The RHC: Pensioners on Parade

A “Chelsea Pensioner”, that is a British Army veteran resident at the famous Royal Hospital Chelsea (RHC), sports his scarlet tunic, medals and an oak leaf in honour of King Charles II who, mindful of the part played by the army in his restoration to the throne, founded the home in 1681.

14 June 2022

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch posts another “nothing to do with rowing but none-the-less still interesting” quasi-historical piece.

Despite having some of the most modern and sophisticated care facilities for the elderly that are available, the Royal Hospital Chelsea, the retirement and nursing home for some 300 veterans of the British Army, is still behind the times when it comes to the most iconic date in its calendar. As close to 29 May as possible, the RHC continues to celebrate Oak Apple Day, a public holiday that most of the rest of the country has not observed since it was officially abolished by Parliament in 1859. Almost every year since 1695, the Royal Hospital’s veterans have gathered together in the central quadrangle, Figure Court, to mark the foundation of this unique community by King Charles II. 

An aerial view of Christopher Wren’s Royal Hospital and part of its grounds. Sited next to the Thames in Chelsea, it covers 66 acres of one of the most expensive and fashionable parts of London. I previously wrote about it in 2019. Picture: www.chelsea-pensioners.co.uk

During the English Civil War (1642 – 1651), Parliament abolished the monarchy and executed Charles I. In 1653, Oliver Cromwell was appointed Lord Protector, ruling England in place of a king and attempting to bring in military rule and impose strict Puritan ideals. Many Britons were opposed to this and, two years after Cromwell’s death in 1658, the Stuart monarchy was restored and the executed king’s son, Charles II, was crowned on his 30th birthday, 29 May 1660. For the next 199 years, this date was observed as a public holiday known as Restoration Day (or, more commonly, Oak Apple Day). Traditional celebrations often entailed the wearing of oak apples or sprigs of oak leaves, a reference to the occasion after the 1651 Battle of Worcester when Charles II escaped Parliamentarian soldiers by hiding in an oak tree. 

From 1692 until 1955, the Royal Hospital Chelsea was responsible for paying all British Army pensions, so all Army pensioners were often referred to as “Chelsea Pensioners”. There were Out-Pensioners – those around the UK or abroad who received their pension in cash from agents around the country – In-Pensioners, those who retired at the Royal Hospital (shortened here to “Pensioners”).

After 2020’s cancellation and 2021’s celebration limited to those who lived and worked on the site, the first Founder’s Day since the pandemic returned in all its glory on 9 June 2022. Before the parade, pensioners, staff and hundreds of invited guests and family members gathered in Figure Court.

Chelsea’s finest 1.
Chelsea’s finest 2.
Chelsea’s finest 3.
Two nice hats.
Pupils from the Duke of Yorks Military School, Dover. Before 2010, only those students with a military or ex-military parent were eligible. Today the state boarding school sponsored by the Ministry of Defence is open to all but still maintains its military traditions. “Dukies” who can wear the cap badge of their parent’s regiment or corps on their chest.
On the left is the Chaplain of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, the Revd Steven Brookes. I am not sure what the collective noun for clergymen is – a mass perhaps?
A Yeoman Warder, albeit several miles from the Tower of London.
An officer of the Grenadier Guards and the Revd Brookes.
The parade was divided into four sections or “Guards”. Major Shannon, the officer on the left, commanded No 4 Guard.

There were military visitors from various NATO and Commonwealth forces.

New Zealand
Australia
France. Picture: @MAParis14
The United States of America
At 10.45, the Pensioners who were fit enough paraded in Figure Court.
Regimental Sergeant Major Martin (in blue) got the lines straight and soldier-like, apparently not making any allowances for age in his exacting demands.
The lines finally meet RSM Martin’s requirements.
Those unable to stand for long periods or to march watched from the sides.
After the RSM handed over the Parade to the Parade Commander, Lt Col Nicky Mott, the Sovereign’s Mace, a symbol of Royal authority presented to the RHC by the Queen in 2002, was marched on.
The Reviewing Officer, Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence, husband of the Princess Royal (formerly Princess Anne) enters Figure Court.
Vice Admiral Laurence inspects the Parade accompanied by Lt Col Mott.
No 2 Guard (with the Band of the Grenadier Guards behind) await inspection.
After the inspection, the Pensioners march past by Guards, reforming opposite the saluting dais.
The Pensioners march past the Reviewing Officer from opposite flanks. This Guard, approaching from the left, gives a conventional right-handed salute…
However, the Guards approaching from the right salute with their left hand. Allegedly, this was by order of George V so he could see the Pensioners’ faces as they passed (though this does not sound like the highly conservative King).
Those Pensioners in wheelchairs also passed the saluting dais.

Pedants’ Corner: The official programme printed that, during the march past, the band was to play The Boys of the Old Brigade  – which is an Irish Republican song in support of the Irish Republican Army and the Irish War of Independence, 1919 – 1921. Presumably, it meant The Old Brigade, a slow march about military comradeship from 1881.

After the march past, Vice Admiral Laurence addressed the Parade. The trumpeters then gave a long fanfare that was followed by the National Anthem.
The RSM dismisses the Parade.
This gathering of serving and retired Royal Military Police (“Red Caps”) produced an overheard comment from one old soldier: “Too many Red Caps for my liking.”
Some of today’s Military Police may not be as this old soldier remembers them from his time.
My host, John Walker (left), formerly of the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, and myself by the splendidly gilded statue of Charles II dating from 1676 that stands in Figure Court. It is decorated in oak leaves for Founder’s Day.
Founder’s Day is over for another year…

Postscript.

Three one-hundred-year-old Chelsea Pensioners who served in the 1939 – 45 War. John Morris (left) was in the Raiding Support Regiment, a special forces unit that acted independently in the Balkans and Italy. Connie Evans was on an anti-aircraft battery. John Humphreys (right) was captured at Tobruk and later at Arnhem but escaped both times. Picture: www.chelsea-pensioners.co.uk.

RHC Pensioners live five years longer than average. It is a pity that we do not look after all our old people this well.

2 comments

  1. Great article and photos. More about it here on the official Chelsea Pensioners website:

    https://www.chelsea-pensioners.co.uk/news/founders-day-returns-its-full-glory-royal-hospital-chelsea

    This has Tim Laurence’s official speech, though they haven’t included his introductory joke about being an inadequate replacement for his wife, which had everyone laughing and was reported in the British press. Videos of the occasion here:

    https://www.forces.net/video?video=51686&category=489&playlist

  2. A wonderful article. However, it reminded me of a former WO1 I had in my Army days. Notwithstanding he was a warrant officer, “Blue” had a pathological hatred of MPs. “What sort of soldier,” he would demand, “wants to bang up another soldier?” Indeed.

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