Old Royal Naval College

From the Newsletter announcement:

The Old Royal Naval College was not built as a palace for the purposes of social status, but rather as a set of public buildings to be used for charitable purposes. Queen Mary II wanted a place that would serve disabled and injured seamen in a similar way to how the Royal Hospital at Chelsea served army soldiers.

The College was designed by Christopher Wren, who envisaged a huge Versailles-like set of buildings, but in the end a scaled-down version is what was built in an elegant, baroque style complete with the iconic twin domes.

The Painted Hall was built by Wren between 1696 and 1704. Sir James Thornhill, who had also decorated Wren’s dome at St. Paul’s, commenced work on the Hall in 1708 which was completed some 19 years later. The magnificent ceiling depicts the founders of the Royal Hospital, King William III and Queen Mary II. In addition, Thornhill painted the West Wall showing George I of the German House of Hanover surrounded by his children and grandchildren.

Lord Nelson, following his death at the Battle of Trafalgar, was brought here in early 1806 to lie in state for three days, when thousands came to pay their respects to England’s maritime hero. In 1824 the Hall became the National Gallery of Naval Art housing paintings which were later moved to the new Maritime Museum which opened in the 1930’s. From that time onwards, the Hall was used regularly as a dining room by Royal Navy officers until the Navy departed in 1998.

The first Chapel was finally completed in 1751 and was a much plainer looking building than we see now. In 1779 a huge fire gutted the building. The current Chapel was rebuilt by James Stuart, The style is referred to as neo-classical or Greek Revival. The ceiling has a distinctly Wedgewood-look to it, complete with the blue colour.

Optional lunch to precede the afternoon Guided Tour.



by John Shelton, on our visit on 24 May.

On 24 May, twenty four members and guests assembled at the Old Royal Naval College (known as ORNC), a World Heritage Site at the heart of Maritime Greenwich, described by UNESCO as being of “outstanding universal value” and the “finest and most dramatically sited architectural and landscape ensemble in the British Isles”. It is certainly dramatic and must have impressed travellers to London passing by on the Thames with the maritime might and wealth of Great Britain.

After a convivial lunch in the King William Undercroft beneath the Painted Hall, our guide, Denise, led us off to the accompaniment of violin and piano music from the practice rooms of the Trinity Laban Conservatoire.

Built at the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a retirement home (known as the Royal Hospital for Seamen) for old and injured former sailors of the Royal Navy, ORNC replaced the great Tudor Royal Palace of Greenwich, which had fallen into disrepair during the English Civil War and been demolished. Thanks to Denise and her bunch of keys, we were able to visit all that remains of that palace today, a Jacobean undercroft (built in 1603) beneath one of the later buildings.

Queen Mary II initiated the construc­tion of the Hospital when she commis­sioned Sir Christopher Wren in 1694. She sadly died later that year but her husband and co-sovereign, England’s only Dutch King (so far), William III, respected her wishes and continued the project.

The Hospital’s original residents arrived in 1705 and were the naval equivalent of today’s Chelsea Pensioners. They lived in fairly cramped conditions (although would have been used to that) in otherwise rather grand surroundings. They apparently had little to do other than smoke and drink and play the occasional game of cricket (on one famous occasion with players divided into “one legs” versus “one arms”: the one legged team won by a large margin). In the late nineteenth century a skittles alley was set up in the basement of one of the buildings. The skittles alley, and the skittles and bowls (cannon ball sized and made from extremely hard tropical wood), are still there, although rarely open to the public. Still, Denise found the right keys to a series of doors and invited us to have a go … .

By the late nineteenth century the Navy had found other ways of caring for its retired and injured seafarers so the buildings (and the skittles alley) were used to train officers of the Royal Navy for over a hundred years, until 1998. Now the site is owned by a charitable trust and most of the buildings are occupied by Greenwich University and the Conservatoire.
The Chapel, however, in the Queen Mary Building, and the Painted Hall in the King William Building are generally open to the public free of charge. While the Chapel (restored in 1789 after a fire and still used as a place of worship) is both impressive and beautiful, the Painted Hall is regarded as the greatest example of decorative painting in England. It was originally conceived as a dining hall for the naval pensioners but they soon became too numerous for that. Perhaps the Hall was also thought to be rather too grand for the old salts. It reverted to its dining function during the period the buildings functioned as an officer training college and served as the mess for the officers and cadets. Apparently it can still be hired for what must be rather grand dinners.

The painting of the walls and the (high) ceilings is extraordinary. The artist, Sir James Thornhill, painted them in two phases between 1708 and 1727, depicting scenes which allegorically illustrate themes of monarchy, sea power, trade and navigation. Denise was able to point out and explain many of the references in the paintings.

A visit to ORNC caters for many interests: maritime, historical, architectural, artistic and even athletic (that’s the skittles). We had a most enjoyable time and we shall certainly return. There is so much to see and do nearby: the National Maritime Museum, the Cutty Sark, the Queen’s House and the Royal Observatory. And the Painted Hall is worthy of more than one visit.