Royal Hospital Chelsea
Sir Christopher Wren
- Original design
- John Soane, Sir John Vanbrugh, Nicholas Hawksmoor, Sir Christopher Wren, 1682
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The story of today’s Royal Hospital Chelsea begins over 300 years ago during the reign of King Charles II, whose vision for a home for veteran soldiers was brought to life by Sir Christopher Wren.
But it’s not just the buildings that have survived into modern times. King Charles II’s understanding that the country owes a debt of gratitude to its old soldiers informs the spirit of the Royal Hospital today. The residents of the Royal Hospital, known the world over as Chelsea Pensioners, have all served as ordinary soldiers in the Armed Forces at some point in their lives, and now, in their later years, find a warm welcome amidst the camaraderie and banter of their fellow veterans.
Until the 17th Century the state made no specific provision for old and injured soldiers. Care for the poor and sick was provided by the religious foundations. Most of this provision ended following the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of King Henry VIII.
In 1681, responding to the need to look after these soldiers, King Charles II (image right) issued a Royal Warrant authorising the building of the Royal Hospital Chelsea to care for those 'broken by age or war'.
Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to design and erect the building. Sir Stephen Fox was commissioned to secure the funds necessary to progress the build.
The chosen site, set adjacent to the River Thames in the countryside of Chelsea contained the uncompleted building of the former 'Chelsey College'.
In 1692 work was finally completed and the first Chelsea Pensioners were admitted in February 1692 and by the end of March the full complement of 476 were in residence.
Wren's magnificent formal gardens, which provided a vista from the Royal Hospital to the River Thames and included canals, gazebos and summer houses were all demolished between 1850-1868 when the Chelsea Embankment was constructed.
Sir Christopher Wren's design for the Royal Hospital is based on the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris. The original building was intended to house 412 veteran soldiers and their officers and comprised a single quadrangle, known as Figure Court. However, before work had begun it was realised that the buildings would be insufficient and Wren added two further quadrangles to his design. In 1686, construction was approved and building commenced.
The early funding of the Royal Hospital was made from deductions from army pay, with occasional funding from other sources.
This continued to be the Royal Hospital's main source of revenue until 1847. Since then the Royal Hospital has been supported by 'Grant-in-Aid' from the Ministry of Defence and a small income from the Army Prize Money and Legacy Fund.
The present Ranelagh Gardens were laid out by John Gibson (who designed Battersea Park and several Royal Parks) in about 1860.
In 1809, Sir John Soane constructed a new Infirmary building, with space for 80 patients on the site now occupied by the National Army Museum.
Life during World War Two has been nostalgically recalled as a time when people rallied together in spite of adversity and this was no different at the Royal Hospital Chelsea.
The Chelsea Pensioners and staff made their own contributions, from growing their own vegetables to forming two Home Guard units. Unfortunately though they also witnessed the horrors of the Blitz. Veterans who thought their combat days were over were once again in the firing line as the Royal Hospital became a target for Hitler’s bombs. Public air raid shelters were built on site, and the Royal Hospital was also used as an air defence location. Throughout the war years the Royal Hospital kept a comprehensive diary that documented events on a daily basis.
Royal Hospital War Diary
25 August, 1939
The first blackout was practised as the threat of war loomed over Europe and shelters were dug at different locations around the hospital grounds. A day later was the first gas mask fitting inspection, which reputedly caused some malcontent amongst the Pensioners who were faced with the distressing decision of whether to keep their facial hair!
2 September, 1939
A party of 50 Pensioners were evacuated to Rudhall Manor along with support staff where they remained until 1946. Notable art works were transported to Montacute House in Somerset for safe keeping. As the war progressed and bombing became more frequent, there were more evacuations to Ascott and Moraston houses. However, most of the Pensioners and staff remained at the Royal Hospital throughout the war.
16 April, 1941
This day saw one of the heaviest air raids of the Second World War and the Soane Infirmary was hit by an aerial mine that exploded and destroyed the East Wing. Tragically, there were heavy casualties; four nurses, the Wardmaster and eight Chelsea Pensioners were killed and 37 others were injured.
3 January, 1945
The North East Wing took a direct hit from a V2 rocket; the wing was completely destroyed and many surrounding buildings were significantly damaged. Five people from the Royal Hospital lost their lives as a result of this attack and 19 others were injured. Pensioners were temporarily accommodated in Sloane Gardens, sent on leave or evacuated.
Soane's original Infirmary was destroyed during the Second World War and was replaced in the 1960s but by the millennium this modular building had passed its sell by date and was demolished in 2002 to be replaced by the Margaret Thatcher Infirmary. HRH The Prince of Wales opened our state of the art care home with nursing and a GP medical centre in 2009.
The Infirmary building houses our care home with nursing, which can accommodate up to 47 Pensioners, as well as three Long Wards / accommodation wards for other Pensioners. Each room has an excellent view and all Pensioners have access to beautiful gardens. There are communal lounges and dining rooms in all Infirmary wards and there is a café with a conservatory on the ground floor for pensioners, staff and visitors.
Some of our Pensioners live permanently in the Infirmary and others stay for short periods when they are unwell or convalescing following treatment or surgery in local hospitals. Families are welcome to visit at any time and accommodation is available for close relatives visiting Pensioners who are seriously ill.
A wide range of social activities is provided for Pensioners who wish to take part. We aim to support all Pensioners living in the Infirmary and allow them to live their lives to the full.
On-site GP services are available for all Pensioners and the Matron has an excellent team of nurses, therapists and carers who provide care and treatment for Pensioners living in the Infirmary and in the sheltered accommodation of the Long Wards.
We have our own gymnasium with a full physiotherapy and occupational therapy service for all Pensioners at the Royal Hospital.
