Chelsea Pensioners are a beloved British institution, highly visible in their bright red coats and tricorn hats at Remembrance services and parades every year. Army veterans, they live in the Royal Hospital, a beautiful Grade I listed building in Chelsea, given to them by Charles II and designed by Christopher Wren. Visitors can do a free self-guided tour around parts of the property, which include a museum, the chapel and old living quarters, to learn more about their history and their lives.
Chelsea Pensioners are a highly visible part of British life, yet before my visit, I knew very little about them. Who were they, why did they wear the old fashioned red coats and black hats, and what was their connection to the army?
When I discovered that you could visit the Royal Chelsea Hospital, I was keen to go so that I could learn more about them. It was a pleasant surprise to find out that you can visit the site for free, and either do a self-guided tour, or book a tour led by one of the pensioners. Unable to get a place on one of the bookable tours, we instead opted for the self guided tour.
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF THE CHELSEA PENSIONERS
In 1682, Charles II decided to make a provision for army veterans who were too old or sick to care for themselves, when he realised that many were sick or wounded as a result of his campaigns abroad. Previously, they had been looked after by religious foundations, but the dissolution of the monasteries had put an end to that. Charles II commissioned Christopher Wren to build a home for veteran soldiers, based on the Hotel des Invalides in Paris. The buildings consist of three quadrangles next to the River Thames, in what was then the countryside of Chelsea. The first pensioners moved in in 1692, and the hospital was soon full with 476 residents. Hospital is used here in the old fashioned sense of the word, as in almshouses, rather than a place for the sick and injured.
Changes were made to the site over the years, with Wren’s formal gardens being demolished by 1868 when the Chelsea Embankment was created. The famous architect, Sir John Soane, built a new infirmary in 1809, on the site which is now occupied by the National Army Museum.
The site was bombed heavily in both World Wars, with the Soane Infirmary receiving a direct hit in 1941, resulting in many deaths and casualties. In total, 117 incendiary devices hit the hospital over the course of World War II. One of the bombs is on display - a 250kg which hit the hospital in 1940 but failed to explode.
There are two types of Chelsea pensioner, Out and In Pensioners. The conditions for In Pensioners, i.e. those who actually live in the hospital, were established in 1685 by James II, and the rules have changed little over the years.
The soldier must receive an Army Service or Army disability pension, or hold the Victoria or George Cross, be over 65, of good character and have no dependents. They give up their pension in exchange for accommodation, food, uniform and medical care at the hospital. Out Pensioners must have served 20 years in the army, or be disabled due to their service. In 2009, the first women were admitted as In Pensioners due to their long service.
Their distinctive uniform of loose red coat with black cuffs and a black tricorn hat is based on that of the Army of Marlborough in the 18th century, as the veterans from the Marlborough campaigns were the first large intake to the hospital.
Before this, Pensioners would have worn their own regimental uniforms. These coats are ceremonial, as around the hospital the pensioners wear a blue, more casual uniform for day to day purposes. The coats show the rank the soldier held when they were discharged, and their medals.
The only way to get into the site is through the London Gate entrance, on Royal Hospital Road, where a guard lets you in through the gates and you can ask for one of the self-guided tour leaflets.
These set out a route for you on a map of the site, starting with the museum, which is directly ahead of the entrance.
The museum entrance is through a grand hall, with a large diorama model of how the site looked in 1742, a huge panorama of the Battle of Waterloo, hanging high on the wall, and a more recent painting of the Queen above the fireplace.
Walk directly ahead to enter the museum. Once inside, turn right to start with the history of the hospital. There are comprehensive information boards on the walls, progressing through from the start of the hospital to modern day, and a wealth of artefacts that really do shed a light on this most interesting place.
I particularly liked the mock up of their living quarters. The pensioners sleep on long wards, in small wooden cubicles known as berths. These were originally tiny, only 6 x 6 foot, until the 1960s when they were increased to 6 x 9 foot. There was no lighting in the berths until 1900, no central heating until 1928, and no windows.
Pensioners cooked their own meals with rations on a range at the end of the wards until 1955. By the 1990s the booths were increased to 9 x 9 foot, and the mock up is one of these. It really did look small: comfortable and with everything on hand, but still very small. In the past five years, these have changed again, there is a video on the website showing that they now have a small study each, their own wet room, and a window, which must make a huge difference to how they live.
In the centre of the museum is the ceremonial mace and woolsack. The Pensioners previously had no colour or standard to parade with, so one was commissioned to honour the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002, which is now used in all formal occasions. The woolsack was also made to honour the occasion, a bright scarlet red to match their coats, and these items hold pride of place in the museum.
There are some lovely artefacts in glass cases around the room. The antique pipe lighter which was in use for many years attached to an outside wall, a tobacco tin from the Boer War with Queen Victoria on it, a parade chair, and the one I found really moving, a painting called The Last Muster. This was of the Pensioners attending a service in the Wren Chapel, in their bright red coats, but one of them has slumped forward in death and is being held up by his comrades sitting around him.
The second room of the museum is the Medal Room, containing row upon row of medals awarded to the Pensioners. It is quite an astonishing and humbling display of courage. There is also a flag captured in 1812 during the second American War, and an assortment of the original keys to the buildings.
