The Royal Hospital Chelsea: a brief history
by John Rochester

Date: Tuesday 5 November 2019

The Royal Hospital Chelsea; over three centuries of service to old soldiers, the Army and the nation.

The content of John Rochester's talk is included below.

The Royal Hospital Chelsea: a brief history

The Royal Hospital Chelsea was founded in 1682 by Charles II as a refuge for old soldiers of the post-Civil war army. Its bespoke buildings were designed by Sir Christopher Wren and since opening its doors to them in 1692, it has continued to ‘provide succour and relief for men broken by age and war’ an expression of its original mission statement devised by Wren himself.  However the image that we have today of the gentlemen and ladies in their scarlet coats and tricorn hats at the Albert Hall or the Cenotaph is deceiving. There always has been more to the operation of this iconic institution than meets the eye and in this talk it is the aim to not only tell the story of the Hospitals founding and subsequent development within the context of both the local and national communities, but to also illustrate some of these disparate facets of its operations and to identify some of its personalities across the last three and a quarter centuries.

 (The text of John Rochester's talk is included below)

The Royal Hospital Chelsea,

1692 to 2019 

John Rochester BA (Hons) MA (Hist)

Heritage Manager

The Royal Hospital Chelsea

(Talk published by kind permission of The Royal Hospital Chelsea)

The Royal Hospital Chelsea; over three centuries of service to old soldiers, the Army and the nation.


The Royal Hospital Chelsea is today a reasonably well known institution and its residents with their Scarlet coats and Tricorn hats are iconic images of that. They seem to make regular TV appearances at the Chelsea Flower Show, the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall, the Remembrance Day parade at the Cenotaph on Whitehall and this year we also include Britain’s Got Talent to the playlist! All events that keep the Hospital in the public conscious, but it has not always been that way. Few today would recognise the organisation and its residents of the mid-19th century or even earlier, but regardless of that its mission has remained constant and whilst the operation may have changed to meet current best practice, it remains overall a community of disparate individuals who all bring their own story to the table for telling.

To provide a comprehensive history of the three hundred years plus that RHC has been operating in 45 minutes is a tall order so what his presentation will focus on is illustrating how the Army has and is continuing to exercise a great deal of paternalism in dealing with its old soldiers, in doing so I will introduce you to some of the characters and their escapades who have contributed to the story over these last three centuries.

The provision of poor relief has for centuries been based upon the church with the focus in the parish. Formalised by Elizabeth I in the 1601 Poor Law, the overseers of the poor in each parish would levy rates on the landowners and then administer the distribution of relief. Notwithstanding this, the burden upon the parish was always under scrutiny with measures put in place to minimise their often limited financial resources to such demands. The Poor Relief Act 1662 known as the Settlement and Removal Act; provided parishes with the legitimacy of being able to move on to someone else those who might become chargeable to their parish in terms of poor relief, even before such a demand had manifested itself. So any form of imported source of potential claimants was looked upon with great trepidation by the local community and the discharged soldier turning up on the doorstep looking for aid would not be seen as a positive in this regards.

Following the English Civil War and the Commonwealth experiment, the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 brought with it a standing Army. Charles II wife Catharine of Braganza’s dowry included amongst many things the city of Tangier and this new Army was to garrison it whilst basically being under siege for the next two decades. This would lead Catharine to suggest to Charles that the establishment of a hospital for his veterans soldiers as Louis XIV of France had done was the right thing to do.

So having got the Paymaster General Sir Stephen Fox to procure the riverside site in Chelsea, he appointed Sir Christopher Wren to design and build it. Work started in 1682 and was completed in 1692 when the first tranche of Pensioners moved into residence, at that time the capacity was for 538 pensioners.

Management of the Royal Hospital was via a board of commissioners including some ex-officio positions such as the Paymaster General and the Governor of the Hospital. It was organised upon an extensive military structure; from the Governor, a General as the head of the establishment, down to the Sergeants as first line supervisors with various other levels of management in between. All of this based upon not only a regimental structure that the residents would have been very familiar with, one that also required them to be in uniform of scarlet coats, blue breeches and boots, with headgear appropriate to their rank.

The pensioners were organised into six companies of eighty men each commanded by a Captain of Invalids as the welfare and administration manager. All supported by a logistic team under the Steward later Quartermaster who would manage and administer the housing, feeding and equipping of the men together with maintaining the building. Attending to the medical needs of the residents was the domain of the Physician and Surgeon along with the Matron.

