A report of the Societys visit to the Royal Hospital Chelsea on 15th April 2011

A delightful visit for 21 Members and their guests who were most royally entertained by Tom, one of the in pensioners, resplendent in his red ceremonial uniform which he admitted he avoided wearing outside the Hospital because of the unwelcome attention it attracted.  His 25 years service in the army (Royal Engineers) showed in his cynical and philosophical wit, which shone through.  Knowing when to salute and when to hide came second nature and he left us with the problem of deciding, at times, where truth ended and fiction began!  

The history of the Royal Hospital Chelsea is well documented and need not be repeated here.  Their web site (www.chelsea-pensioners.co.uk) also contains much interesting information including a little about births (?) marriages and burials.  As we went around with Tom many additional interesting facts emerged.  Yes it is true that each pensioner’s ‘berth’ was a six feet by six feet timber windowless hut until relatively recent times but have now been upgraded to …. nine feet by nine feet!  And for every 36 men there are just 4 toilets and 2 showers.  There were other benefits in the past such as their own in house brewery and 5 gallons of beer between four men at dinner every day, served from a leather jug. 

A wooden marquetry alter piece in the chapel which was, allegedly, rescued from the Great Fire of London but its origins have been lost in time.  However, it is believed there is writing on the back which may indicate its history but removing the piece for confirmation would present too big a risk (also allegedly!).  The chapel is also used for private weddings, as a source of income.

There is a large ongoing refurbishment and redevelopment project which will eventually give each pensioner two rooms and an ensuite bathroom.  Some have already been completed and the recent admission of three lady pensioners raised a few grumbles when it was discovered that they were moving straight into the new
accommodation, ahead of men who had been there perhaps 30 years.  Until one gentleman was offered a place in the new wing but decided he was happier staying where he was!  Old soldiers never change.

Part of the redevelopment was a brand new infirmary, opened last year and named after Margaret Thatcher who remains a keen supporter of the Hospital.  The Hospital is still very dependent upon fund raising and Margaret Thatcher is credited with raising millions of pounds through her forceful determination with visiting dignitaries to the UK. The Hospital Chapel remains her regular place of Sunday worship.  The Chelsea Flower Show is held on the Hospital’s land which makes an important contribution to funds, together with other events through the year on the same site.  

An entertaining visit, ably enhanced by Tom’s good humour and I felt it was a privilege to meet him.

Barry Hepburn

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