David le Lay was the ninth Chairman of the Society and served from 1987 to 2009 , becoming a Vice-President in 2010. His love of Chelsea, his great historical knowledge, his guided walks and his lectures, made him a much-loved member of the community. He died on 17th January 2017.
An account of his work as an architect, and his huge contribution to the safeguarding of Chelsea as we know it today, is in an obituary published in the Society’s Annual Report for 2017 as follows:
“My name is David Le Lay and I am Chairman of the Chelsea Society”. The gleeful look which always accompanied these words as David opened yet another exhibition, or welcomed members to a party, will be long remembered by those of us who were there. But his infectious enthusiasm was not only for the Society, it was for Chelsea, where he lived and worked for 50 years.
David was born and brought up in Jersey, where his artistic talent was soon recognised. While still at school he won a prize for a ‘festive float’ at the annual Jersey Battle of Flowers. After that he wasted no time. Aged 18 he went to the Canterbury School of Architecture. The three year course was followed by a year with the conservation practice of Purcell, Miller and Tritton, then a two, year stint at the Regent Street Polytechnic and finally a year with Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe’s practice. He had come to live in Chelsea when he was 21: four years later, he set up his own practice here.
Happily, his life-long partner John Thacker, whom he had met at Canterbury, joined him in Chelsea. They rented a room in Christchurch Street, then in 1970 leased a house from Cadogan in Oakley Gardens. This doubled as David’s office until he expanded into Old Church Street some years later and where, for some 40 years, he ran a highly successful architectural practice. Working mainly in London and the Home Counties he designed many large award-winning housing schemes.
He gained a reputation for his ability to get planning consent for the development of sensitive sites that had a history of refusals. Perhaps one of the most interesting was the development of the parkland of Henry VIII’s palace at Oatlands. Nothing remained of the actual palace but this important site is on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. David’s design of crescents and terraces which frame and complement the landscape won him yet another award. Its success led to many other similar projects for the practice.
And here, it must be said, during his years as Chairman of the Chelsea Society, he would never question its decision when any of his designs came up before the Committee. There was never any question of a conflict of interest. Although he had acted for Cadogan since the early 90’s, it was not unknown for him to make sharp comments about some of their schemes in the Annual Report or Newsletter.
Stuart Corbyn, then the Chief Executive of Cadogan, said in his eulogy, ‘He was an excellent professional advisor and we never had difficult moments, other than as a result of a comment I made after the first project that perhaps more cupboards could have been provided. It was a comment I came to regret as after that David created cupboards out of every available nook and cranny.’
What will he be most remembered for? For him maybe it would be Dovehouse Green. In 2009, in the Sloane Square magazine, he wrote: ‘My relationship with the Chelsea Society started 32 years ago. I was asked to put forward an idea for a forlorn and. partly-fenced off space on the King’s Road known as the old burial ground. The Society wanted to celebrate the Queen’s silver jubilee and its own golden jubilee.
They liked the idea I put forward, it went ahead and we created Dovehouse Green.’ But there were disappointments too. Despite the Society’s strong objections, planning consent was granted for various schemes, including the tower development at Lots Road Power Station and for Battersea’s Montevetro. On a couple of occasions there was some conflict between members over the re-configuration of Sloane Square and the design of the Royal Hospital’s new Infirmary.
Many will remember David for the walks he led for those interested in Chelsea history. Stuart Corbyn said: ‘I will always retain the image of David in a white suit marching purposefully ahead of a small group trying to hear him above the roar of traffic.’ For me, the scholarly reconstructions of ancient Chelsea houses, which were published year after year in Annual Reports, are the most important part of his legacy. One day perhaps they will be collected and published.
David retired as Chairman in 2009 and was elected as a Vice-President in 2010, the year in which he was presented with the Mayor’s Award for services to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the Chelsea Society. Never can the recipient of the Award have been so worthy of it.
David’s wide-ranging interest in architecture and the environment was reflected in the 21 organisations of which he was a member. He was a church warden of Christchurch Chelsea, and a life member and former council member of the Chelsea Arts Club. In 2012 he founded the Whistler Society and remained its chairman until his death. He was a member of the London Sketch Club, hosting regular designers’ and architects’ evenings. He founded the annual Chamber Music in Chelsea Festival which features graduates from London music schools. The list is long.
David Le Lay died in January 2017 of lung cancer triggered by asbestos. He is survived by John Thacker, his partner of 52 years with whom he had entered into a civil partnership.
His funeral was at St. Luke’s church, Chelsea on Saturday 4th February. In the absence of the Chairman abroad, The Chelsea Society was represented by the Vice-chairman, Michael Stephen, and the congregation included many members of the Society.
On 21st April 2017 an Obituary appeared in the Daily Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2017/04/21/david-le-lay-chairman-chelsea-society-obituary/