Wren and his colleagues were fastidious in setting out not only the organisation to run the Hospital but also the duties of the key staff appointments.

Whilst the Hospital just like the Army was definitely a male oriented organisation, it must be said that if it had been left to men to run the place on its own it would never have crossed the first fence, today that runs as true as ever. The role of women at the Hospital always was and continues to be a key element in its operation and is fundamental to its success. Anna Acton the first Housekeeper managed thirty nurses covering both the long wards where the generally fit and able in pensioners lived and those in the Infirmary. These nurses received on average one shilling and nine pence per day, a room with half rations, uniform, coal and light, ‘to keep their respective wards clean and in good order, and be kind and attentive to the comforts of the In-Pensioners’, however tenure in post was limited, as the job would have to be vacated should they get married. The management of the Ward Nurses, included making sure they attended not only to their cleaning tasks but also to their devotions in the Chapel, discipline was certainly a key feature of the job. She was also charged with the accounting of all linens and stores, the diet for the sick in the Infirmary as directed by the Physician which was not to exceed sixpence a day for Officers and five pence for Pensioners.

Amongst the early In Pensioners was William Hiseland, who was born 1620 in Wiltshire. He fought at Edgehill 1642 for King Charles I and at the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660 he enlisted in the 1st Foot (Royal Scots). He then fought with William of Orange at the battle of the Boyne in 1690 and campaigned with the Duke of Marlborough up to the battle of Malplaquet in 1709, at the purported age of eighty-nine and was believed to be the oldest soldier on the field, reaching the rank of sergeant along the way. For this he was awarded a long service pension of two crowns a week, he entered the Hospital at the age of 98 but then left again to get married aged 103. He returned to Chelsea as a widower and died in 1732 aged 112 and is buried adjacent to the very first Pensioner to be interred in the hospital burial ground in 1691, Simon Box.

Now there has always been a second side to the story of the Royal Hospital and that is the serried ranks of Out Pensioners, men who had gone past their effective ‘sell by date’ but yet still had the ability to either live on their own devices or were still capable of acting as garrison troops around the British Isles and in some cases further afield. One such out pensioner had a fascinating if almost incredulous story to tell….

Christian "Kit" Cavanagh was born in 1667 in Dublin. She ran a pub and married one of the waiters, Richard Welsh. They had two children, and in 1691 pregnant with a third Richard suddenly disappeared. He ended up in the Army and apparently wrote to inform her of his situation. Eventually, one of the letters did make it through telling Kit that he was serving in Holland. Unwilling to simply lose her husband, she placed her children in the care of her mother, cut her hair, and disguised herself as a man to join the Army to find him.

Kit served in Captain Tichborne's company of foot as Christopher Welch where, in 1693 at the Battle of Landen, she was wounded and captured by the French. In 1694, she was exchanged and returned to the Army, who were still unaware of her true sex. Kit continued to soldier on, became embroiled in a dispute with a sergeant of the company, whom she killed in a duel over another the affections of woman. Following the duel, Welch was allowed to be discharged from the army.

In 1697 she re-enlisted, in the Royal North British Dragoons (later the Scots Greys) taking part in the Nine Years' War between France and the Grand Alliance and War Spanish Succession in 1701 actually enlist twice! So successful was she at passing herself off as a man that a prostitute claimed she was the father of her child. Rather than give proof that this was impossible, Kit paid child support to the woman. She had grown to enjoy the life of a soldier, particularly seeming to enjoy the marauding and looting that followed in the wake of battles. For a woman who had been successful in business, she was alleged to be just as successful a marauder.

In 1704, she was wounded at the Battle of Schellenberg by a musket ball in her upper thigh, again escaping detection. After the Battle of Blenheim in the same year, she was assigned to guard French prisoners and there after 13 years of searching she found her husband, Richard a private in the 1st Regiment of Foot who was trying to pick up a Dutch woman, but having found him thus, she refused to go back to him, preferring to remain a dragoon!

Despite this they agreed to not reveal her identity, instead pretending to be brothers. The deception worked, with no one in the regiment suspecting her of being a woman, despite being known as the "pretty dragoon". Kit's life as trooper continued until the Battle of Ramillies in 1706 when she was wounded again fracturing her skull. Now, the regimental surgeon discovered that Christopher was in fact a woman, the news soon spread through the British cavalry brigade. Lord Hay, the brigade commander intervened and after hearing her story, he ordered that her pay be continued while she remained under the care of the army. Once fit and now back to being Mrs. Welsh, Kit was formally discharged from the Greys but not before the officers had paid for her new wardrobe!

