The Royal Hospital for Seamen, Greenwich: 'A Refuge for All'
The standard image of Greenwich Pensioners is of peg-legged veterans from the time of Nelson, in blue frock coats and tricorn hats, refighting old wars amid ale tankards and the smoke of their long 'chalks' (clay pipes).
However, their first uniform - adopted more than 40 years before the Navy had one - was dark grey with a blue baize lining and brass buttons. In 1712-14, when grey proved difficult to keep clean, uniforms were changed to brown and only later to blue.
In Sir Thomas Hardy's time as Governor (1834-39) trousers replaced knee-breeches and a round rather than cocked hat was later allowed for normal use.
Bed and board
Accommodation in the four courts or 'quarters' of the Hospital was in wards with naval names. Those of King Charles Court recalled the Dutch Wars: 'Royal Charles', 'Monck', and 'Restoration', for example.
Of the later wards 'Anson' was, from 1836, dominated by the preserved figurehead of his ship Centurion. 'Franklin' commemorated the lost Arctic explorer, whose 1858 monument is now in the Chapel sacristy.
The sick were cared for in infirm wards, but in 1763 'Athenian' Stuart, the Surveyor, began what is now the 'Dreadnought' Library of the University of Greenwich as an infirmary. When it opened in 1769 the extra space in the main buildings allowed pensioner numbers to reach 2000.
Hospital food was plentiful if basic. Each man had:
On Wednesday and Friday he had:
The Painted Hall was built as the refectory, with the officers eating in the railed-off Upper Hall. From 1708, Thornhill's work caused pensioners' meals to be permanently moved to kitchen level in the vaults below, and later also under the Chapel.
Suitable inmates helped in the service of beer and other kitchen duties. They were paid £3 a year. One man in each mess of four men took it in turns to be served last to ensure fair division of food.
The 'Military Department' was headed by the Governor, with a Lieutenant-Governor, four Hospital captains, eight lieutenants and two chaplains.
Under the lieutenants, senior pensioners were appointed Boatswains, one to each ward with two mates to assist him. These had braided uniforms and ensured pensioners shaved, looked after clothes and Hospital property and otherwise behaved. They also made sure all except the sick attended daily chapel, otherwise they could be fined, or even expelled if they were incorrigible.
'to be put in the confining house for four days and each meal to be exposed on an elevated place in the hall...bread and water for a week and to wear the badge for swearing, to lose two [weeks'] allowance money and not to go out of the Hospital for one month...'.
He was then about 96, with 70 years at sea.
Punishment and recreation
Miscreants were first marked by wearing their coats inside out, but in the 1720s two dozen punishment coats of 'yellow stuff' were ordered. Wearers, dubbed 'canaries', had to do menial duties. By the 19th century the coats had red sleeves and were largely reserved for those found drunk on Sundays.
Sir Thomas Hardy then earned further honour by abolishing them as unworthy of 'Greenwich heroes'. Boredom, 'listless idleness and mental vacuity' were Hospital life's real failings, noted the First Lord of Admiralty in 1864:
'it is not surprising that old sailors so circumstanced should resort to the ale-house, or to worse places'.
The sole official recreation facility, from 1828, was a small library and reading room. In 1829 a monument to Charles Dibdin was placed in there. His sea songs were said to have recruited more men for the Navy than the press gang.
From 1730 Pensioners could be 'chalked off' the dining roll in favour of a cash allowance, to eat with and support their families. Many, defeated by the type and quantity of Hospital food, took advantage. Leftovers were also distributed to the Greenwich poor.
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