Royal Hospital Chelsea

Guided by a Chelsea Pensioner, on Tuesday 15 May at 1.30pm after optional lunch

From the announcement in the Winter newsletter :

We consider ourselves fortunate to have secured 15 tickets for one of the very popular but scarce Pensioner Guided Tours of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, just before the entire site closes to the public for seven weeks for the Chelsea Garden Show. The Royal Hospital Chelsea is a retirement and nursing home for about 300 British Army veterans (men and women) located on Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea.

As an independent charity it relies on donations – and activities such as the guided tours – to cover its running costs. The Royal Hospital Chelsea is a 325 year old home, a grade I and II listed site, and a beautiful architectural legacy left to us by Charles II, its founder, and Sir Christopher Wren, its architect.

The Chelsea Pensioners, recognisable by their red coats and black caps, come from all corners of the United Kingdom to Chelsea. One of the resident pensioners will give us a guided walking tour of the Royal Hospital. We will be admiring Sir Christopher Wren’s stunning building, hear the stories of its inhabitants, both past and present, and learn about what life is like for them today.

The museum is well worth a visit as well, with its entrance hall dedicated to the Duke of Wellington, featuring a famous massive panorama of the Battle of Waterloo. The museum has many artefacts of the various campaigns the pensioners were involved in, and shows a typical berth a pensioner would have had.

From the report in the Summer newsletter :

Royal Chelsea Hospital: the iconic retirement home for the British Army for over 300 years

Report, by Chantal Tjon, on the guided tour on Tuesday 15 May

Our party of 16 had an enthralling afternoon guided by resident David Thomson, who was such an enthusiastic and humorous storyteller, we nearly overran past teatime. David joined the Army just before he was 15, and before retiring to the Hospital fifty-two years later in 2012, had served for decades in the British and Australian armies, and sailed with P&O.

He explained that the organisation of the hospital is based on a military structure, with three companies headed by Captains of Invalides. A Board of Commissioners has governed the hospital since 1702, and a Governor lives on site. The resident pensioners participate in ceremonial drills and parades, and may be paid for taking part in functions all over the world; a fixed percentage of their pensions goes to the cost of living and medical care.
The hospital site initially housed a college built by James I for the training of priests, and which became a prison for Dutch and French prisoners of war after his reign. Charles II later gave the land to the Royal Society, and after returning from exile in France, he wanted to build a hospital for his servicemen similar to Hotel des Invalides in Paris. He acquired the 66 acres of land for £3000 from the Royal Society and commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to design it. It took ten years to build, running out of budget due to the architect wanting to use the best materials. During James II’s reign the size of the army increased significantly, requiring extra buildings to be added.

We were first taken to the Light Horse Court with its lamppost and fine wrought-iron cage to protect the well, which was used for watering horses. We then walked to the impressive Figure Court, which with its Doric columns is the oldest part of the hospital. It contains a statue of Charles II dressed as a Roman general and some special cannons, such as the Singora Cannon captured in the Third Anglo-Burmese War (1885-87).

We were delighted to view the beautiful Chapel and Great Hall, which are understandably much in demand for private functions. The Great Hall is the dining room of the residents, and we were shown the table on which the body of the Duke of Wellington had lain in state.
Finally, we visited an exhibition showing what the former residents’ rooms looked like; they consisted of small berths with wooden panelling and dividing boards like on a ship, and didn’t offer much room and privacy for the residents.

We were relieved to hear that nowadays David and his 300 colleagues (of which 14 are women) each have their own study room and bedroom with en-suite bathrooms – a just reward for their long years of service.