May 2016 | Matilde Martinetti, Interpretation Assistant and Tom Ryley, Communications and Digital Officer

Libraries, reading rooms, skittle alleys, cricket matches… the Old Royal Naval College's inhabitants didn't spend all their time thinking about ships.

The first 42 Pensioners arrived at the Royal Hospital in 1705 and reached a peak of 2710 by 1814. With many battles fought, but scarce entertainment, Pensioners were notorious for their salacious habits. To counter the temptations of the town, the Pensioners were provided with a series of amusements to keep them occupied...

#1. One-limbed Cricket

Losing a limb was a distinct possibility for eighteenth and nineteenth-century mariners, in an age when medicine was not advanced enough to treat grevious injuries to limbs, or prevent gangrene. Plenty of famous mariners lost limbs, notably Nelson, who returned to work half an hour after losing his arm. "The sooner it's off, the better", he remarked.

Cricket matches were often organised amongst the Greenwich Pensioners, and to divide the teams, one infamous match in 1796 pitted one-armed pensioners against one-legged ones! Over two innings, the one-legs won the game by 111 runs. The local carpenter was much in demand throughout the game, to repair broken wooden limbs being damaged by cricket balls.

Tickets cost an arm and a leg.

The winners were awarded with roast beef and lamb covered in gravy, and, naturally, a glass of grog.

Speaking of grog...

#2. Lots and Lots of Drinking

Mariners have always been particularly reputed for their aversion to sobriety, and the Greenwich Pensioners certainly honoured this tradition, almost single-handedly funding a local industry of breweries and hubs. As well as the on-site brewery from which Pensioners were rationed four pints a day, there were also 88 pubs in the local area to keep the Pensioners topped up.

Layers of graffiti in the woodwork of the Chapel dome

Drinking remained a well-loved tradition of officers when the site became the Royal Naval College; officers used to climb the chapel dome and drink amongst the beams. Rather draconian graffiti from this period still survives, reading: "beers above the rest". 

#3. The Peacock Room

For the more sophisticated mariner, there was also ample entertainment provided. In 1828 a library and a reading room were set up in King Charles Building, in what is now called Peacock Room. Now a redecorated rehearsal space of the Trinity Laban College for Music and Dance, the room used to be heated by two large fires, furnished with oaken tables, benches, and chairs, and stored around 1500 volumes about voyages, travels, naval history, and politics, as well as magazines and many popular and amusing novels.

Sources reveal the old furnishing of the Peacock Room, which sported framed maps of the world on the walls, as well as two globes, one terrestrial and one celestial.

#4. The Skittle Alley

Perhaps the most-loved pastime of the Greenwich Pensioners was the Skittle Alley, built beneath the Grand Square from c.1864. With no purpose-built balls to use, the Pensioners just used wooden practice cannonballs instead.

What's best about the Skittle Alley is that you can still use it today, for free. To learn more about dates and times, visit our Skittle Alley events page and then come along!

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