Jump to content | Home

Portcities London

reflecting our cultures

[Bypass: Visit the Port Cites Consortium]
[Bypass: Search Facilities]
      Advanced Search

Maritime London Partnership

-Bypass site links |  Full graphics | About this Site | Feedback

On this site:

[Bypass: Main Menu]
You are here:  PortCities London home > The working Thames > Trades, industries and institutions

The Royal Hospital for Seamen, Greenwich: 'A Refuge for All'

Chapter Index
Send this story to a friend | Printer-friendly version | View this story in pictures
The Pensioners

Pensioner uniforms

The Greenwich Pensioner.
View full size imageThe Greenwich Pensioner. © NMM

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

The Anson Ward with a figure-head of the old ship 'Centurion'.
View full size imageThe Anson Ward with a figure-head of the old ship 'Centurion'. © NMM

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.

Greenwich Hospital, No. 15 Cabin in Royal Charles Ward.
View full size imageGreenwich Hospital, No. 15 Cabin in Royal Charles Ward. © NMM
Each ward was partitioned into 'cabins', for single occupants or small groups. With up to 2710 in-pensioners, each wore a numbered tally identifying where he belonged in the Hospital.

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 pensioner's story.
View full size imageThe pensioner's story. © NMM
Tea joined the rations in the early 19th century, as it did in the Navy; also chocolate at breakfast, potatoes, and other improvements. Even then, cabbage was the only green vegetable, for two months in summer.

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.


Descriptions of battles by sea and land.
View full size imageDescriptions of Battles by Sea and Land. © NMM
The Hospital had a huge staff and its own bakery and brewery. The Board of Directors oversaw a ‘civil’ and ‘military’ side. In 1829 the Directors were replaced by a board of five Commissioners responsible directly to the Admiralty.

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.


King William Quadrangle, Greenwich Hospital.
View full size imageKing William Quadrangle, Greenwich Hospital. © NMM
Discipline was naval (but flogging was excluded) with fines, penalties and loss of liberty to enforce good conduct among men. The patriarchal John Worley, one of the first pensioners and Thornhill's model for 'Winter' in the Painted Hall, looked the part, but was drunken and coarse:

'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

An Old Tar doing penance for his devotion to jolly Bacchus.
View full size image'An Old Tar doing penance for his devotion to jolly Bacchus'. © NMM

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.

The smoking gallery, Chalk Walk, Greenwich Hospital.
View full size imageThe smoking gallery, or 'Chalk Walk', Greenwich Hospital. © NMM

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.


Life of a sailor.
View full size image'Life of a Sailor'. © NMM
While wives and families came in as visitors on many occasions, including Founder's Day, they never lived in the Hospital. As a result the Greenwich area became a community of families living apart from pensioner husbands. Many wives found domestic or similar work.

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.

Chapter Index
Send this story to a friend | Printer-friendly version | View this story in pictures

[Bypass: Search Facilities]
      Advanced Search




Top | Legal & Copyright |  Partner Sites: Bristol | Hartlepool | Liverpool | Southampton | About this Site | Feedback | Full graphics