Volunteers play a vital role in providing a greater quality of life for the Chelsea Pensioners living in the Margaret Thatcher Infirmary.
The Royal Hospital Chelsea's Mission Statement
To provide Army veterans with the support and comradeship they need in recognition of their service to the Nation, and to safeguard their historic home for the veterans of tomorrow.
The Royal Hospital Chelsea's Vision
To remain a much valued and loved national institution, providing the highest standard of support to the Army veteran community.
The four storey wings on the East and West side of Figure Court contain the Chelsea Pensioners living quarters, which are known as Long Wards.
The original berths, as designed by Wren, measured six feet (1.8 metres) square.
Gas lighting was installed in 1854, but it was not until the early 20th century when electricity was installed that there was any lighting in the berths.
At present the East and West wings are symmetrically planned, with a pair of Long Wards arranged back-to-back on each side of the four floors. Each Long Ward is 200 feet (61 metres) long with a line of wainscoted berths running down the inner side, now containing 18 berths.
The stairs at the northern ends were designed to be shallow and wide for the convenience of the older and infirm.
The staircase in the East Wing is modern, having been damaged by bombing in 1940. The wood used to repair it was left over from the repair of the House of Commons, and the repaired wall is picked out in lighter brick.
Wren provided separate stairs at the south end of each wing as a means of escape in case of fire.
The berths were enlarged in 1954-55 and again in 1991 to 9 feet squared (2.7 metres squared).
As of October 2015 all Chelsea Pensioner berths have been upgraded to meet the needs of the 21st century veteran, with all berths designed with a study area and en suite bathroom facilities.
Until the early 19th century, the Great Hall was the dining room for the residents at the Royal Hospital Chelsea.
It was furnished with sixteen long tables (one for each Long Ward) which would provide space for two sergeants, two corporals, a drummer and twenty-one private soldiers (in all twenty six, the number that lodged in each Long Ward).
Although the kitchen was placed by Wren adjacent to the Great Hall there was no connection until 1824. Prior to that all the food was conveyed along the Colonnade and through the main entrance. Heating was provided by an open fire in the middle of the Hall.
Towards the end of the 18th century the Chelsea Pensioners took to dining in the Wards, and from the early 19th century all food was collected from the kitchen. The Great Hall was then used for recreation, court martials and Army entrance examinations. It was also in this room that the Duke of Wellington's body lay in state in 1852. The table on which his coffin rested is just inside the entrance to the Great Hall. Today it holds two 5 gallon 'black jacks', leather jugs formerly used for bringing ale up from the beer cellar below.
In 1955 the Hall was restored to its original purpose, and oak benches have since been replaced by chairs.
The large mural painting at the far end of the Hall dates from about 1690 and represents Charles II on horseback surrounded by allegorical figures, with the Royal Hospital buildings in the background. It was begun by Antonio Verrio but is mainly the work of Henry Cooke. It was restored in 2002.
The portraits of George II and Queen Caroline, by Enoch Seeman (1739) and portraits of George III (1767) and Queen Charlotte (1762) by Allan Ramsay. The equestrian portrait of John, Duke of Marlborough (c. 1702) by John Closterman, which hangs in the gallery over the door, was presented by the Drapers' Company in 1954. The other 17th and 18th Century paintings are mainly copies of originals by Kneller. William II's coat of arms, carved by William Emmett, is on display above the entrance of the Great Hall.
The Great Hall is also hired out for private functions.
One of the most important rooms at the Royal Hospital Chelsea is the Council Chamber in the State Apartments.
It is one and a half stories high and was designed as the dining room for visiting Royalty.
The heavily moulded ceiling, displaying James II's cypher, is by John Grove, the wainscoting by William Cleere and the fine lime wood carving over the fireplace by William Emmett.
The State Apartments also feature a painting of Charles I and his family by the school of Van Dyck, and portraits of Charles II, Queen Catherine, James Duke of York, the Earl of Ranelagh, Sir Stephen Fox and Sir Christopher Wren.
The State Apartments can be hired for private functions.
Built between 1681 and 1687 the chapel is a rare example of Wren's pure ecclesiastical work, being carried out without site constraints.
It was designed to accommodate about 500 people, all the staff and pensioners, and rises 42 feet high.
The wainscoting and pews (originally for staff and Horse Guards) are by Sir Charles Hopson, the leading joiner of his day and deputy Clerk of Works at the Royal Hospital from 1691 to 1698. The choir stalls are modern additions. Backs have been fitted to the benches, and the three-decker pulpit has been dismantled to make the existing pulpit and reading-desk, otherwise the original plan is maintained. The plasterwork was carried out by Henry Margetts. The carving is by William Emmett, Master Carver before Grinling Gibbons and William Morgan. The organ case is the work of Renatus Harris, but his organ has been replaced by a modern instrument.
The painting of the Resurrection in the half dome of the apse is by Sebastiano Ricci, assisted by his nephew Marco, and dates from 1714. The work was probably paid for, as a donation to the Royal Hospital, by Queen Anne.
The Royal Hospital's magnificent silver-gilt altar plate was made by Ralph Leake and is hall-marked 1687-8. It comprises a large alms dish, a pair of candlesticks with baluster stems, a salver, three flagons, four chalices and patens, and a straining spoon. The altar cross, the font and the coat of arms on the front of the organ loft date from 1955-6.
One of the original service books has been preserved. The old registers of baptisms, marriages and burials are now held at the Public Records Office. Burial services were discontinued in 1854, and weddings which were uncommon after 1753 were banned from 1815 to 1919.
The Chapel was consecrated in August 1691, and compulsory services held twice daily. Nowadays they are normally confined to the Sunday morning services before which the In-Pensioners parade in Figure Court.