She was recorded as being a faithful wife, unlike her husband. When Kit discovered one of his mistresses was still following the regiment, she attacked the woman, cutting off her nose. However, at the Battle of Malplaquet 1709, Richard died and Kit spent much of the following day searching for his body, turning over as many as two hundred corpses before finding him so that she could bury him. Later she became involved with a Captain Ross of the Greys, but never married him, rather another dragoon Hugh Jones who was killed only three months later. Kit was forever afterwards, known in the regiment as "Mother Ross".

As the War of Spanish Succession was winding down in 1712, Kit returned home and was presented at court to Queen Anne who granted her a bounty of £50 and a shilling a day as a pension. Finally returning to Dublin in 1713, she married for the third and final time, this one like the rest, was a soldier Private Davies. For some years they ran a pub in Dublin. But years in the army had left them unsuited to settled life. They moved about England and Ireland, making a living through a variety of jobs as well as off her celebrity status among the military. Eventually, she was admitted to the Royal Hospital Chelsea as one of its Out Pensioners and was buried, at her request, with full military honors at Royal Hospital Chelsea.

So these were the sort of folk who were resident at the Hospital in the early 18th century, let us now take a look at another character who would have been around some decades later.

Dr Messenger Monsey was born in Norfolk in 1694, becoming Physician at the Royal Hospital in 1738. According to William Munk, the English physician and medical historian, "Monsey maintained his original plainness of manners, and with an unreserved sincerity sometimes spoke truth in a manner that gave offence; and as old age approached, he acquired an asperity of behaviour and a neglect of decorum....” Others described him thus…A medical oddity, with a considerable share of mental acuteness and literary endowments

As a physician he despised modern improvements in theory and practice, uniformly prescribing outdated stimulants or tonics and adhering to rules and systems merely because they were sanctioned by sixty years’ experience.

He also distrusted banks or investment in government securities and was always trying to find new places in his rooms where he could secrete his cash. On one occasion, when he was about to travel to Norfolk for a time, he chose to hide his money, part coinage and part banknotes, by wrapping it in thick, brown paper and tucking it under the wood and ashes in the grate. Sadly, his maid later decided to welcome him back by lighting the fire, only to find the enraged doctor immediately dousing it, and her, in cold water to rescue his money!

As he aged, Monsey’s manners became even more rough and eccentric. He is remembered more for what he said than anything he wrote. But his final masterpiece was his will, a terse document which caused a mixture of hilarity and offence. He left a considerable fortune of sixteen thousand pounds, all to his daughter, with strict instructions that it was thereafter to be left only to her female descendants (a deliberate subversion of normal custom) and in another odd bequest, he left an old coat to one beneficiary and the buttons from it to another.

He had also developed a taste for Black Powder Dentistry; he would tie catgut around the offending tooth, then thread it through a hole in a pistol-ball, into a loaded pistol and pull the trigger…, one patient or rather victim tried to get out of it by saying that he had changed his mind to which Monsey replied, ‘You may have, but I have not!’ at which point he pulled the trigger and extracted the tooth!

There were a good many young physicians with their eyes on his prize post at Chelsea Hospital after his death and he loved to invite them to show them around, then happily inform them that they would undoubtedly die before he did – which quite often proved to be the truth. But he did eventually relinquish the post when in 1788 he died aged 96, after which at his own request he was dissected in a post mortem examination before students of Guy's Hospital and the remains were to be discarded in the Thames!

A few years after Monsey ‘shuffled off’ another character was getting some time in the Army. Henry LeBlanc joined the 71st (Highland) Regiment of Foot (Highland Light Infantry) in 1792 and served in India, Scotland and Ireland, then just before the disastrous 1806 campaign to conquer a strategically important region of South America around Buenos Aires and Montevideo, he had a premonition that he would lose his leg in the battle. He was so convinced by this vision that he learned how to tie a tourniquet and found a good stick to use as a crutch.

His preparations almost certainly saved his life, because his leg was blown off by a Spanish cannonball. He was invalided home to serve as Lieutenant Colonel of the 5th Royal Veteran Battalion in Guernsey, then, incredibly nine years later, went on to serve in the cavalry at Waterloo. After which Henry was appointed Captain of Invalids and Major at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, where he was nicknamed Stumpy! He became a popular and well-respected member of the staff at the Hospital who looked out for the well-being of the residents.

