The Royal Hospital for Seamen was founded in 1694 as a place of refuge for elderly and injured seamen who had served in the Royal Navy and ‘by reason of Age, Wounds or other disabilities shall be uncapable of further Service at Sea and be unable to maintain themselves.’ Without other means of support, these men were often reduced to begging in order to survive. From the start, the ambition was to provide both charity and a grand public statement of the country’s naval might and the nation’s gratitude for the service of its veterans.

The Old Royal Naval College, formerly the Royal Hospital, from the Isle of DogsThe Old Royal Naval College today, barely changed since its construction in the early 18th century

It was James II who first toyed with the idea of donating royal property at Greenwich for the maintenance of ‘impotent Sea Commanders’. Though this plan came to nothing, the idea for a naval hospital to complement the provision for injured soldiers at Chelsea Hospital resurfaced in 1692 after terrible casualties sustained at the Battle of La Hogue against the French. James’s daughter, Mary II, was the driving force behind the project, enlisting the services of the architect Christopher Wren for what was described as ‘the darling object of her life’.

William III and Mary II on the ceiling of the Painted Hall, Greenwich Mary II and William III, founders of the Royal Hospital for Seamen, though neither lived to see its completion

Mary did not live to see the foundations laid, dying of smallpox in December 1694 aged just thirty-two. Devastated by her sudden death, Mary’s husband William III, ordered that the royal charter founding the Hospital pre-date her death so it could be issued in both their names. The foundation stone was laid at 5 o’clock on 30 June 1696, an event recorded by the diarist John Evelyn who served as the Hospital’s first treasurer. The exact time was determined by the Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed using instruments from the Observatory.

Though the first pensioners were admitted in 1705, the Hospital took over fifty years to build and was only finally completed in 1751. Situated on the banks of the Thames at the gateway to London and a traditional landing spot for important visitors to the capital, the buildings evoke a grand palatial complex. Although Dr Johnson declared the architecture ‘too magnificent for a place of charity’, magnificence and grandeur were precisely Mary’s intention. Designed to impress foreigners, the project was also a way of encouraging men to enlist in the navy. For sailors used to living a precarious life at sea and a hand-to-mouth existence, living out their retirement in such a palatial setting must have felt quite surreal at times.

To find out more about the pensioners’ day-to-day life read on or come and explore the displays in our Visitor Centre.

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