It is a small museum, but very informative, and is most definitely worth a visit. As you leave, there is a small shop and Post Office at the exit, where you can buy souvenirs.
The next stop on the tour map takes you to Light Horse Court, one of the quadrangles with a grassy courtyard that looks like it must be a lovely place to relax in the summer months. The brief walk takes you through to the colonnade and out into Figure Court, the central area.
Here, the recently gilded statue of Charles II glints at you from a distance. It is quite a surprise to see him portrayed as a Roman, complete with tunic and laurel wreath, and standing out like a golden icon. Behind the statue, the beautifully proportioned classical buildings and the peaceful looking grounds, is London, an incongruous sight of cranes, skyscrapers and modernity. The noise and chaos seem intrusive on this gentle and traditional place.
A walk through the colonnade takes you to the heritage berths, two of the original old style living quarters for the Pensioners.
With their dark wood walls and low ceilings, the lack of space is palpable, but the heating is pumping out and it does at least feel very cosy.
One of the original berths, this is just 6 x 6 foot. Even today, all pensioners still hang their uniforms outside their doors.
It is easy to imagine that living here is a lovely way to spend your retirement after a lifetime of service. Surrounded by like minded people, a comfortable place to call your own, all of your needs met, beautiful surroundings, plenty of activities and still living within the military setup that you’re so used to, I can imagine far worse ways to spend your end of days.
The Wren Chapel is less highly decorated than some of his other designs, but it is stunning in its simplicity, with high arched white ceilings, a black and white chequered floor, wooden stalls and a beautiful fresco behind the altar. Light floods in from tall but simple glass windows and the whole effect is one of peace and tranquility. Consecrated in 1691, the chapel is still used regularly by Pensioners and visitors.
THE GREAT HALL
The Great Hall, opposite the chapel, is another fabulous room. It was designed by Wren as a dining hall, and was originally used for this purpose, until the time when Pensioners would take their rations away to cook on the shared ranges near their berths. The Hall was then used as a recreation room, and for court martials and courts of inquiry. In 1852 it was used for the Lying in State of the Duke of Wellington, and the table used is still in there, now called The Wellington Table. Hundreds paid their respects, including Queen Victoria, and there is a painting of the event taking place.
The table where the Duke of Wellington lay in state now has two ‘blackjack’ leather jugs on it, used to carry drinks up from the cellar. From the time of Nelson, jacks were referred to as ‘boots’, which is where the phrase ‘fill your boots’ comes from, meaning to have a drink.
The wood panelled walls are inscribed with the dates of battles since the formation of the British Army, starting with Tangier in 1662 and ending with Afghanistan, poignantly still awaiting an end date. Flags hang from above, replicas of those captured during battles. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling and green table lamps are on every table, creating a bright and cheerful feel to the place.
A look at the menu shows typical traditional British fare; cottage pie, fish and chips, mushy peas and rice pudding, although I also noticed salads and vegetarian options. It was easy to imagine the dining hall full of people bustling around, with cutlery clinking and voices raised in laughter.
The final stop on the self-guided tour, is the coffee shop. This is back near where you entered, and I highly recommend a visit here. It serves sandwiches, snacks and drinks, and is incredibly cheap for this area of London. It is also an opportunity to see some of the Pensioners, as this is where they meet their friends from outside the Hospital.
All of the residents that we met as we were exploring, stopped to say hello, wish us a good morning or just gave us a hearty smile, we found it to be a very welcoming place.
Buying something in the café or the shop is a good way to give towards the upkeep of the place, as a free tour is such a gift that giving something back feels only right.
You exit from London Gate where you arrived, but before you walk through the gate, turn right into the old Burial Ground.
Although not part of the official self-guided tour, you are allowed in there and it worth visiting. Pensioners and some staff were buried there from 1692 – 1854, most of them without grave markers.
When it was closed, they estimated that over 9000 burials had taken place there.
We wandered through this, looking at the graves and memorials, and were very surprised to find at the far end of it, was both Baroness Margaret Thatcher’s grave and that of her husband, Denis. I had had no idea that they were buried here, both with very low key and discreet gravestones, in front of the Margaret Thatcher Infirmary. She had regularly worshipped in the Wren Chapel, walked in the grounds and was a supporter of the Hospital. A small bunch of flowers nearby said ‘To the Iron Lady with the soft heart’.
As we left, a small flock of wild cockatiels screeched at us from the bare branches of a tree in the graveyard, a rather surreal way to end our visit to this very British institution.
Visiting The Royal Hospital Chelsea
General Site Access: Monday to Sunday 10am - 5pm
Museum: Monday – Friday, 10am - 4pm
Great Hall: 10am - 12, 2pm - 4pm
Wren Chapel: Monday – Saturday, 10am - 4pm
Coffee Shop: 10am - 4.30pm
Guided tours are available for individuals which can be booked online >>
NB In times of social distancing, the hospital is closed to all visitors
The site is fully accessible and there are wheelchair lifts available to help you get into the Great Hall and Wren Chapel, but if you will need them, please do notify them in advance of your arrival.