Someone else who had the welfare of the Pensioners at heart after Waterloo was the Chaplain, George Robert Gleig. He started his career in 1813 as an Ensign in the 85th Light Infantry under Wellington in the Peninsular. Then served in America during the War of 1812-14 where he fought in five battles (Bladensburg, Baltimore, New Orleans, Washington and Fort Bayo) and was wounded three times in doing so.

Sensing that perhaps his days were indeed numbered he took holy orders in 1820 before being appointed as Chaplain at Chelsea in 1832. He became something of a prolific author basing many volumes on the tales of not only his own military experiences but those of his congregation with whom he would spend many hours spinning a yarn about campaigns of yesteryear.

By 1844 he rose to Chaplain-General of the Forces and from 1846 to 1857 was also Inspector-General of Military Schools, for he was also a firm advocate of soldier’s education and saw to it that the Pensioners also got the chance to better themselves. He made so much noise about the subject that eventually he was reprimanded by Wellington about it who said…’By Jove! If there is a mutiny in the army – and in all probability, we shall have one – you'll see that these new-fangled schoolmasters will be at the bottom of it.’

Now that we are in the period of the mid-19th century and of military reform, it is worth taking a look at the institution itself and how it was run.

After the Crimean War the Prime Minster 1856-66 Lord John Russell remarked that The Chelsea Board was

‘…the best machinery for carrying out this branch of the Public Service, insuring at once economy to the National Revenue, due control to the Crown and justice to the faithful and deserving soldier.’

The In Pensioners were accommodated in two wings of the four storey building in pairs of long wards on each floor. The two wards arranged back to back; comprising; twenty four berths each, all but two being just six feet square allowing only sufficient room for a bed and a chair whilst the pensioner’s belongings were held in a footlocker and their uniforms hung up outside of the berths.

In 1869 the three meals a day at the Royal Hospital were more substantial than those being served up in the local workhouse as they included a pound of bread with butter, cocoa and tea daily, with almost a pound of mutton and potatoes five days a week, alternated with bacon and cabbage on Wednesdays and beef and potatoes on Sundays, washed down with a pint of porter daily. In 1870 the expenditure on this diet was one shilling and four pence per man plus a penny a day for the beer!

In 1870 the Governor summed up the benefits enjoyed by the In-Pensioners under six headings; lodging, subsistence, clothing, medical, general comfort and religion. In particular he identified a number of significant points; that medical treatment was available on the first appearance of sickness, duties were minimal and discipline generally benign with limited restriction of movement being the normal penalty, however with the ultimate sanction being removal from the Hospital which averaged about seven times a year, the general application of these regulations being to ensure a quiet and easy life for all the Pensioners.

In 1875 the organisation consisted of 71 staff:

Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Major and a Chaplain

3 Medical Staff

8 Other Officers

41 Civilian Staff

15 Secretariat Staff

All to look after 538 Resident Pensioners, 85 who were also working!

An interesting feature of the entries in the 1875 registers was the inclusion of cases emanating from the Peninsular War period 1808-1814. These were applications from men discharged decades previously without pension and who were now in their dotage and in need of relief. The cases having been submitted on their behalf either by the Staff Officer of Pensioners at home or from local officials abroad. All were awarded pensions to varying degrees despite the fact that none would have qualified for a pension at the time of their original discharge. So these were truly cases of meeting a need because of the ethical imperative rather than being mandated by legislation and adherence to fixed criteria. However no award was ever made for an indefinite period; the Board retained the right in fact almost an obligation to periodically recall Out Pensioners to Chelsea for review, to ascertain if they still qualified for pension or if their ability to work had improved and so could be removed from the lists or at least have their pensions reduced. Stark illustration of a measure that could be implemented to control costs within budgets.

But it was not all bad news, Veterans of the Waterloo campaign got an additional 2 years’ service credited which helped many gain admission to Chelsea. For most of the pensioners resident at the Royal Hospital it represented the culmination of their service as they would invariably end their days within its walls, at which point their place would then be taken up by the next in line for admission from Out-pension. Just as each man came from a different background and set of circumstances, their admission process and the stays would be of varied duration as illustrated by the following cases, of men resident in 1880, all of whom were veterans of the 1815 Waterloo campaign.

Naish Hanney; born in Bath, in 1792, enlisted as a teenager and spent seven years in the cavalry. After his service he returned to Bath, married, became a cabinet maker then later a porter. He entered the Hospital in 1872 and died in 1881 at the age of 89.

