At the end of last year I was sitting at this very desk wondering how I was going to get access to some of the venues I had in mind for our launch. It now seems like a lifetime ago. Having hosted a few Chelsea Pensioners during my service years I knew how in demand they are and that it would be difficult to get access to a bunch of them at the same time.
I contacted Katie Kennedy at the Royal Hospital Chelsea (home of the pensioners) and pitched the idea to her. I was thrilled by her positive response and enthusiasm. Katie receives multiple requests from the media on a daily basis yet she immediately agreed to give, an as yet, unknown entity access. Better still we had a full day!
For those not fully aware, the origins of the Royal Hospital Chelsea can be traced back to the 17th Century. Currently there are around 300 In Pensioners (IP) all of whom are accommodated within the hospital grounds. In order to become a Chelsea pensioner you must fulfill a number of requirements: You must:
- be over 65 years old
- have served as a regular soldier (former officers must have served at least 12 years in the ranks before receiving a commission.)
- have no dependent spouse or family
- be “of good character”
A detailed history of the Chelsea Pensioners can be found here.
The Royal Hospital Chelsea is located just off the banks of the river Thames. It is not a small venue by any stretch of the imagination yet somehow I couldn’t find it, damn you body compass!!! In my defence, Tom Tom got it wrong also. After cruising round the area a few times I bit the bullet and asked someone. We were close by.
We were shown to the State Apartments by the incredibly helpful Emma Pollock. The venue for today was as grand as it sounds. Oak panels, huge oil paintings, ornate ceilings, and all very, very old (don’t touch anything)! The building was originally designed as a dinner room for visiting royalty. We set about setting the studio up and the Pensioners began arriving. One of the first was Frank Mouque, a Royal Engineer (Sapper), being a Sapper myself I had a connection with him immediately. For someone in his 90’s Frank cuts a spritley figure. He mentioned he had his original training photograph from 1943, no sooner had I finished saying “you should have brought it with you”, he was off out the door and across the courtyard, returning a short while later clutching said photograph.
John Humphries was born in 1914 and joined the Royal Engineers in 1934. He recalled one of his first jobs was looking after the horses, his unit had no mechanical transport. He also managed to escape twice from POW camps during WW2. John was amongst a handful of Sappers we photographed today. The Royal Engineers moto ‘UBIQUE’ translates as ‘EVERYWHERE’, how fitting.
Unfortunately our grand venue suffered a power outage soon after we got under way, meaning a quick strip out and relocation to the Margaret Thatcher Infirmary. Not as grand, but none the less a great venue. A few more photographs then it was time for the pensioners lunch. We had also been invited to lunch but first some of TV interviews, a new experience for me.
Lunch in the Great Hall…….yes, it is also as grand as it sounds. We were joined by Emma and In Pensioner (IP) Steve Lovelock. I had briefly established that Steve and I had served in Hameln, Germany. A place where I had spent most of my career and where I now live. We had a great conversation about our exploits (not for publishing) and how great our time serving in Germany had been. Although we were years apart we had both frequented the same establishments and got up to the same shenanigans, in fact many of the places we had in common are still there today.
One thing that I was aware of before our day here, the Chelsea Pensioners tell their stories time and time again and, I assume, can sometimes tire of hearing their own tales. Today when they were recalling their memories to us they seemed to have an extra glint in their eye. Maybe it was because, as veterans, we could relate more to them? I don’t know, I do know that they are all incredible people and we made a lot of new friends. I was also reminded one of the pensioners that in 18 years time I would qualify for a red coat and a spot in the Royal Hospital Chelsea. If the situation arises I could think of no better place to spend my latter years…………
Thank you to Katie, Emma and all of the Pensioners for a fantastic experience. We will be back soon.
You can find out more about the history of the Royal Hospital Chelsea and the Chelsea Pensioners here.
The VPPUK Team