At its peak in 1814, the Hospital provided accommodation for over 2700 naval veterans. The average age of entry was fifty-six but a small percentage were much younger, most invalided out of the Navy after sustaining debilitating injuries. The youngest pensioner on record, John McKerty, was just twelve years old when he was admitted in 1750 suffering from ‘dropsy’. Despite much lower life expectancy than today, some pensioners lived to a great age, most famously John Worley, who had served at sea for seventy years and was immortalised as the face of Winter in the Painted Hall ceiling. Worley lived until the grand age of ninety-six.

John Worley as Winter on the Painted Hall ceiling John Worley depicted as the face of Winter by Sir James Thornhill on the ceiling of the Painted Hall


All the men admitted to the Hospital had fallen on hard times and the majority came from poor backgrounds without the means to save for their old age. Life at sea was dangerous and accidents and illness were more common than battle injuries. The men who ended up at Greenwich came from all over the country; a small percentage were born overseas in Europe, the American colonies and a handful of men in Africa.

Most men went to sea as teenagers but the Hospital records confirm that some had initially worked in other occupations, including weaving, butchery and farming. Many of these men would have joined the Navy out of economic necessity.

Routine and diet

Life at the Hospital followed a strict routine. For men used to living a regimented existence at sea this must have been familiar and comforting, though disciplinary records show that some found the rules too constricting! On entering the Hospital, the men were issued with a uniform, initially grey, then brown, before the iconic blue frock coats were introduced. The clothes they arrived in were sometimes ‘full of bugs’ and had to be burnt or buried to avoid ‘infecting the house’. They were housed in wooden cabins on long wards, with a bed, small table and chair and space for a few personal possessions. Though small, the cabins probably provided more privacy than they ever enjoyed in confined quarters on board ship.

Woken at seven, pensioners were expected to attend chapel daily. Each man received between 1 and 3 shillings a week allowance depending on his rank. Some supplemented this income by taking on official roles, including boatswain, cook’s mate and porter. The porters were responsible for winding the clock, watching the gates and giving tours of the Painted Hall to visitors.

As an institution, it was more akin to an almshouse or retirement home than a hospital. Medical provision was limited and pensioners suffering from serious ailments or requiring amputations were often sent to other London hospitals, frequently St Bartholomew’s. It was over sixty years before a dedicated infirmary was built onsite, designed by James Stuart and now occupied by Greenwich University. Men with severe psychological trauma were sometimes transferred to Bethlem Hospital.

The Dreadnought building The infirmary, built between 1764-68, for many years the Dreadnought Hospital, is now occupied by the University of Greenwich


Food was plentiful though there were frequent complaints about its poor quality. The standard diet was bread accompanied by beef three days a week, mutton twice and pease soup and cheese on the other two days. Each pensioner had an allowance of four pints of ‘small’ (weak) beer a day, brewed on the Hospital premises – a much safer alternative to water which was often contaminated.

Entertainment

Pensioners were allowed to leave the Hospital during their leisure hours, some gravitating towards the town’s numerous alehouses. They were forbidden to marry, but those who already had wives and families could visit them. No doubt observing activity on the Thames, then a busy thoroughfare and the main gateway to London, would have helped pass the time. Smoking clay pipes was popular, though strictly forbidden on the wards because of the risk of fire. Perhaps surprisingly given the pensioners’ frequently severe injuries, playing cricket on Blackheath was also a popular pursuit. The more enterprising are also known to have hired out telescopes for visitors wanting to admire the view from the top of Greenwich Park.

Punishments

Despite this relative freedom, the conduct of the pensioners was closely scrutinised. Punishments for bad behaviour included confinement to the Hospital, fines, a diet of bread and water and the humiliating requirement to wear your uniform inside out, exposing the yellow lining. For extreme behaviour men could be expelled; others chose to leave of their own accord, sometimes petitioning for re-admittance.

An Old Tar doing Penance for his Devotion to Jolly Bacchus An Old Tar doing Penance for his Devotion to Jolly Bacchus, H.J. Pidding, 1844. © National Maritime Museum


The Hospital governors introduced a library to encourage more worthwhile occupation but it met with limited success as many of the pensioners could not read or write. More successful was a skittle alley, though this was introduced just a few years before dwindling numbers finally forced the Hospital to close its doors in 1869.

To find out more about the pensioners’ day-to-day life come and explore the displays in our Visitor Centre. To discover one of the Hospital's most important moments - the lying-in-state of Admiral Lord Nelson, read on.


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