John McKay; born in 1784 he enlisted in 1813 and served during the Peninsular War and Wellington’s advance into France which resulted in Napoleon’s first abdication. He was wounded three times at Waterloo and discharged during the force reductions of 1816. As no parish would claim him he survived by wandering the country and begging. He was brought to the notice of Chelsea by a church minister and joined the Hospital in 1875 where in 1882 he was described as being worn out.  He died in 1886 at the age of 101.

Benjamin Bumstead; born in Smarden Kent in 1797, enlisted in 1812 and was heavily engaged at Waterloo. Afterwards serving in India before being invalided out of the army in 1820 and returning to Kent where he married and worked as an agricultural labourer. Life became increasingly hard for Benjamin who spent over 25 years in the Hollingborne, Kent workhouse before joining the hospital in 1877 and died in 1882 at the age of 84.

Robert Norton; born in Norwich in 1790 and enlisted as a teenager for seven years in the infantry, after Waterloo he was discharged and returned to Norwich as a weaver. He married twice and after his second wife died came to Chelsea in 1877 dying in 1881 at the age of 90.

Samson Webb; born in Ludlow Shropshire about 1798 served during both the Peninsular War, Waterloo campaigns and then with the Militia, completing over 40 years’ service. He was admitted in 1870 dying in 1881 at the age of 83.

With the exception of Webb, these men were all retrospective cases for entry to the Royal Hospital as they were not awarded a pension on their initial discharge, their Waterloo campaign service boosting their eligibility for admission. Being all post Crimean War entrants they also enjoyed the flourishing perception of being the Christian Soldier of the hymn that permeated the middle and upper classes of society in the late 1860s, who thus perceived them to be objects of work for evangelical devotion and charity.

The late nineteenth century is a good place to take a snapshot of just what made up the population of the Royal Hospital as it differs significantly from that today.


Oldest            97        John McKay 42nd Highlanders (Waterloo veteran)

Youngest      28        HG Norris 6th Dragoon Guards admitted with paralysis but was later shown as cured and discharged!

31 % were in their 60's (167)

26% in their 50's (140)

23 % in their 70's (122)

Surprisingly 16% (87) were under 50

Only 35 were over 80 (18)

The employed Staff Pensioners included-

Sergeant Major who was only fit for duties in Chelsea

4 Quartermaster Sergeants 2 only Slightly fit

A Hospital Sergeant

A Porter Sergeant

A slightly fit Engineer 

Pensioners working to help run the Hospital were a feature of the Chelsea setup from the very beginning. Roles such as; Kitchen hands, librarians, coal carriers, sweepers, gardeners and chapel clerks were all carried out by pensioners within the bounds of their physical abilities. In 1870 some more physically able Out Pensioners were admitted put on the payroll, uniformed and with modified diets to act as gate guards or constables.

Yet the true picture looked like this:

9 were admitted for employment, yet one was deemed totally unfit due to losing a leg on a field day!

25 were materially fit and employed, 7 as Constables

61 were only slightly fit and employed, 1 a Constable

Of those who were employed:

1 in the Library, 3 in the Infirmary, 3 Kitchen, 2 Laundry,1 Surgery, 1 Coal yard, 1 Cellar and 8 general duties

But 465 were classed as totally unfit!

…apart from being generally assessed as worn out, old age or exhibiting general weakness, cases of rheumatism, bronchitis, heart or liver conditions, the following were also recorded :

52 Blind or loss of eye

39 Ruptures

32 Paralysis

10 Loss of limb

  9 Deaf

  1 Dumb

Some of which would not be in isolation, there were at least 9 instances of double rupture and loss of limb! So this was certainly not the scarlet coated man about town that we have come to know these days.

So with a demographic like that it is hardly surprising that the public perception of the Royal Hospital community was one deserving of some compassion and charity. But as has always been the case, the pensioners were expected to work to help run the Hospital and to keep themselves active and gardening was one way of supplementing the rations or of earning some extra beer or tobacco money by selling the fruits of their labour or in a few instances someone else’s efforts.

It is recorded in the minutes on more than one occasion that pensioners were to be reminded that the Governors orchard was not for public use.

Some would engage in craft work such as making rag carpets or simply whiled away the time between meals, chapel services and parades by what many generations of soldiers know as Egyptian PT! Until of course the Sergeant Major would find out….

