The Chelsea Pensioners, in their scarlet coats and tricorne hats, are iconic symbols of London. We visit their historic home, the Royal Hospital, to meet some of the Chelsea Pensioners and hear their stories
Words by Sandra Lawrence
Few, however, come with as much pride as the Chelsea Pensioners. Usually spotted around their home, the Royal Hospital Chelsea, the scarlet coats and black peaked caps of these revered Army veterans are symbols of a lifetime of duty.
The story of the Chelsea Pensioners begins over three centuries ago. In 1681, King Charles II was distressed at the increasing casualties of war and recognised that the country owed them a debt of gratitude. Many had lost limbs, some were just broken by old age and infirmity.
Charles invited architect Sir Christopher Wren to design a gigantic almshouse for these veteran soldiers. The resulting plans comprised two wings, connected by a colonnade, a great hall and a chapel in what was once countryside alongside the River Thames. Charles’s work was continued by his son, James II, then subsequent monarchs including William and Mary, and further expanded by Sir John Soane in 1812 during the Napoleonic Wars.
Each wing held around 250 Pensioners in six-by-six foot ‘berths’, along communal corridors. It sounds cramped but, as Pensioner John Gallagher points out, it was considered comfortable then. “It was a place to sleep,” he explains. “Each man had sheets, pillowcases, three blankets and a box to store their gear – they didn’t have much. They hung their uniforms on hooks.”
Ever since the English Civil War, the official British Army colour has been red. The Pensioners’ formal coat, or ‘scarlet’, would once have been made from cheaper cloth, but is otherwise much the same as ever, including silver buttons stamped with the letters ‘RCI’ – the Royal Corps of Invalids. “If a battalion was going out to war they could once have asked for volunteers from the RCI,” says John. Under the scarlets, mid-blue shirts and black trousers are completed with a belt from each Pensioner’s regiment. “This is the Royal Armoured Corps,” says John, proudly showing his own buckle. “It also takes the tops off bottles,” he adds with a wink.
Pensioners are usually spotted in the familiar, peaked ‘shako’ hat. Tricornes are worn only in the presence of Royalty or on Founder’s Day, a solemn occasion on the first Thursday after 29 May, commemorating both Charles II’s birthday and his restoration to the throne. Pensioners also wear a sprig of oak leaves that day, in memory of the ‘merry monarch’.
John has been a Pensioner for nearly nine years. He joined the Army at 21, in 1970, on his daughter’s first birthday. After postings in Germany, Belgium, Singapore and Northern Ireland John returned to civilian life but he never forgot his Army days. “I was on my own, so I applied here. You have to be 65 to qualify, and in receipt of an Army pension, which you hand over in its entirety,” he explains. “You get to keep your state pension.
Everything is paid for, including accommodation, food and your uniform”. There is, understandably, a waiting list, and it is important for both Pensioners and the community that everyone will fit in. Women Pensioners were first admitted in 2009. Janet Brodie-Murphy moved here just nine months ago.
“You fill in lots of forms where you say why you want to come and what you could bring to the Hospital,” she says. Potential Pensioners visit for four days, where they can experience Royal Hospital life – and the community can experience life with them. Those that fit in are offered a place. “It’s important to support everything going on – it’s a family here. If you just came here and sat on your own you wouldn’t enjoy it. ‘Put in’ and you’ll get maximum out of it.
The people here have been in conflict together, they’ve watched each other’s backs. We look after each other now”. Lay skills are highly sought after, too. One Pensioner, who was a town crier in a previous life, is now the Hospital Herald. Janet became a professional florist after 23 years in the Army and is delighted to continue her craft by creating arrangements for the chapel and formal occasions.
Like the first residents, today’s Pensioners live in berths on communal corridors. Unlike the original inhabitants, however, everyone has their own study area, bedroom, en-suite wet room and, importantly, their own window. “My bunk’s very different to the chaps’,” laughs Janet, “they’ve got nothing in theirs and mine’s full.”
As one of just fifteen women Pensioners, Janet does not feel outnumbered. “The lads are very supportive. My only hesitation was space. I am a collector: toys from the 70s, badges, jewellery, Christmas tree decorations – I used to have a room like this just for my clothes,” she sighs. “I had to make a decision.” Somehow, Janet has still managed to fit in genealogy materials, art supplies, jewellery racks and, importantly, family portraits. “The boys are going to measure my room and make a better private area for me.” Not that she spends much time there. Like most Pensioners, she and John make full use of the on-site facilities. “We have a pottery with our own onsite kiln,” says Janet, “and a dedicated hobby centre with rooms for bike repairs, carpentry, etc.”
“Our club was originally accommodation,” says John. “Today it’s a bar, with lovely staff. There are a lot of Polish people so I’m learning Polish on top of the German I was already doing. We have events nearly every week: singers, bands, karaoke. There’s a games room with a pool table, and a room with a giant TV. Wednesdays are film night with popcorn and ice cream”.
The Hospital also boasts a bowling team, cricket, walking, rugby and fishing trips. Green-fingered Pensioners tend allotments, including greenhouses donated by TV gardener Alan Titchmarsh. “There’s a lot of goodwill,” says John. “It costs £21m a year to run this place. Half of that comes from the Ministry of Defence, the rest of it we have to raise.” The RHS Chelsea Flower Show, held each May since 1912, is the most famous fundraiser of all, covering most of the 66-acre grounds, but one area is never co-opted. Complete with Grinling Gibbons’s gilded bronze statue of Charles II, the main square remains pristine, its 1690s simplicity punctuated only by scarlet pelargoniums growing in old lead water tanks, removed from service when a new cistern was installed in the famous octagonal clocktower.
“The Great Hall is where we eat; three meals a day,” says John. “You can bring a bottle of wine to dinner if you want.” Portraits of monarchs and a sadly evergrowing list of battles fill the oak-lined walls; that there will have been representative veterans here from all of them is sobering indeed.
Across the entrance hall, the Chapel is entirely carved in oak. Each year top music graduates apply for the job of organist; in return for playing every Sunday, the winner receives accommodation, a bursary, and much prestige.
“We have a good turnout on Sunday mornings,” says John, freely admitting that the superb choir may also have something to do with the chapel services’ popularity.
One of the great joys of walking around London is meeting the Chelsea Pensioners. It is just as much a thrill for them. ‘Blues’, a less formal, dark navy tunic, may only be worn within a two-mile radius of the Hospital; any further afield, they must wear full scarlets, which act like a magnet for intrigued members of the public. “You’re mobbed when you go out in scarlets,” admits Janet, “but it’s a nice mobbed. You’re treated like a human being. Young people want to talk. If I was a little old greyhaired lady on my scooter they wouldn’t even notice me. A lot of people don’t realise what the Royal Hospital is all about. I see myself as an ambassador.”
May these most popular – and colourful – of ambassadors ever continue to brighten our lives.
This is an extract, read the full feature in the September/October 2023 issue of BRITAIN, available to buy here from Friday 11 August.