The Chelsea bun was one of eighteenth century England’s finest culinary contributions. Buns and wiggs or whigs were common and typically very plain. The exceptions were the hot cross bun and, from early in the eighteenth century, the Chelsea bun.
Maybe other bakeries produced similar items, but the Chelsea Bun House may have been the Chelsea bun’s originator and was its preeminent producer. The Bun House was patronized by Kings George II and III and their queens and by thousands of commoners. It closed in 1839 after operating for over 100 years.
You will find it difficult to locate a recipe for them (or for hot cross buns) in an eighteenth century cookbook, no matter how diligently you search. Apparently these treats were usually purchased rather than made at home.
Elizabeth David, in her English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977), bases her Chelsea bun recipe on one she found in Elizabeth Raffald’s Experienced English Housekeeper, published in 1769. I couldn’t find it, but the cookbook went through many editions with various changes. Perhaps I didn’t have the correct edition.
The Chelsea bun was made from a tender, rich yeast dough with the addition of eggs, spice and lemon peel. The dough is then wrapped around currants and sugar and baked in rounds with little space between them in the pan. When they bake, they spread and take on a squarish shape like—yes! Modern cinnamon rolls. But they’re far, far better. The cinnamon roll’s dough is coarse by comparison.
You can also find a good recipe for Chelsea buns in Jane Grigson’s English Food (1974). Other recipes I found deviated too much from Elizabeth David’s.