Sergeant Major Alfred Joseph Christian Lynch was born in India 1873, his father and older brothers were all serving in the Royal Artillery and so it was no surprise when he enlisted as a boy soldier at 14 into the Royal Horse Artillery. After 3 years’ service at home he got promoted to Bombardier and then went off to South Africa in February 1900 and campaigned with his battery throughout the Boer War, being ‘Mentioned in Despatches’ twice. Promoted Sergeant in 1902 he also earned a Distinguished Conduct Medal during the guerrilla operations that year. He saw out the rest of his service in the UK being appointed RSM in 1912 and taking up the same appointment at the Royal Hospital in 1913. He oversaw the discipline and welfare of the Pensioners through not one but two world wars, after the first he received a BEM for services to the Hospital and after London come under intense aerial bombardment in the second he was involved in organising the Air Raid precautions at the Hospital. In 1941 at the culmination of his 28 years’ service to the Chelsea Pensioners he was awarded the MBE, with such a lengthy tenure he remains the longest recorded serving Hospital RSM to this day.

Captain of Invalids Ernest Ludlow MC was another member of staff at the Royal Hospital at the same time as RSM Lynch. Born in Dartford in 1876, a tall lad at 5’11” he got fed up with life as a labourer and so in 1894 decided to take the Queen’s Shilling enlisting into the Grenadier Guards. Promoted LCpl the following year he was already showing signs of a promising Army career. He took part in the Nile expedition of 1898 seeing action at Omdurman and then as a Sergeant he was in South Africa for the Boer War. Back to the UK his career progressed, promoted to Drill Sergeant in 1908 and finally Regimental Sergeant Major in 1912. He embarked for France with the BEF at the outbreak of the First World War seeing action from the outset, being ‘Mentioned in Despatches’ in October 1914 and awarded the Medaille Militaire by the French at the same time and the Military Cross in January 1915. He continued in the front line until July 1915 when he was commissioned as QM of the 4th Battalion before being wounded in August 1916. This ended his active service and he was invalided back to the UK and appointed to the Royal Hospital staff in August 1917.

However on the night of 16th February 1918, his quarter at the Hospital was hit by a 1000kg bomb dropped from a Gotha bomber, killing his wife Jessie, himself and three of his children and his wife’s niece who had been visiting. Total War had made an early showing over London, yet it would not be the last appearance as subsequent events in Chelsea would come to illustrate. 

Between the wars and as today fashions may change but the pensioner’s uniform has remained fairly constant, the ladies always say there is something about a man in uniform, regardless of age! 

After the 1938 Munich Crisis, preparations for war moved apace in Chelsea; but there were also excursions further afield to identify suitable accommodation into which the Hospital could evacuate pensioners if required. Rudhall Manor a Tudor house outside of Ross-on Wye was identified as such and an agreement was drawn up with the owner Maj William Morland for the potential occupation by the Royal Hospital of the Ground floor and 5 rooms on the first, whilst the family retained the rest.

September 2nd 1939 the day before War was declared 3 Charabancs, 2 lorries, 52 Pensioners and 9 Staff (Sister, 5 Nurses, Infirmary Orderly, a cook and the accounts clerk) left RHC at 1130 arrived at Rudhall 1700. 5 days later Dulcie, wife of the owner Major William Morland, who was then 2ic of the local Territorial unit, was appointed Commandant of the Royal Hospital Chelsea Rudhall Detachment.

Rudhall did not feature too often in the RHC war diary which infers that life there was relatively unexciting and is only mentioned in passing when inspections visits were made. But life in Chelsea was far from such…

October 1940; Height of the Blitz, 136 Air Raid alerts; 86 hours in shelters during daylight and 273 at night, 26 whole nights spent in shelters! The intensity of the bombing would result in an almost constant movement of Pensioners between Chelsea and Rudhall as some found the quiet of the countryside too much and wanted to get ‘home’ to the smoke!

The stay at Rudhall and also at nearby Moraston house included an alternative Founders Day parade each year with the Pensioners being reviewed by a senior officer from the Army and or local dignitary. This location outside of the town had some disadvantages and whilst rationing may not have improved things much, the inability to get to the local pub was reputedly one of the main reasons for pensioners who wanted to return to Chelsea!

The Blitz arrived in Chelsea when Soane’s 1810 Infirmary built on the West side of the estate was hit by an aerial mine in April 1941 and was largely destroyed. 8 Staff and pensioners died and 37 were injured

Following the destruction of the Chelsea Infirmary, the Infirmary patients at Rudhall were moved to new facility established at Ascott House in Leighton Buzzard, Rudhall effectively now being seen as a remote Long ward and with a extra draft of pensioners to replace those sent to Ascott House the establishment was now set at 1 CSgt, 2 Sgts, 2 Cpls and 40 Pensioners

During their stay in Ross-on Wye, 27 Pensioners died, 22 at Rudhall all buried together with Captain of Invalids William Lockley and 5 at Moraston. Rudhall Manor was finally returned to the Morland family in its entirety in 1946. 

