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article-2327391-19E40B7A000005DC-627_964x610Australian horticultural team, Flemings, have made history by taking out the top prize at the prestigious Chelsea Flower Show this year. It is the first time anyone from Australia has ever won Best in Show.

The winning garden is a landscape showing a gorge with giant boulders, ferns, wildflowers, and a billabong fed by a series of waterfalls. Overlooking it is a studio in the shape of a giant waratah flower, and the accompanying soundtrack is a chorus of Australian frogs. The garden promotes sustainability by collecting rainwater run-off and being powered by solar panels.

The judges were unanimous in voting for Flemings’ Trailfinders Australian Garden, designed by Phillip Johnson, and it was praised for its lush greenery, exuberant spirit and environmental message. Flemings will go out on a high, as this is their last year at Chelsea.

2013 is the centenary year of the Royal Horticultural Society Chelsea Flower Show (although the Society have been holding spring flower shows since the 1830s). More than a hundred thousand people visit the Chelsea Flower Show each year, with many chances of celebrity-spotting, and royal-spotting, as the royal family are patrons of the Show.

Chelsea is a district of West London which began as a Saxon village some miles from the town of London. The name of the area is from the Old English for “chalk wharf”, indicating a landing place for boats on the River Thames, and suggesting that it was used for the shipment of chalk.

The Manor of Chelsea is first mentioned in the Domesday Book as being a gift to the Abbot of Westminster during Anglo-Saxon times. King Henry VIII acquired the manor, and two of his wives lived at the manor house, as well as his daughter Elizabeth, destined to be Queen Elizabeth I. By the 17th century, it was a popular locale for the ultra-wealthy, and called “a village of palaces”, but still rural in nature, serving London as a market garden until the 19th century.

Chelsea gained a bohemian reputation in the 19th century, when it was an artist’s colony for painters such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and poets such as Leigh Hunt. The area around around Cheyne Walk was the heart of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Right into the first decades of the twentieth century, it was a place for radicals, artists, poets and bohemians.

Oscar Wilde began his career living in an artistic boarding house in Chelsea and feminist activist Sylvia Pankhurst had a house on Cheyne Walk. The occult Order of the Golden Dawn had members active in the area, including Pamela Colman Smith, who painted the designs for the Rider-Waite tarot cards.

However, it was the era of Swinging London in the 1960s and 1970s that really put Chelsea in the public consciousness as a cool place to be. This was centred around the King’s Road, where you could find groovy psychedelic fashion boutiques that catered to super-slim model Twiggy and the Rolling Stones.

The Chelsea Drugstore was a hip hangout that combined a pharmacy with a record store and a soda fountain; it features in the lyrics of Rolling Stones hit, You Can’t Always Get What You Want. In the 1970s, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren ran their boutique SEX, which became a focal point for the punk movement; habitués of the store were formed by McLaren into punk band The Sex Pistols.

The hipness of Chelsea rapidly faded. Today it is inhabited by more investment bankers than avant-garde painters, you’re more likely to shop at The Gap in the King’s Road than a crazy boutique, and The Chelsea Drugstore has been replaced by a McDonalds.

Chelsea is first found as a personal name in the United States during the late 18th century, and was given equally to boys and girls. There is a city near Boston named Chelsea (named after the place in London), and the Battle of Chelsea Creek was fought here in 1775 during the American Revolution. American forces made one of their first captures of a British ship, which was a great boost to their morale. Perhaps Chelsea was originally given as a name in honour of this battle.

During the 19th century, Chelsea was much more commonly given to boys and in the first half of the 20th century, numbers of boys and girls named Chelsea became more even. It was in the 1960s, at the height of (London) Chelsea’s chicness, that the pendulum swung and Chelsea became overwhelmingly feminine.

In 1969, Chelsea made the US charts, debuting at #707. This was the same year that Joni Mitchell released Chelsea Morning – this time inspired by Chelsea in New York City, also named after Chelsea in London.

The song describes Mitchell’s room in Chelsea, with light filtering through a stained glass mobile. As the song has the phrase Wake up pretty baby in it, it probably helped cement Chelsea as feminine, although the name had been heading there anyway. Bill and Hillary Clinton named their daughter Chelsea after Mitchell’s song.

Chelsea first charted in Australia in the 1970s, debuting at #337. By the 1990s it was in the Top 100, where it remains to this day. Chelsea peaked in 2009 at #26, and since then has been gradually declining. Currently it is #34 in New South Wales, #47 in Victoria, #29 in Queensland, #42 in South Australia, #33 in Western Australia, #42 in Tasmania and #48 in the Australian Capital Territory, so it has yet to move out of the Top 50 in any state.

Australians have had an enduring affection for Chelsea unmatched by any other country, for it left the US Top 100 in 1999, and the UK Top 100 in 2005. (In both countries, it quickly fell, and is now around the #200 mark).

I’m not sure why, but for some reason, Chelsea seems to suit Australian conditions. Perhaps the -sea on the end subconsciously reminds us of the beach? There is a Chelsea in Australia too – a seaside suburb of Melbourne which does happen to have a beach.

Like the district of London, the name Chelsea has moved firmly into the mainstream and become a modern classic. It’s a simple, friendly and unpretentious choice which isn’t frilly or fussy.

POLL RESULT: Chelsea received an approval rating of 41%. People saw Chelsea as downmarket (21%), but also pretty or cute (15%). 13% of people could not shake the association with Chelsea Football Club and/or Chelsea buns. Only one person thought Chelsea could still be used as a boys name.

(Picture shows the winning garden at the Chelsea Flower Show; photo from The Daily Mail)

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