By Elaine Galloway, Painted Hall Ceiling Tour guide

2 March 2018

According to Dr Johnson the Royal Hospital for Seamen was ‘too magnificent for a place of charity’. I often wonder what the early Greenwich Pensioners thought of their surroundings? It's hard to picture the day-to-day existence of the first retired and injured sailors to arrive. Despite the grandiose architecture, much of the Hospital complex was still a building site.

One sailor whose life provides some clues is John Worley, Thornhill's model for the personification of Winter on the lower hall ceiling. Worley was one of eight men who were admitted on 29 January 1705, following the initial 46 who had arrived nine days earlier. By 1708 there were 300 seamen in residence. The Hospital provided these men, who would otherwise have been destitute, with plentiful (if sometimes poor quality) food, clothes and shelter. There was no flogging, as in the Navy, and conditions were better than other forms of poor relief.

Rules and punishments had, however, been steadily introduced. To modern eyes it might sound more like an open prison than a retirement home. Typical ‘complaints’ brought before the Council were drunkenness, swearing, not attending twice daily prayers and mutinous behaviour, i.e. complaining about the food. Punishments included losing a day's meals, wearing the badge for drunkenness, ‘wearing’ the broom and shovel, being forbidden to leave the Hospital and standing on an elevated place during meal times. I wonder exactly what and where the ‘elevated place’ was? Not in the Painted Hall itself because Thornhill was already busy painting in there.

John Worley represents the season of Winter on the ceiling of the Painted Hall, Thornhill shows him warming his hand over a fire

Worley himself crops up in the Council minutes on at least nine occasions, usually for drunkenness and swearing. On 2 March 1708 he ‘was very drunk in his ward last night abusing his ward fellows & cursing & swearing saying that he was a better man than any in the house.’ Was Worley already something of a ‘celeb’ on the strength of his patriarchal appearance and exceptionally long service at sea, reputedly seventy years? Born in Haverfordwest, Wales, it is thought he began his working life in the coal trade before serving in the Royal Navy.

John Worley, mezzotint published by John Faber Sr, 1709, NPG D4919, © National Portrait Gallery, London

A mezzotint of Worley ‘done from ye Life and Sold by Jn Faber near ye Savoy in ye Strand 1709’  was on sale before Thornhill finished the Painted Hall ceiling. Did Worley get a bit above himself with all this attention? It's a nice thought that by modeling for Thornhill he ended up in a permanently ‘elevated place in the hall’.

In this extract from the Hospital minutes Worley is accused of complaining about his ‘piece of beef without any just cause the meal being at the same time very good and sufficient for which the Council thought fit to order that he lose two days meals and be exposed on the elevated place in the hall…’, The National Archives, ADM67/120f123

A sketch and an oil portrait of Worley, both by James Thornhill, are now in the collection of the National Maritime Museum. The oil portrait is currently on display in the Queen’s House. Despite his heavy drinking and frequent punishment, Worley lived to an exceptional age. He died in 1721 aged ninety-six.

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