Heather's Monthly Articles
Chelsea Pensioners
July 2014


Chelsea Pensioners. No, it's not the name of a revival band from the swinging '60s. Nor are they the scarlet-coated, tricorn-hatted senior citizens you see on T.V. at high-profile events such as Wimbledon, former Butlin's redcoats. They are the residents of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, where for over 300 years servicemen (and since 2009, servicewomen) have gone to retire.

Chelsea Pensioners

Founded by King Charles II in 1682 "for the succour and relief of veterans broken by age and war," the residential home, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, sits on 66 acres adjacent to the River Thames in one of London's most desirable neighborhoods. The residents' rooms, which are still known as "berths," having being made of oak salvaged from captured French vessels, have barely changed since they were christened by veterans of the Jacobite Rising of 1715. Central heating was added in the 1900s, and in the 1950s the rooms were enlarged from 6ft x 6ft to 9ft squared, although in a bit of typical British-like tomfoolery, prospective residents are always put in the original 6-foot squared rooms for their four-day visiting period. Once they become official Chelsea Pensioners, their discovery that the rooms are larger than they initially thought no doubt comes as a pleasant surprise.

Until recent renovations, residents shared communal bathroom facilities. A floor of 36 berths, for instance, had just one bathroom at the end of the corridor. No longer, however, do the veterans have to "cross their legs and think of England." Walls have been knocked down so there are now 23 berths per floor, all of which have been extended to include a study and en suite bathroom. The rooms have a table, a chair, and a wardrobe as well as a single bed, whose mattress is presumably no longer made of straw as it was 300 years ago.

Chelsea Pensioners
The Royal Hospital.

Uniforms, which were designed by the Duke of Marlborough in the 1700s, are hung on pegs outside the door. In addition to the traditional scarlet coat and tricorn hat which are worn for public occasions, the pensioners also have a navy blue uniform, the hat of which is known as a "shako," a tall cylindrical peaked cap. They are "encouraged" to wear the blue uniform when in the residence and within a two-mile radius of the Hospital. It is when the pensioners are decked out in their scarlet jackets, which they are required to wear when outside of the two-mile radius, that they are most recognizable. Like a Posh and Becks sighting, their presence at Wimbledon brings out the paparazzi. They've been a courtside fixture there for as long as I can remember.

As well as being given tickets for some of the best seats at Wimbledon, Lords Cricket Ground and Chelsea Football Club, the pensioners also receive countless invitations to West End shows, teas at the Ritz, and trips abroad. Not that there's nothing to do back in their digs in Chelsea, with its clubhouse and bar. There they can take a dance or drama class, play whist, bridge, or bingo, or simply socialize.

Chelsea Pensioners
The Queen at the annual Founders Day Parade.

The only official "duty" the pensioners are required to perform is Founder's Day, an age-old ceremony to mark Charles II's restoration to the throne in 1660. Held in late May as close to Charles's birthday as possible, the ceremony features an inspection parade by a member of the Royal Family.

The pensioners also enjoy all of the usual benefits of being cared for in a retirement facility: on-site medical care, three splendid meals a day and-the most important benefit of all-a community of comradeship, in return for which those admitted surrender their Army pensions, or for those that don't receive one, pay a contribution of about $1,200 a month towards their living costs.

The requirements to be eligible for admission to the Royal Hospital are pretty basic. They include being a former soldier for a specified number of years, being aged 65 or above, and, according to the original charter, "be unencumbered by spouse."

Chelsea Pensioners

Talking of the ladies, it's only in the last five years they have become eligible for admission. It's not that the male residents felt that women would "encumber" their lifestyle. According to facilities director Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew Hickling, MBE, "the obstacle was more the impracticality of putting them on all-male wards." Since the renovations in 2009, retired women soldiers have been welcomed with open arms. Last year they totaled six—a factor lieutenant governor Major General Peter Currie, CB, puts down to "the paucity of retired women soldiers."

Curie also speculates that perhaps "female soldiers may not know they are eligible," a statement which makes me speculate as to why someone doesn't tell them then?! After all, tickets to Wimbledon, Afternoon Tea at a swanky hotel, a chance to meet the Queen, and a lifetime supply of free clothing sounds like my idea of Pensioner's Paradise.

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