Another wartime character was Captain Charles Townsend RAOC

He was in Shanghai during 1936 Japanese invasion, he injured his eyes on Yangtse doing EOD’ which is something his story at Chelsea will further illustrate…

At the outbreak of the War he was appointed ARP officer and set about getting RHC ready to repel boarders! A large tin of sand was positioned on the top of each staircase for dealing with incendiaries, now as the IPs ate in the wards there was also a population of mice and so each ward had a cat who thought the new sand box an absolute delight! Until he had wooden covers made for them.

For Gas Attack precautions, with detector paint on his tin helmet, he would stand outside in the court for a few minutes after an alarm and then check his helmet to see if there was any colour change, if not then he would ring an all clear bell, problem was that was also the invasion signal so the authorities put a stop to that.

After the first night raid on Chelsea he went looking for what he thought was an UXB only to fall into the crater, unperturbed, as folk came around to view the hole, he started to charge them five shillings to have a look (For the Red Cross!)  until they did find two UXBs close by. Entrepreneurial spirit in adversity!

Due to the numbers of alarms early on the Governor announced that in future pensioners would only react to reports of multiple aircraft and not singles. To that end a Captain of Invalids was detailed to sit out in Figure Court all day to watch and count incoming raiders! One day when on this duty Townsend heard a series of muffled reports and sounded the hooter for a general alarm, only to realise that it was a couple of motor cycles backfiring on the Embankment, he fudged the alarm with tales of machine gunning bombers!

Incendiaries were a constant issue and he recalls one Pensioner dealing with one by carefully undoing the string on a sandbag before sprinkling the burning bomb with the sand, a different interpretation of the training that said use a sandbag to smother it! He and the RSM dealt with another one that landed in the lead guttering on the third floor, using a scoop to fling the device off the roof he then called for the stirrup pump and bucket only to find the latter had been forgotten in the excitement, so they used a large kettle off the range in the ward!

Early on in 1940 he was concerned about some one-legged pensioners in the East wing who complained about using the stairs to get to the shelters in the basement of the Chapel. So he built a sandbagged refuge for them under the stairs, in October that wing was hit and the stairs were destroyed, falling down on top of his refuge, which although well crushed did save the men’s lives.

In 1943 whilst dealing with another incendiary he burnt his foot and had to wear slippers meaning that he missed Founders Day, the Physician decided that he had done his bit and got him retired from the role of ARP officer, undeterred he then wangled himself a job as a part time Civil Defence Warden in Chelsea Town Hall, a role he did for the rest of the war, after which he was asked to run for and got elected as a councillor which he did for 20 years including two tours as deputy mayor. Ultimately he was to spend 42 very happy but eventful years at the Hospital.

In addition to shelter trenches in the grounds, there were reinforced shelters established under the Great Hall, Chapel and the Lieutenant Governors apartments, adequate but far from comfortable. So for some the lure of the peace and quiet of the countryside must have been great.

The show must go on, the pensioners parading for Founders Day with their gas masks slung uniformly over the shoulders even though no one else seems to be doing likewise and it will be observed that the reviewing party are stood in front of a large structure, which was the statue of Charles II bricked up for the duration to prevent damage from bombing, the fact that pretty much every pane of glass in the Hospital was destroyed through blast this was not an unreasonable precaution.

January 1945; 25 IPs evacuated to Rudhall following the V2 attack on the Hospital that destroyed the North East Wing for a second time in a generation, killing four staff (including one who survived the 1918 bombing) and one Pensioner with eighteen others injured. This time it would not be rebuilt until the early 1960s, when along with making good provision for the Hospitals sick pensioners a new Infirmary was to be built to replace the one lost in 1941.

This new Infirmary was built on the east side of the site and opened by the Queen Mother in 1961. A modern medical facility with room for over 80 residents, fully equipped with a Dispensary, X Ray suite, occupational therapies, out patients department and a hydrotherapy pool, It would serve the Royal Hospital well for the next half century, as the pensioners from the two world wars enjoyed life at Chelsea and occasionally the seaside… 

Seaside Frolics aside, time was marching on and in 2000 it had become apparent that the Infirmary was feeling the effects of old age just as its residents were.

