Utopia and Worlds End

THE AUTHOR OF “Utopia”, which was published in Latin in 1516, Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), had a house in London’s Chelsea. It was not far from Henry VIII’s manor house on what is now Cheyne Walk. The land in which More’s house was built was bounded to the north by what was, and still is, the Kings Road, to the south by the River Thames and between the still extant Milman Street and Old Church Street.

The house that was ‘L’ shaped in plan (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol4/pt2/pp18-27) when More used it as his out-of-town dwelling between 1520 and 1535, when he was arrested there and taken to the Tower of London. His arrest was in connection with trying to upset the marriage plans of his neighbour in Chelsea, King Henry VIII. More lived at Beaufort, to which he loved to escape from London and from the Court, and to spend time with his family and to write. It was here that he entertained many friends, among whom were the scholar Erasmus and the artist Holbein.

After Thomas More’s execution and the death of Henry VIII, King Edward VI granted Beaufort House to William Pawlet, 1st Marquis of Winchester (c1484-1572). Then, it passed through the hands of the Dacre family to William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520-1598), and next to his son, Sir Robert Cecil (1563-1612). Cecil sold it to Henry (Clinton) Fiennes, Earl of Lincoln (1539-1616). The house and its grounds continued to move through different owners until it came into the possession of the physician and founder of the British Museum, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) in 1738.

Sloane demolished Beaufort House in 1740 to “…strip it for parts…”, so wrote James Delbourgo in “Collecting the World”, his recent biography of Sloane. The demolition work was executed by a Quaker, Edmund Howard (1710-1798; detailed biography: https://ahsoc.contentfiles.net/media/assets/file/Edmund_Howard_by_J_Nye_SF.pdf). He was Sloane’s gardener in Chelsea. During the demolition, he was often in dispute with Sloane over money.. Howard observed that:

“… the receiving of money was to Sir Hans Sloane more pleasing than parting with it.”

Little remains of what Sloane demolished apart from a few brick walls. However, one fine relic, an elegant neo-classical gateway designed by Inigo Jones, was sold to Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694-1753) and placed near his Chiswick House.

The northwest corner of Thomas More’s Chelsea estate is a peaceful walled garden, which can be entered from Kings Road. Some of these walls are the Tudor brickwork from More’s time at Beaufort House. The north side of the almost square plot is occupied by a line of small buildings belonging to the Moravian Church Fetter Lane Congregation (Chelsea). These buildings, which include the curate’s house, a tiny chapel, and a meeting hall, once a church, face a large square patch of lawn with four fig trees in its centre. Closer examination of the lawn reveals that it contains numerous square gravestones that lie flush with the mowed grass. This is the Moravian Burial Ground.

Protestant missionaries from Moravia (now in the Czech Republic) founded a church in Fetter Lane in the City of London in 1742. The missionaries were hoping to travel to the British colonies to carry the Gospel to people out there, notably slaves. However, they realised that there was plenty for them to do in England and worked alongside British missionaries like the Wesleyans. The church in Fetter Lane survived until WW2 when it was destroyed by bombing. In the 1960s, the congregation moved to its present site.

The burial ground was established in the former stable yard of Beaufort House and the first burial was done in 1751. About 400 people have been buried in this cemetery. Amongst them was Henry, the 73rd Count of Reuss, brother-in-law of Nicolaus Ludwig Zinzendorf (1700-1760). It was the latter who leased Lindsey House in Chelsea, built on the estate of Sir Thomas More, and used it between 1749 and 1755 as his base for missionary work in England. Zinzendorf was extremely critical of slavery (www.zinzendorf.com/).

At the south edge of the burial lawn, there is a stone pergola and an elaborately carved wooden bench backrest. Both were created by the sculptors Ernest (1874-1951) and Mary Gillick (1881-1965), who leased the site of the Moravian cemetery between 1914 and 1964 (https://londongardenstrust.org/conservation/inventory/site-record/?ID=KAC100). Mary designed the effigy of Elizabeth II used on coinage in the United Kingdom from 1953 to 1970. The long wooden bench is decorated with painted shields, showing the coats-of-arms of all the owners of Beaufort House and its estate from More to Sloane. It also has a brief history of Beaufort House carved into it.

From the oasis that is the Moravian Church’s ground, it is but a short walk west along Kings Road to the large Worlds End Distillery pub, which was already present in the 17th century.  The present pub was built in 1897. It is: “… a public house in the gin-palace genre …” (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1391649).

As for the name ‘Worlds End’, this might not be as apocalyptic as it first appears because ‘end’ often used to mean ‘field’ in archaic English. Regarding the ‘World’ part of the name, Edward Walford wrote in about 1880:

“In the King’s Road, near Milman Street, is an inn styled “The World’s End.” The old tavern… was a noted house of entertainment in the reign of Charles II …The house was probably called ‘The World’s End’ on account of its then considerable distance from London, and the bad and dangerous state of the roads and pathways leading to it.”

The posh ‘Sloanes’* of Chelsea might regard Worlds End as truly the end of their part of the world because west of it the shops and dwellings on Kings Road seem far less opulent than those on the stretch between the pub and Sloane Square. At Worlds End, the ‘Sloanes’’ utopian world transforms into unglamorous routine inner-city life. Should ‘Sloanes’ carelessly stray as far west as Worlds End, they would have crossed over to the ‘wrong side of the tracks’.

[* a ‘Sloane’ is a fashionable  upper middle- or upper-class, often young, person, especially one living in London and particularly in Chelsea; most definitely not Bohemian, but extremely bourgeois.]

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