The Original Chelsea Bun House

As it  is approaching Good Friday I thought I would share some information about the original Chelsea Bun House. Easter is traditionally the time for hot cross buns which are slightly different to Chelsea buns as the Chelsea bun is made of a rich yeast dough flavoured with lemon peel, cinnamon or mixed spice and are much sweeter and stickier than hot cross buns.

The Chelsea Bun House is believed to have originated in the early 1700s and was run by the same family for over 100 years, producing what we still know today as Chelsea Buns, although the recipe may have changed slightly over the centuries to cater for modern tastes.

The shop was owned by the Hand family and for some considerable time was run by Richard and Margaret Hand. Richard died in 1767 leaving the business to his second wife, Margaret. The couple raised two sons, but according to Richard his eldest son, Richard Gideon, was by his first wife, Ann, although he was baptised in 1752 stating Richard and Margaret were his parents. Their second son, somewhat confusingly was named Gideon Richard and was born 1760, clearly they weren’t very inventive in their name choices.

Margaret died 1798 at which time she left the shop which made buns, to her step son Richard Gideon, and should he decide he didn’t want to continue running it, then he should assign it to their other son, Gideon Richard. When Margaret died The Gentleman’s Magazine noted:

At Chelsea, Mrs Margaret Hand, who for more than 60 years kept the Royal Bun-House there (so denominated by express permission).

Their elder son, Richard, was a military man and served for many years, joining as an ensign in 1773, in the 13th Regiment of foot. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1776. He remained in the military until at least the turn of the century, leaving his brother, Gideon continued to run the bun shop and who was described as

An eccentric character ad used to dress in a very peculiar manner. He dealt largely in butter which he carried about the streets in a basket on his head.

Bun Man by John Dempsey
Bun Man by John Dempsey

The Chelsea Bun House was so successful that even royalty and the nobility visited, including George II and Queen Caroline and the princesses, as did George III and Queen Charlotte. Queen Charlotte presented Mrs Hands with a silver half-gallon mug with five guineas in it.

On Good Friday mornings, upwards of 50,000 people assembled to buy buns, when disturbances broke out among the people gathered there. In one day, more than £250 was taken in sales.

 

Interior 1838
Interior of the Bun House. 1838

Gideon died 19 February 1820, so it would appear that his brother took over running the business, although it isn’t quite clear.

Around that time there were two bun shops on the same street, Grosvenor Row, selling Chelsea buns  in direct competition with each other. The rates return from 1821 show that Richard was living at Grosvenor Row, as was possibly his competitor, Edward Chapman.

The above rates also show, although faint, the name Martin, which may well have been Mr Martin of Martin’s Tea Warehouse, whose name appears in the picture of the bun shop.

Richard died at the ripe old age of 84 and was buried at the same cemetery as his brother, on 2 March 1836.

Following his death there was a court case bought against a David Loudon who claimed to have lived with the Hands and whom he said Richard, who died intestate, had given him all his money.

Loudon claimed he was related to Richard by marriage, he claimed to have married Richard’s daughter who was ‘born in indignant circumstances‘, but this appears to have been proved false. The man who was trying to claim the whole of Richard’s estate describing Richard as being ‘of eccentric habits‘ and that he was one of ‘the Poor Knights of Windsor’.

Loudon was found guilty and sent to prison for seven months for breach of trust in obtaining Richard’s money and remaining at the Bun House. It was proven to the court that Richard had no heirs.

The Bun House had been frequented by visitors to Ranelagh, but after it closed in 1803, trade began to decline, but apparently on Good Friday, April 18, 1839, about 240,000 buns were sold.

Given that both Richard and Gideon Hand were both dead by this time, it’s difficult to know who was running the Bun House, unless Loudon returned there after his spell in prison. Soon after this the Bun House was sold and demolished to make way for improvements to the neighbourhood.

The Globe 10 April 1839
The Globe 10 April 1839

Sources 

Timbs, John. Curiosities of London: exhibiting the most rare and remarkable objects of interest in the metropolis 

The Mirror of Literature, Amusement and Instruction: VOL.XXXIII

London Courier and Evening Gazette – 30 April 1838

Morning Advertiser 28 May 1838

Image

Courtesy of The Royal Borough of Chelsea and Kensington