; The Deadly Affair (1966) with James Mason; I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Issname (1967) with Orson Welles & Oliver Reed; Crossplot (1967) with Roger Moore & Claudia Lange; Otley (1969) with James Bolam & Fiona Lewis; and Goodbye Gemini (1970) with Martin Potter, Michael Redgrave & Judy Geeson.

There can be no doubting the sheen of glamour given to the moorings by its celebrity residents. The actress Dorothy Tutin lived aboard Undine from 1953. She shot to fame that year with her appearance as Polly Peachum in the film of The Beggar's Opera. It was directed by Peter Brook and starred Laurence Olivier, who became her lover. That same year, in 1953, an Australian actor who was so besotted with Dorothy Tutin, he took to living on a houseboat too. His name was Trader Faulkner. He moved aboard Stella Maris with his mother, Sheila Whylock. who was a celebrity in her own right. She was a ballerina who had danced with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and the great Anna Pavlova.

Trader Faulker describes the other inhabitants of the mooring: "what a motley lot we were: Claire Bloom's brother John, soon to be a top international film editor; Mrs Murphy, an ebullient middle-aged charmer with more humour in her than anyone I'd ever known; and a Swedish girl called Poopsie, a very sexy and most charming bundle of mischief. But the star of the moorings of course - and very aloof – was Dorothy Tutin, the object of my unfortunately unrequited love." [17]

In the 1950s and 60s, the moorings also gained notoriety from the many celebrities who visited the moorings. Those mentioned in Trader Faulkner's autobiography include: Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Richard Burton, Margot Fonteyn, Claire Bloom and Hattie Jacques. [18].

In 1967 the Chelsea Boat Owners Association was formed by residents in a bid to correct the unflattering image boat owners felt had been foisted on them by media coverage. "We felt now time to get together in view of the fact that in an increasing number of films and TV plays, the houseboats are used as backgrounds for stories involving drug taking and sex. We must present boats as they really are. We are not beatniks and there are no beatniks living on the boats. The boat owners include a barrister, a naval commander, a company director, a magazine editor and a court official." [19]

One journalist reported that residents wanted to put up interpretation panels to provide the public with information about the history and heritage of their vessels [20]. Despite these efforts, the community seems to have largely thought of their boats as ‘floating flats, generally unconcerned about navigability or the use of naval terms [21]. This seems to have been the case since relatively early on. A resident in 1969 referred to this, citing only a short period of time in the 1940s ‘when residents were‘navy conscious.’[22]

Nevertheless, the Chelsea Yacht & Boat Company has always operated a as a working boatyard as well as a residential moorings. Although the workforce has decreased slightly from earlier years, the company still works as a boat builders and dry dock, employing a team of eight people [23].

The number of boats does not seem to have changed very much since the 1960s, despite threats in the 1970s and 1980s from various motorway proposals, but there have been considerable improvements to the moorings over time including the introduction of mains services, the vacuum drainage system and the pontoons. The first of these changes happened in the late 1970s, with the re-organization of the moorings [24].

In 1978 the boatyard re-organised the moorings into the positions they are now in and improvements included new mains services, mooring piles and an extension of pontoon access to all vessels. Before the pontoons were installed people had to clamber over each other’s boats to get to theirs.

Despite these upgrades, systems still lagged behind those on land. Chemical toilets were common in the 1970s, and some residents referred to the act of ‘bucket and chuck it’ (where waste was emptied into the Thames) even after a sluice was introduced. The installation of an underground vacuum drainage station in 1986 did move things along, although some residents still squirmed when asked about the sewage systems still in place in the 1990s. Further developments have been made since the 1990s as almost all the residents interviewed described living on the river as no different to living in an onshore flat in terms of comfort and amenities.

Margaret Webster who worked as the office manager for thirty years between 1974 and 2006 recalls when she first came to work on the moorings the types of people were quite different. She said that a third of the houseboats were occupied by women whom she remembered as being bright, well educated, interesting and eccentric. Notable amongst them were Eily (Kit) Gayford and Betty Pots. Kit had been in the navy and used to bring boats up the river during the war. Her boat Buccaneer was like a gypsy’s caravan, full of nic-nacs and she remembers gatherings on her boat where everyone was served gin with hardly any tonic. Mrs Pots didn’t work but, like Kit, was very well educated. Mrs Pots died on her boat Mudlark and was found by one of the workers. She had wanted to have a Viking funeral but the boat yard wouldn’t allow it.

