/ The London Traveler
London — By Andrea Kirkby on December 22, 2009 at 5:59 am
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Talking to a Pensioner – The Royal Hospital, Chelsea

I visited the Royal Hospital, Chelsea[map], a couple of days ago, and ended up being taken on a tour of the museum by a friendly Chelsea Pensioner.


A Chelsea Pensioner isn’t just an old chap with a pension book. The hospital was founded by Charles II to look after old soldiers – and it still does. You’ll recognise them by their neat caps, with the initials ‘RH’ on them, even if they’re in their ‘undress’ navy blue uniform, not the fine red coats of their dress uniform.

I learned quite a lot of things I didn’t know about the Royal Hospital. For all its old-fashioned atmosphere, I was surprised just how modern it is. Every pensioner who wants to listen to the radio, or watch TV in his berth (room) has to use headphones. ‘We’re all a bit deaf’, the pensioner told me, ‘and if we didn’t use the headphones, well, it would be impossible!’

The mock-up in the museum of a pensioner’s berth also proudly displays a laptop on the bed. ‘Quite a lot of us have got laptops,’ I was told, ‘and if you haven’t, there are some shared ones available and you can get help learning to use them.’

Another thing I learned was that there are now lady pensioners. They wear the same uniform, but they have their own wing of the hospital – what used to be the old infirmary, before a striking new infirmary in yellow brick was built to one side of the older buildings.

I also learned about the recipe for the huge Christmas pudding – which includes not just a lot of Guinness, but also two bottles of brandy, and a number of additional alcoholic inputs!

But some things remain the same as they have done for three hundred years. Founder’s Day is still celebrated on (or close to) 29 May, with a review of all the pensioners , usually by a member of the royal family. Everyone attending wears a sprig of oak leaves, commemorating Charles II’s escape after the battle of Worcester by hiding in an oak tree – he made it to the Continent, where he was to remain for nine years before being brought back to England after the failure of the Republican government.

‘Everyone has to be there,’ my informant told me. ‘The rest of the year, if I want to go on holiday, if I want to get up late, or go shopping, I can do it. That day – no! I’ve got to be there! Unless I really am too ill to get up.’ He pointed at the photo of the Founder’s Day ceremony, showing me a row of Pensioners sitting in the seats under the Colonnade, while the others, drawn up in their four Companies, stand at attention. ‘See, even if you’re not able to stand up, you have to be there if you can get out of bed.’

Celebrations afterwards, for the Pensioners and their invited guests, include a full bar, a talented singer, and…. a number of belly dancers! I was assured that the belly dancers are always popular with the Pensioners. I bet!

I’d highly recommend a visit to the Royal Hospital to anyone visiting London. My guide was a charming chap, full of interesting stories and information, and I’ve rarely met anyone with such a good memory for dates and numbers.

Where: Royal Hospital Road (Sloane Square tube)

When: 10-12 and 2-4 daily, except bank holidays (closed) and Sundays (2-4 only)

How much: free.

Photo by Roy Costello on flickr

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