Mini-skirts, Soviet spies and the Chelsea Palace – the fascinating history of the King's Road

Rob Baker
Twiggy on the King's Road in 1966 - This content is subject to copyright.

The King's Road looks not unlike most other high streets these days, albeit a bit posher. Now, just like anywhere else, there are branches of Boots, McDonald's, Gap and, of course, the ubiquitous coffee-shop chains.

In fact, always a trend-setter, it was at 123 King’s Road where Starbucks opened its first ever British coffee-shop in 1998. But the famous street, once literally the road belonging to the King when Charles II built it to link St James's Palace to Fulham, has earned its notoriety for setting rather more exciting trends than branded milky coffee. It was here that one of the most celebrated fashion-statements of the last century really took off - the mini-skirt.

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Everybody knows that Mary Quant invented the mini-skirt. Except she didn’t. Nobody’s quite sure who produced the diminutive garment first although some say it was the French designer André Courrèges. Quant later wrote however: “Maybe Courrèges did do mini-skirts first, but if he did, no one wore them.” Quant’s autobiography ‘Quant by Quant’, published in 1966, has no mention of the word ‘mini-skirt’ at all.

Shoppers at a King's Road boutique Credit: GETTY

Skirts were definitely getting shorter in the early to mid-sixties but it was more to do with the technological advances that enabled tights to be produced relatively cheaply than anything else and Quant did say, “It was the girls on the King’s Road who invented the mini. I was making easy, youthful, simple clothes, in which you could move, in which you could run and jump and we would make them the length the customer wanted. I wore them very short and the customers would say, ‘Shorter, shorter.’”

It was a coffee shop, however, that kick-started Quant's career. Early in 1955, 43 years before the first Starbucks served its first latte in Britain, the Fantasie coffee bar opened at 128 King’s Road. It was a year or so after Gina Lollobrigida opened the Moka espresso cafe in Frith Street but the Fantasie was still one of the first espresso coffee bars in London and certainly outside Soho. It was owned by an ex-solicitor called Archie McNair and it was at the Fantasie that he, Mary Quant and her boyfriend of two years Alexander Plunkett-Greene hatched a plan to open a boutique on the Kings Road.

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A few months later they had managed to scrape together £8,000 to buy the basement and ground-floor of Markham House on the corner of Markham Square. It was next door to a dingy pub called the Markham Arms (it has long since closed and now is a Santander bank). This was the pub, incidentally, where the Soviet spies Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby, after a three year wait, re-established contact following the flight of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean to the Soviet Union in 1951. 

The shop which they called Bazaar opened in November 1955 and was an immediate success. Within ten days they had next to no merchandise left to sell. Quant once recalled: “People were sort of three-deep outside the window. The Royal Court Theatre people were mad about what we were doing. And it was very much the men who were bringing their girlfriends around and saying, “this is terrific. You must have some of this!’”

Bazaar opened in November 1955 and was an immediate success Credit: GETTY

Quant and Plunkett-Greene, incredibly, were still just 21 but already they were at the centre of what became known as the ‘Chelsea Set’. Quant once described them as a “bohemian world of painters, photographers, architects, writers, socialites, actors, con-men, and superior tarts”. The writer Len Deighton was of a different opinion and in his London Dossier described the same group as a “nasty and roaring offshoot of the deb world”. He was upset that the old amiable mixture of arty rich and bohemian poor were having to move out of the best parts of Chelsea to beyond World’s End and even as far as, God forbid, “cisalpine Fulham”.

Despite their undoubted hard work the couple still made time to visit the slightly risqué music hall shows at the Chelsea Palace theatre down the road from Bazaar on the corner of Sydney Street. One of the shows put on in 1955, the year that Bazaar opened, was a Paul Raymond show called Burlesque which featured 20 separate acts such as Miss Blandish and Her Famous Moving Nudes and the Sex-Appeal Girls. “We went once a week,” said Mary, “the Chelsea Palace chorus girls wore very naughty fur bikini knickers.” 

An old postcard showing the Chelsea Palace theatre

The attractive terracotta-clad Chelsea Palace of Varieties, designed by the noted theatre designers Oswald Wilson and Charles Long, had opened in 1903. But despite Paul Raymond's best efforts, by the time Quant and APG started visiting, it was already struggling to attract audiences. In November 1956 the theatre's life as a music-hall came to an end.

A couple of months before the Palace closed John Osborne went along to see Max Wall headlining a variety show. He was just in time to catch an act near the bottom of the bill performing an impression of Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo. Osborne recognised a sort of heroic decency in the talentless performer, who despite constant jeering ridicule, appeared on stage night after night. The visit to the Chelsea Palace that evening inspired The Entertainer, his play about Archie Rice, the failing music hall artiste. Two years later by which time Osborne’s The Entertainer was on at the Royal Court Theatre up the road, the Chelsea Palace was bought by Granada Television and the stalls in the theatre were replaced by a studio floor. The long running and popular comedy series The Army Game was filmed there, but also another popular programme called Chelsea at Nine. This was a live variety show that purposely took advantage of the studio’s location in the capital to feature visiting American artists that were appearing in the West End. This often meant that the finest jazz singer on earth would follow a performer who’d struggle to get on the end of a bill in Skegness. Ella Fitzgerald was once told to introduce the next act as the world's greatest song-and-dance-spoons man. Every time she tried the link she started to laugh and eventually had to give up.  

Ella Fitzgerald Credit: GETTY

On the 23 February 1959 a gaunt and unsteady Billie Holiday was helped up onto the Chelsea at Nine stage to perform, rather beautifully, three songs Strange FruitPlease Don’t Talk About Me When Im Gone and I Loves You Porgy. These songs were amongst the last she ever sang live and she died just five months later of cirrhosis of the liver while handcuffed, courtesy of the New York police, to a hospital bed. Luckily for us the shows were ‘Ampex-ed’ by Granada and her Chelsea at Nine performances still survive. 

Granada's studio Credit: GETTY

Seven years later and not long after Granada had vacated the premises, the handsome Chelsea Palace was knocked down by developers. John Osborne complained that it was replaced by nothing more than “a squalid block of shops” one of which, and not particularly squalid, became a branch of Heal’s. “Don’t clap too loud, we’re all in a very old building”, says Archie Rice in The Entertainer. It was an ancient music-hall joke but the Chelsea Palace was only 63 years old when it was demolished in 1966. This was the very same year that the mini-skirt, whether Mary Quant’s or otherwise, became all the rage, especially up and down the King’s Road. And then, soon, pretty well everywhere else.

Bazaar at 138a King’s Road is now a branch of Joe the Juice

Bazaar is now a restaurant

The first British Starbucks is still serving coffee at number 123

The Fantasie Café at 128 King’s Road became years later another branch of Starbucks but is now the Italian fashion outlet Caldezonia and whose tag line is, aptly, #legsinthecity

Starbucks took over the Fantasie Café Credit: ROB BAKER

John Osborne’s squalid block of shops is now a Metro Bank.

Rob Baker is the author of Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics: A Sideways Look at Twentieth-Century London, and High Buildings, Low Morals: Another Sideways Look at Twentieth Century London