Amongst the occupants living on the houseboats that she remembers a pianist; a physiotherapist; an editor; three writers; four IT Wizards; two photographers; five retirees; a brandy rep; five people working in film and television; a cigar merchant; two rich divorcees; a chauffeur; two painters; four finance workers; two actors; a popstar; a travel executive and a circus performer [25].

In 1970 Stella Maris was used by MGM for its film My Lover My Son and this led to a full centre page spread in one of the old evening papers. Some years later, a litigious local saw this and took umbrage, claiming that he owned the hole in the wall through which the boatowners passed every day to access their boats. If the boat owners were to continue to use his hole, he said, they must pay him £38,000 per annum. When there was no response, he served a writ for his claim and costs and damages. The boatowners were concerned. Donald Fergusson, a friend of one of the residents, met the local and negotiated a token payment as closure of the action. The hole was then bricked up but strangely, the bricks fell down during the night. So his builders sat on them until all had set. They then rendered the wall with cement but then, oddly, inscriptions appeared in the wet cement of a seeming uncomplimentary nature. Finally the builders camped on the pavement until the render had set. This meant that there was no access for boatowners and the council had to find a legal way to cut a hole in the wall to one side to make the very inconvenient angled access now used. [26]

Since the early days of the mooring, the demographic profile of the community has changed. It is attracting wealthier residents than in the past and the average age of those afloat is significantly older. Houseboat buying is a cash affair since standard mortgage loans are not available and those that have that quantity of cash available are using their retirement funds.

Nevertheless, there survives a strong sense of community among the residents, who still refer to a ‘village’ feel. Tom Bouwens, who now lives on the boat Aku Aku his mother bought, recalls that they would reverse-commute when he was growing up, living in Norfolk during the week and spending their weekends on the river at Chelsea [27]. This reflects the feeling among many residents that living afloat is like being on holiday.

A recent bid was made by residents to buy out the company and manage the moorings themselves. However, they were unsuccessful and the mooring is now owned by Andrew and Charlotte Moffat, who also own neighbouring Cadogan Pier. This new development in the ownership of Chelsea Yacht and Boat Company has caused a great deal of uncertainty amongst houseboat owners as to how the new company will want to develop the mooring. As yet no plans have been confirmed. However, some residents are concerned that the older, smaller houseboats on the moorings may in the future be replaced, to make space available for larger, high-income generating vessels. Interviews & research by Fiona Clague & Hilary Prosser Notes:
[1] Wall Street Journal, 8 March 2011
[2] Chelsea Yacht & Boat Company, 1935 - 2005 Exhibition History
[3] The Thames Sailing Barge Compendium, compiled by John White. Printed by The Society for Sailing Barge Research 2012.
[4] ‘Flats Afloat’ by John Goodwin, 1988, RBKC Local Studies Archive
[5] ‘Chelsea’s Village on The Thames’, Evening Standard 5 October, 1953, RBKC Local Studies Archive
[6] ‘Flats Afloat’, 1958, RBKC Local Studies Archive
[7] Evening Standard, 2 September 1949, RBKC Local Studies Archive
[8] ‘Chelsea’s Village on The Thames’, Evening Standard
[9] The Boat Dwellers of London, ESSO Magazine, Summer 1956
[10] Last Voyage of the Valentina by Santa Montefiore, Simon & Schuster, 2005, p.95
[11] Interview with Naomi Harris, London, 22 August 2016
[12] http://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/m...
[13] ‘Flats Afloat’, 1958, RBKC Local Studies Archive
[14] Interview with Lorna Caie, London, 21 April 2016
[15] ‘The Original Boat Person’, Evening News, 25 October 1979, RBKC Local Studies Archive
[16] Penelope Fitzgerald, A Life by Hermione Lee, Vintage Books, 2014, p.141-43
[17] Inside Trader, by Trader Faulkner, Scribe, 2014, p.112
[18] Ibid, p112, 120, 155, 159, 181
[19] Chelsea News, 16 June 1967, RBKC Local Studies Archive
[20] The Chelsea Post, 7 July1967, RBKC Local Studies Archive
[21] Interviews with Rick Stroud and Simon Woodroffe, 21 April 2016
[22] Daily Telegraph, Report on Santa Humphries, 26 August 1969, RBKC Local Studies Archive
[23] Interview with Lorna Caie, London, 21 April 2016
[24] Chelsea Yacht and Boat Company (CYBC) Exhibition History/Times Newspaper 22 July 1967
[25] Interview with Margaret Webster, London, April 2016
[26] Email correspondence with Donald Fergusson, September 2016
[27] Interview with Tom Bouwens, London, 21 April 2016