Inside the Royal Hospital Chelsea

King Charles II, like his father, had many faults – but he did possess a sound portion of common sense. It was he, after all, who led the defence of London during the Great Fire of London – and he who, I learned today, was responsible for the construction of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. He understood that the large number of soldiers wounded or suffering from diseases, as a result of the English monarch’s campaigns abroad, needed to be looked after.

Among the many other things I learned, during a wonderful few hours spent exploring, was that the term “Hospital” is used in its archaic form as a “place of refuge and shelter”. And the Royal Hospital Chelsea really does have the sense of security that you would expect from a refuge: rarely have I visited somewhere so welcoming and with such a sense of family.

Legend has it that Nell Gwynne was responsible for its foundation; alas, the facts do not support this rather pleasing theory. The truth is more prosaic: RHC was built on the foundations of the partly-completed Chelsey College, founded by James I in 1609 to refute the teachings of the Catholic Church. Thereafter used as a prisoner-of-war establishment, Charles II gifted the buildings and land to the Royal Society in 1667 – repurchasing them 15 years later to build the Royal Hospital Chelsea, which Sir Christopher Wren designed. James II and William III would carry out further renovations.

Having learned something of the Royal Hospital’s origins, I was keen to find out more about its residents, the red coat-clad ‘In’ and ‘Out’ Chelsea Pensioners who represent their organisation so beautifully. ‘Out’ Pensioners were former soldiers of the regular Army who had retired to civilian life and were entitled to a pension for long service or disability caused through service. During the 18th and 19th centuries heavy penalties, including death and transportation to the Colonies could be imposed for the impersonation of a Chelsea Pensioner.

‘In Pensioners’ refers to those soldiers who live in the RHC. On entry, they surrender their entire Army Pension, in return receiving uniform, food and medical care. Conditions of eligibility remain similar to those laid down by James II in 1685 – including “Free from obligation to support a wife or children”. History was made in 2009 when three female In Pensioners were admitted, having earned this right through their length of service.

Approximately 150 In Pensioners, as volunteers, help with the administration of the Royal Hospital as clerks, guides and attendants for its Chapel, Library and Museum. I was privileged to meet & chat with a number of them and a friendlier, more charming group of people you could not wish to encounter.

The photo below depicts the uniform worn in 1893 by In Pensioners, including stockings and breeches. This form of dress remained largely unchanged until the adoption of trousers and the present-day scarlet coat during the middle of the 19th century.

I hadn’t realised how much of this Grade I & II listed site is accessible to the public and it was a thrill to be able to wander its historic buildings, beginning with The Great Hall, which is still very much in use. It has gone through various incarnations: refectory-style dining and self-service among them, but messing was reintroduced in 1955 and there was a lingering smell of lunch when we arrived.

Notably, this room was used for the Lying in State of the Duke of Wellington (1852) and the 1856 Inquiry into catastrophes during the Crimean War. This is also where the Royal Hospital Chelsea’s Christmas festivities begin every year – with the stirring of the Christmas Pudding, followed by the Cake and Cheese Ceremonies.

The Chapel and Infirmary are equally interesting. The Chapel, designed by Sir Christopher Wren to accommodate up to 500 people, was visited by Charles II just before his death in 1685. Its beautiful black & white marble painting is original and is laid upon a foundation of Danish paving stones. The fresco, by Sebastiano and Marco Ricci, depicts the Resurrection from St Matthew’s Gospel and is thought to have been commissioned by Queen Anne.

Understandably, we weren’t able to see around the Infirmary – but we did learn that the original building, also designed by Wren, provided accommodation for 32 patients and four nurses. Over the years, it has been supplemented by new buildings, including Sir Robert Walpole’s former house.

Needless to say, there was no way that this complex of buildings could escape two World Wars unscathed – although the WWI bombing of London had no impact until 1918, when a 500lb bomb dropped from a Zeppelin destroyed Light Horse Court, causing five fatal casualties. Sadly, much more damage was sustained during World War II – together with significantly more casualties.

There is so much more I could say about this fascinating home to the nicest group of people I’ve ever met. I haven’t even touched upon ‘Founder’s Day’ or the Long Wards, or the Medal Room – and I’ve shared only a little of the contents of the Museum. That’s because I want you to go there and experience this unique environment for yourself: I can promise you that there is nowhere else quite like it.

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