Chelsea Buns are sweet, individual serving-sized buns made from yeast-risen dough enriched with an egg.
They are sticky and sweet. They are baked together in a pan with sides touching; you tear them apart to serve.
The dough is not sweet in itself, though the bun ends up sweet owing to the toppings.
The dough is made, let rise, and then rolled out. It is spread with a mixture of butter, brown sugar, currants, sultanas, and candied peel. then it is rolled up like a jelly roll (aka Swiss roll) from its long side, and cut into slices of coiled-up dough.
The slices are arranged flat in a buttered square tin, let rise again, then baked for about half an hour.
They are then removed from the oven, and while hot, glazed with a golden syrup. They are left to cool a bit, then turned out onto a wire rack to cool fully.
There is no cinnamon in Chelsea Buns, though more modern recipes do add it, perhaps trying to imitate North American cinnamon buns. Chelsea Bun dough is richer and more tender than that of cinnamon buns.
Many swear the best Chelsea Buns have been in fact made for some time now not in London at all, but at Fitzbillies in Cambridge, UK.
Chelsea Buns have been made since at least the start of the 1700s. They were reputedly invented either at the Old Chelsea Bun House, or at the “Real Old Original Chelsea Bun-house” in London, England.
The two were rivals. Both were on Grosvenor Row, both made great buns, and both had a long wooden covered footpath in front of them, that looked something like a verandah except it was a sidewalk, too.
Grosvenor Row (which no longer exists) was the name for what is now approximately the middle section of Pimlico Road, from Passmore Street east a few blocks to Bourne Street. Technically, the area is Pimlico, not Chelsea, but it’s probably far too late to suggest the name “Pimlico Buns” to anyone.
The Old Chelsea Bun House was owned by a ‘Captain Bun’ (sic). Reputedly, in the latter decades of the 1700s, it was frequented by George II, his son George III (the mad King George) and his wife Queen Charlotte. In 1817, it had been in business for four generations of the same family (as per Sir Richard Philips (1767-1840; one of whose pseudonyms was Reverend David Blair.)
On Good Fridays, they sold Hot Cross buns, and were frequently mobbed by huge line-ups. The mob scene had been so great in 1792 that they in fact skipped selling them in 1793. They posted a notice instead on Wednesday, 27 March 27 1793 saying, “Royal Bun House, Chelsea, Good Friday.—No Cross Buns. Mrs. Hand respectfully informs her friends and the public, that in consequence of the great concourse of people which assembled before her house at a very early hour, on the morning of Good Friday last, by which her neighbours (with whom she has always lived in friendship and repute) have been much alarmed and annoyed; it having also been intimated, that to encourage or countenance a tumultuous assembly at this particular period might be attended with consequences more serious than have hitherto been apprehended; desirous, therefore, of testifying her regard and obedience to those laws by which she is happily protected, she is determined, though much to her loss, not to sell Cross Buns on that day to any person whatever, but Chelsea buns as usual.”
But the shop appears to have got back into the Hot Cross Bun business. On 18 April 1839, Good Friday for that year, they sold around 24,000 Hot Cross buns. Nevertheless, the business was sold and demolished later that year.
Literature & Lore
“A fine day, but begins to grow a little warm; and that makes your little fat Presto sweat in the forehead. Pray, are not the fine buns sold here in our town; was it not Rrrrrrrrrare Chelsea buns? I bought one to-day in my walk; it cost me a penny; it was stale, and I did not like it.” — Jonathan Swift. Letter 22. The Journal to Stella. 28 April 1711.
“I soon turned the corner of a street which took me out of sight of the space on which once stood the gay Ranelagh. … Before me appeared the shop so famed for Chelsea buns, which for above thirty years I have never passed without filling my pockets. In the original of these shops—for even of Chelsea buns there are counterfeits—are preserved mementoes of domestic events in the first half of the past century. The bottle-conjuror is exhibited in a toy of his own age; portraits are also displayed of Duke William and other noted personages; a model of a British soldier, in the stiff costume of the same age; and some grotto-works, serve to indicate the taste of a former owner, and were, perhaps, intended to rival the neighbouring exhibition at Don Saltero’s. These buns have afforded a competency, and even wealth, to four generations of the same family; and it is singular that their delicate flavour, lightness, and richness, have never been successfully imitated.” — Sir Richard Phillips (1767-1840). In “Morning’s Walk from London to Kew.” 1817.
The Royal East London Volunteers made a brilliant sight that day: formed into lines, squares, circles, triangles, and what not, to the beating of drums, and the streaming of flags; and performed a vast number of complex evolutions, in all of which Serjeant Varden bore a conspicuous share. Having displayed their military prowess to the utmost in these warlike shows, they marched in glittering order to the Chelsea Bun House, and regaled in the adjacent taverns until dark.” — Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge, Chapter 42.
“I was rather in a hurry,” returns Mr. Bucket, “for I was going to visit a aunt of mine that lives at Chelsea — next door but two to the old original Bun House…” — Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Chapter 53.
“Give her a Chelsea bun, miss! That’s what most young ladies like best!” The voice was rich and musical, and the speaker dexterously whipped back the snowy cloth that covered his basket, and disclosed a tempting array of the familiar square buns, joined together in rows, richly egged and browned and glistening in the sun.” — Lewis Carroll, A Tangled Tale
Walford, Edward. ‘Chelsea’, Old and New London: Volume 5 (1878), pp. 50-70. URL:http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid=45222. Date accessed: 11 February 2007.