LONDON (Reuters Life!) - You’d think old soldiers whose adventures have taken them from Britain’s imperial frontiers of the 1930s to the Falklands of the 1980s would have earned themselves a break.
But the 300 or so pensioners living in the Royal Hospital Chelsea can’t afford to rest on the laurels they’ve earned from years of tireless service in the British Army with the future of their 17th century home at stake.
The Chelsea Pensioners — retired soldiers of the British Army whose distinctive scarlet uniforms and tricorn hats are a colorful addition to nearly every highlight of the British summer season from Ascot to Wimbledon — aren’t just a photogenic national tradition.
The pensioners, their home in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the care they receive at the Royal Hospital are a living covenant between the British nation and those who have served in uniform to defend it.
Royal Hospital Chelsea Development Director David Hellens told Reuters that the Long Wards which have housed pensioners since 1692 are in dire need of renovation.
The hospital’s annual grant from the government does not cover maintenance or refurbishment of one of the most important pieces of Wren architecture.
To maintain its buildings, the Royal Hospital has to raise its own funds through appeals and commercial ventures.
“In the past, people had heard of Chelsea Pensioners but they didn’t know really who they were or importantly that they live in a 300-year-old building that needs updating and constant maintenance,” Hellens said.
That means the hospital has had to look at some inventive ways of making its buildings and grounds function as a home and a moneymaking enterprise which earns its keep by playing host to events like the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea Flower Show and renting out the grand state apartments for functions.
The Long Wards in the Royal Hospital buildings designed and built by Christopher Wren under commission from Charles II have housed army pensioners since 1692.
The long barracks-like corridors were designed to maximize public space, promote interaction among the pensioners and banish the scourge of old age: loneliness.
Pensioners live in 9 foot by 9 foot wooden berths along the corridors with just enough space for a bed, chair, desk a few bookshelves and some storage. They are only slightly larger than the ones designed by Wren and have not been updated since the 1950s.
The lack of privacy means that women — there are now three female Chelsea Pensioners — may find the communal lavatories an impediment to maintaining dignity.
Like Wren, who designed the hospital’s oak staircases with a longer run than rise for the comfort of older people, the Hospital is hoping to build berths that will make life as comfortable as possible for future pensioners.
“We are very conscious of this and we are preparing ourselves to convert Christopher Wren’s original designs,” Hellens said.
Those preparations consist of overhauling the berths to bring them up to modern standards, with private washing facilities, quality furnishing, beds and storage, while remaining faithful to Wren’s design which focuses on communal areas.
Chelsea Pensioners must be former non-commissioned officers or other ranks over the age of 65, unmarried, in receipt of an Army pension and reasonably healthy.
Victor Lowe, 77, who spent just over 22 years in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers said he was invited to the hospital by an old Army friend after his wife died.
Like many of the pensioners, he said he spent some time by himself with few people of his own age and experience to talk to until he discovered the camaraderie of the Royal Hospital.
“We lost our wives and we rattled around in our properties with nobody to talk to,” Lowe said. “Initially, when I came here I wasn’t sure, but then I decided I liked it, sold the property and have enjoyed life ever since.”
And what a life it can be.
Pensioners are invited to premiership soccer matches, posh weddings, lavish public occasions, Wimbledon, Ascot, and if they are out and about in their scarlet uniforms, cab drivers, publicans, restaurateurs and the like often refuse to let them pay for anything.
At home in Chelsea, their comrades at the Royal Hospital help each other through loss, illness and low moments.
Gordon Sanders, 74, said the place keeps them feeling youthful.
“We’re all characters,” he said. “Put us all together and we can create mayhem.”
Those interested in helping the appeal should visit the Royal Hospital Chelsea website on www.chelsea-pensioners.co.uk.
Editing by Steve Addison