As you walk through London, in particular Chelsea, you may come across elderly men wearing scarlet uniforms topped with black tricorn hats. Who are these old men flamboyantly and quirkily patrolling the streets of London and what is their history?
Known as the Chelsea Pensioners, this London tradition dates back more than three centuries. Today the Queen honours these individuals, as have many of her predecessors.
It all started in 1682 when King Charles II decided that something must be done for British soldiers who had been wounded in war. Seven years later, King Charles’ ideas were re-enforced when William III introduced a pension system for soldiers who had been wounded or had served the country for 20 years.
The Royal Hospital in Chelsea was still being built during the late 1680s but on completion there was a commodity available known as ‘in-pensioners and out- pensioners’. Those who were in-pensioners lived inside the Royal Hospital and did not receive any money and the out-pensioners did receive money. In 1703 there were only 53 out-pensioners but by 1815 this figure had risen sharply to 36,757. The reason for the sharp rise was mostly due to a relentless and unforgiving individual from France called Napoleon Bonaparte!
Unbelievably this system ran until 1955 when reform took place and army pensions were no longer distributed from the hospital. The in-pensioners henceforth became commonly known as the Chelsea Pensioners.
In 2009 women were included as being Chelsea Pensioners for the first time. A year later a music album was released to raise money to improve living accommodation in the hospital. The album featured different artists, including Vera Lynn and sold more than 100,000 copies. The album’s royalties went towards modernising living conditions for the Chelsea Pensioners.
The Royal Hospital in Chelsea is yet another masterpiece by Britain’s best-known architect Sir Christopher Wren. Although it must be said that his original room size in the building at six feet square was a little stingy! It took until the 1950s before the rooms were upgraded to nine feet square. The corridors within the hospital are where the pensioners meet and socialise.
The army pensioners who live in Wren’s building today still have to give up their army pension in order to reside within the Royal Hospital’s walls. As a reward for relinquishing their pension, they are rewarded with good company and three ‘hots and a cot!’
The Chelsea pensioners still celebrate the birthday of Charles II, as it was this King of England whose charitable dream became the reality that it still is to this day. So the next time you come across one of these old men – or possibly women – in London, consider the rich heritage, which lies behind the scarlet uniform.