We are now standing outside Chelsea's most famous institution, the Royal Hospital. This magnificent Grade 1 listed building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Robert Adam and Sir John Soane made later additions.
Charles II, aware of the debt he owed to the army, determined to build an institution similar to the Hotel des Invalides in Paris. His Paymaster General, Stephen Fox, was charged with finding the funds. The site of Chelsea College, a theological college founded by James I, was selected. The King laid the foundation stone in 1682 and it was completed in 1692. The first 479 veterans were admitted in early 1692. The building was arranged around three courtyards with the main one, Figure Court, opening to the south.
The South grounds, laid out by Wren, were swept away during the building of the Embankment. Today they are best known as the site of the Chelsea Flower Show, held here since 1913. The obelisk was erected in 1853 in memory of those who lost their lives at Chillinawalla in 1849 during the Sikh War. The canons were used during the same campaign.
In return for surrendering their army pension, veterans receive board, lodging, clothing and medical care. They sleep in Long Wards and each pensioner has a 9-foot square berth. A mock up can be seen in the Museum. There are plans to modernise the facilities, including provision for women. The famous scarlet ceremonial uniform is a modernised version of the one introduced by the 1st Duke of Marlborough in the early 18th century. The day uniform is blue.
Originally the Great Hall was the dining room with 16 long tables, one for each Ward. It was then used as a recreation room, as shown here, and for ceremonial occasions, including the lying-in-state of the Duke of Wellington. It has now reverted to its original purpose. The walls are covered with fine murals and royal portraits. The flags around the walls are the original colours carried into battle and defended at all cost.
Directions: Walk along the front of the Royal Hospital till you reach the East Gate. Cross over at the pedestrian crossing and turn left into Franklin's Row with Burton Court on your left. Turn left into St Leonard's Terrace, when you reach Royal Avenue head back to the King's Road.
South front and grounds of the Royal Hospital by George Munson, c.1890
Chelsea Pensioners in the Recreation Room in the early 1900s