Swan Walk was named after the famous Swan Inn, mentioned by Samuel Pepys in his diaries. In fact there were two Swan Inns. The first was located to the east of the Physic Garden. A popular meeting place, with balconies overlooking the river and skittles in the garden. It also marked the finish post of the Doggett's Coat and Badge Race. This annual event for apprentice watermen still takes place today but now finishes at Cadogan Pier. The race is a real test of oarsmen's skills as it is rowed upstream and against the tide.
In 1780 a brewery of the same name replaced the original Swan. The new inn, confusingly named The Old Swan, was built on the west side of the Physic Garden. It was a favourite subject for Chelsea artists with its gardens overlooking the river and a landing stage for steamboats.
Turning into Swan Walk once again, we find ourselves back in old Chelsea. Four beautiful early 18th century houses can be seen on the right hand side with the walls of the Physic Garden on the left.
The most interesting residents were Elizabeth and Alexander Blackwell, who lived at number 4. Alexander Blackwell, a trained doctor, turned instead to business, with disastrous consequences. He was imprisoned as a bankrupt in 1734. Elizabeth, a strong and resilient woman, had to restore the family's finances and secure his release from prison.
A talented artist, she offered to record the many new plants in the Physic Garden. A Curious Herbal, illustrating 500 of the most useful plants and their uses, appeared in 1739. This beautiful book was a great success but brought her little joy. Her children, William and Ann, both died in 1736, soon after she commenced work.
A few years later her reckless husband went to Sweden. Appointed Physician to the King Sweden he was found guilty of treason and sentenced ‘to be broken alive on the wheel’ in July 1747.
Elizabeth continued to live in Swan Walk until her death aged 69 in 1758. She is one of the four names on a plaque in Chelsea Old Church dedicated to the memory of Chelsea women distinguished by their learning and piety.Directions: Opposite the Blackwell's house is the entrance to the Physic Gardens, which are open to the public twice a week between April and October.
Swan Walk looking north towards Royal Hospital Road
Old Swan and Royal barge by Walter Greaves