The infamous Greenwich pensioners

It might be cliché for pirates to be depicted with peg legs, but this is one stereotype that doesn’t need myth-busting. If anything, wooden limbs were even more common than in the movies.

If a limb was injured during naval action – a likely possibility, given the shards of splintered wood that showered the decks after every cannonball, musket shots from sharpshooters, and the scattering shrapnel of carronade fire – it was very likely the wound could become infected, given the unsavoury conditions on board a ship. Infection was a life-threatening ailment, and amputation was often the only viable medical solution. On the HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar, ship’s surgeon William Beatty had to undertake 11 amputations, only 5 of which subsequently survived.

Anaesthetic was completely absent from the procedure. One Treatise of the Operations of Surgery from 1712 suggested the amputee bit into a plank of wood during surgery, and advised the surgeon use a “quick cut with a crooked knife before covering the stump with the remaining skin.”

Yet patients often treated their amputations with good humour. Vice Admiral Nelson famously underwent the knife in an earlier assault on Tenerife in 1797. He had taken it with characteristic vim, stating “Tell the surgeon to make haste and his instruments. I know I must lose my right arm, so the sooner it's off the better.” He survived, however, and was back fighting on deck within 30 minutes.

Many Greenwich Pensioners at the Royal Hospital for Seamen, as the Old Royal Naval College was then called, were amputees – so many, in fact, that a cricket match was played pitting pensioners with one arm versus pensioners with one leg in 1796.

The spectacle of limbless old men attempting to play cricket gained instant notoriety, and what was originally a one-day game quickly became extended to a full second innings. One onlooker observed that "the singularity of the Greenwich dress combined with the ludicrous positions of the fielders, their antique physiognomies and the general clumsiness of both parties at the game produced a match that was grotesque in the extreme".

With a prize of a thousand guineas at stake, the participants gave it their all. The Greenwich Pensioners with one leg, surprisingly, scored more runs – although the lack of arms was probably a significant handicap for the one-armed team. A one-armed bowler, Terry, had clearly kept his good arm, getting eleven wickets. Victory finally went to the One Legged pensioners, although not after multiple wooden legs were broken.

You can find out more about the unusual life of Greenwich Pensioners at our Visitor Centre - or else read this blog post here!

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