The narrow victory allowed the Blues to temporarily climb into second place and reduce leaders Arsenal's advantage over their London rivals to two points ahead of the Gunners' evening kick-off fixture at Villa Park.
The first half was notable only for its free-kick count and referee Howard Webb booked four players, Matthew Etherington and Luis Boa Morte for the visitors and Chelsea duo Mikel John Obi and Salomon Kalou.
Fourth official Steve Tanner was also involved in an investigation when Didier Drogba left the fray midway through the half to complain about an incident that had occurred near the West Ham fans in one corner of the pitch.
It seemed the Ivory Coast striker had been less than happy with a bright light being shined in his eyes from the stands, with a laser pen the most likely 'weapon'.
Free-kicks and flare-ups greatly out-numbered the moments of creative play before referee Webb brought an end to a bad-tempered first half.
Frank Lampard and Alex both fired early free-kicks into the wall and Kalou had been wasteful with a drive from outside the box.
Drogba had come close with a curling effort which just cleared Robert Green's left-hand post and it was a while before the visitors responded.
Ex-Chelsea man Carlton Cole seemed harshly caught offside and there was a flare-up when home goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini fumbled a through-ball and was caught by Boa Morte.
Nolberto Solano almost caught out the home side just after the half-hour mark with a clever lob which ended on the roof of the net with Cudicini back-tracking.
By then Etherington had been booked for tugging back Juliano Belletti and Mikel was then shown a yellow card for scything down West Ham's other ex-Chelsea man, Scott Parker. Indeed, the Nigerian was lucky it was not a red.
Kalou's foul on Boa Morte earned him a booking before John Terry's header from a Lampard corner forced Green into the half's only real save.
There was still time before the break for Boa Morte to be booked for a late tackle on Mikel.
There was a chance for Chelsea immediately after the restart but the recalled Steve Sidwell saw his shot deflected behind off Matthew Upson. The former Reading man tried again and met a Lampard corner with a thumping header but it was far too high.
Lampard and Joe Cole were also off target with subsequent efforts but at least the game had at last taken off as a spectacle.
Belletti was booked in the 55th minute for a foul on Etherington before Belletti's error let in Boa Morte. In came the shot but Terry was able to take the sting off it to help Cudicini save.
At the other end Green had to palm away Joe Cole's cross and the goalkeeper was first to the loose ball as Drogba prepared to shoot.
West Ham were looking dangerous as well though and Parker sent a curled effort at Cudicini before Chelsea swapped Sidwell for Shaun Wright-Phillips in the 66th minute.
Lampard was next in the book with Boa Morte again the man on the receiving end and the Hammers made a change after John Terry had fired across goal and narrowly wide, with Freddie Ljungberg replacing Solano for the last 15 minutes.
Joe Cole's winner was just seconds away, however, with Drogba and then Kalou winning headers and the England man just avoiding stepping offside before rounding Green in style and firing high into the empty net.
The Hammers sent on striker Dean Ashton in search of an equaliser but Chelsea were not to be denied.