Located in one of London’s most luxurious areas, the Royal Hospital Chelsea is a retirement and nursing home for some 300 retired British Army veterans. Residents, known as Chelsea Pensioners or In-Pensioners, each have their own en suite bedroom and study area, while there are regular activities held each week that range from bridge club and bingo to gardening, pottery and film nights. They’re a common feature at UK ceremonial and commemorative events, such as the national Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph, and they’re regularly invited to represent the Royal Hospital Chelsea at other events, such as charity fundraisers and sporting events – Chelsea Pensioners can often be spotted in the stands at Stamford Bridge.
The Les Invalides veterans retirement hospital in Paris inspired King Charles II to sponsor a retirement home for veteran soldiers in what was then the Chelsea countryside on the north bank of the River Thames – but the king died in 1685, seven years before the Royal Hospital Chelsea was completed. Charles was a visionary who also funded construction of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and played a leading role in the establishment of the esteemed Royal Society scientific academy. Another important figure in the early days of the Royal Society was Sir Christopher Wren, the man responsible for reimagining much of the capital, including the magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral, after the Great Fire of London in 1666, and for designing both the Royal Observatory and the Royal Hospital Chelsea.
After Charles II died, James II briefly took to the throne before he was ousted in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ by the coregency of his daughter, Mary II, and her husband, William of Orange (William III). The Royal Hospital Chelsea was still incomplete when William and Mary took to the throne in 1689, so a system of pensions was introduced for injured veterans and men who had served at least 20 years in the army. When the hospital was eventually opened in 1692, there were more veterans than there were beds available – but all were to be provided army pensions, to be distributed by the Royal Hospital Chelsea. There were two groups of Chelsea Pensioners: In-Patients, residents of the hospital who surrendered their army pensions; and Out-Patients, veterans who received an army pension from the hospital but lived elsewhere. After 1955, the British government assumed responsibility for paying veterans’ pensions and the term ‘Out-Pensioner’ fell into disuse, while ‘In-Patients’ became synonymous with the term ‘Chelsea Pensioner’. Today, veterans are required to have served in the army for at least 12 years to be eligible to become an In-Pensioner at the Royal Hospital Chelsea.
So is it illegal to impersonate a Chelsea Pensioner? Well, it was until 2008. The Chelsea and Kilmainham Hospitals Act of 1826 prohibited anyone from fraudulently claiming a pension that belonged to a Chelsea Pensioner. However, the act was repealed by the 2008 Statute Law Repeals Act because its provisions had become irrelevant; masquerading as a Chelsea Pensioner was no longer necessary to receive a pension following the establishment of the welfare state at the beginning of the 20th century.
Anyone wandering around London can encounter a Chelsea Pensioner, quickly identified by their iconic uniform, fondly referred to as ‘scarlets’, which includes white gloves, a tricorne hat defined by a gold line around its three pinned-up brims, a bright scarlet coat distinguished by gold anodised aluminium finish buttons down the front and dark blue tweed trousers lined with a thin scarlet strip that runs down the outside of the leg. At least that’s the uniform for ceremonial events, particularly if a member of the royal family is present, otherwise the white gloves and tricorne hat are swapped for an ever so slightly more casual chako cap.
While the scarlets is a commonly recognised outfit, few people are aware that Chelsea Pensioners have another day-to-day uniform called the ‘blues’ which can be worn when residents are out and about within a two-mile radius of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. The blues features the chako cap, the dark blue tweed trousers of the scarlets uniform and a double-breasted, waist-length dark blue jacket.
Enjoy reading this? Find out about ‘Colonel’ Blood, the man who stole the crown jewels, or learn how Shoreditch got its name.