Women to join Chelsea pensioners

The hospital has been home to war veterans for more than 315 years

Women are to be admitted for the first time to the Royal Hospital, home to the Chelsea pensioners.

The first former servicewomen are expected to be housed at the west London hospital by 2009.

They will live in the Sir Christopher Wren building when the rooms, known as the Long Wards, are modernised to make them en suite.

Like the male veterans, they must be former soldiers aged over 65 and receiving an Army pension.

They will also wear the same uniforms as the men - scarlet coats when they are out and blue tunics on the grounds.

Pensioners' support

The hospital currently houses more than 300 male In-Pensioners, as the veterans are officially known.

The old infirmary is currently being replaced with a 20m updated one to comply with the Care Standards Act.

The Long Wards are also being modernised and the hospital is trying to raise 35m to do this.

Paul Hatt, Hospital Secretary and Director of Administration, said: "It has been a recent decision to allow women.

"The modernisation of the Long Wards will allow them to become en suite for the first time and so it will allow us to offer women accommodation. "The In-Pensioners have been consulted and fully support this move."

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Chelsea pensioners

Chelsea pensioners in scarlet coats and tricorne hats at the Founder's Day parade in the Royal Hospital Chelsea (external - login to view)

The term Chelsea pensioner is used to refer to an in-pensioner at the Royal Hospital Chelsea (external - login to view), that is, a former British (external - login to view) soldier (external - login to view) who lives within the Royal Hospital.

Historically, however, the phrase applied more widely - referring to both in-pensioners and out-pensioners.

In- and Out-Pensioners

During the reign of King James II (external - login to view), the Royal Hospital was still under construction, so he introduced a system for distribution of army pensions (external - login to view) in 1689 (external - login to view). The pension was to be made available to all soldiers who had been injured in service, or who had served for more than 20 years.

By the time that the Hospital had been completed, there were more pensioners than places available in the Hospital. Eligible soldiers who could not be housed in the Hospital were termed out-pensioners, receiving their pension from the Royal Hospital but living outside it. In-pensioners, by contrast, surrender their army pension and live within the Royal Hospital.

In 1703 (external - login to view), there were only 51 out-pensioners, by 1815 (external - login to view) this figure had risen to 36,757.

The Royal Hospital remained responsible for distributing army pensions until 1955 (external - login to view), following which the phrase "out-pensioner" became less common, and "Chelsea pensioner" was used largely to refer to "in-pensioners".

A ward within the Royal Hospital Chelsea

Life of in-pensioners

Upon arrival at the Royal Hospital, each in-pensioner is given a "berth" in a ward, a small room (9 feet x 9 feet) on a long corridor, and is allocated to a company. In-pensioners surrender their army pension, and receive board, lodging, clothing and full medical care.

The size of the Hospital berths has increased over time.

Originally, there were 26 berths to a ward, there are now 18.

Conditions for admission as an in-pensioner

To be considered for admission as an in-pensioner, a candidate must be:
  • male (females soon to be allowed)
  • in receipt of an Army Service, or War Disability Pension for Army Service (or in receipt of Service Retired Pay as a result of commissioned service in the British Army for more than 12 years full-time)
  • 65 years of age or over (though a candidate might be admitted between the ages of 55 and 65, if he is unable to earn his own living through disability, and is in receipt of an army pension)
  • free from the obligation to support a wife, partner or family

In-pensioners are entitled to come and go from the Royal Hospital as they please, and are permitted to wear civilian clothing wherever they travel.

Within the Hospital, however, and in the surrounding area, in-pensioners are encouraged to wear a blue uniform. If they travel further from the Hospital, they should wear the distinctive scarlet coats instead of the blue uniform. The scarlet coats are also worn for ceremonial occasions, accompanied by tricorne hats.

In uniform, the pensioners wear their medal ribbons and the insignia of the rank they reached while still with the colours.

They may also wear other insignia they earned during their service and many pensioners now wear parachute (external - login to view) jump wings and even SAS (external - login to view) jump wings.

Last edited by Blackleaf; Feb 27th, 2007 at 05:03 AM..