Year of planning led to the demolition of the Infirmary in 2002 and the new Margaret Thatcher Infirmary rose from the ruins, state of the art with full ensuite facilities for an increased residency of 125 pensioners together with a full Medical centre, Outpatients, Physiotherapy departments and Hydrotherapy pool together with its own kitchen, café and an activity centre.

An almost 15 year process of bringing the Royal Hospital into the 21st century had started. The ensuite facilities in the Infirmary were now rolled out to all the pensioners in the Long Wards, with the last pensioner moving in to his new digs in 2016.

During this time it was also decided to give the Pensioners Club a facelift to complement the new accommodation.

Canteens had been run at some of the wartime outstations which were too far from the local pubs for old legs to carry them and so on return to Chelsea there was a general clamour to do likewise. The first being established in one of the old staff quarters and as its custom grew it was then relocated to the North West wing in 1955. The RSM, James Ives championed the cause with his sons amongst some of the many unpaid staff who ran the place in those early years, the side bar of the club being named the Ives Lounge in his honour. Over the decades since it has been the social hub of the Hospital and generations of Pensioners, Staff, Regimental Old Comrades and others have come to hold a special place in their hearts for it. A good place to pull up a sandbag and recount tales of battles fought in the past.

In 2012 it was decided to spruce the place up and also bring it into the 21st century, not a bad idea in principle however since then we have managed to restore some of its old charm and many of the 600 plus Regimental shields that used to adorn all the walls!

Looking back at the raison d’etre for the Hospital it needs to be remembered that supplemental to its care for veterans, the Hospital also had its own benevolent ventures; from the regular disbursement of the Sunday chapel offertory to soldier’s widows, to its work on behalf of soldier’s children.

It had for many years supported an onsite charitable school for Pensioners daughters founded in 1729 and also maintained ties to the Royal Soldiers' Daughters' School founded in 1855 to nurse, board, clothe and educate the female children… of soldiers in Her Majesty's Army killed in the Crimean War. A close neighbour to the Hospital and one that enjoyed a degree of mutual support from it was the Royal Military Asylum for Children of Soldiers of the Regular Army, which was also the location of the Regimental Schoolmasters School responsible for developing educational services to the Army in general.

Awarding veterans an in pension meant that their worries were considerably eased as room and board with the prospect of early medical intervention were readily to hand should it be needed. Today the Royal Hospital has been in operation in the same location for over three hundred and twenty years and in its residential care role is at the forefront of such service provision. The buildings remain largely the same and the service basically similar; three meals a day, a bed of their own and companions to while away the days with, whilst necessitating very little from them in return. Life was then and certainly more so today not bad for the Chelsea pensioner whose only obligations include; attendance at Governor’s parade three or four times a year, the annual Founders Day parade and minimal turns at representing the Hospital and the Army as an ambassador at social events, with the prospect of some light paid employment if fit enough for it.

All in the Royal Hospital Chelsea remains very much the example of the twenty first century Armed Forces Covenant, ‘a promise from the nation that those who serve or have served, and their families, are treated fairly’.


John enlisted into the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers and Greys) a cavalry regiment in the Royal Armoured Corps (RAC) in April 1972. Trained at Catterick and then served in Germany until 1992 on a mixture of Wheeled and Tracked reconnaissance vehicles, Chieftain and Challenger tanks. During this time he completed 3 operational tours in Northern Ireland, 1 in Belize and served as Regimental Signals Warrant Officer in the First Gulf War (Operation Granby) with the 7th Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats. He returned to Catterick in 1992 as the Regimental Sergeant Major until being demobbed in 1994, during which time he was involved in developing the Regimental affiliations around the Commonwealth including trips to South Africa and Canada where he settled following his service. Returning to the UK in Nov 2000 to take up his first appointment at the Royal Hospital Chelsea as Quartermaster Sergeant initially dealing with Compliance matters and since 2014 has been managing all Heritage related activities, archives and the various fine art collections. In addition to his duties at the Royal Hospital Chelsea he has since 2005 been a member of the Queen’s Body Guard Of The Yeoman Of The Guard, at events such as the State Opening of Parliament and the Order of the Garter Services. All in a total of over 40 years uniformed service to the nation.

A Londoner by upbringing, Scottish by service and an adopted colonial, John lives at the Royal Hospital Chelsea with his Canadian wife Heidi and has two daughters and 2 granddaughters. Whilst working at the Royal Hospital, he has also studied with the Open University gaining both a BA (Honours) and an MA in History.

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