A Chelsea pensioner is an in-pensioner at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, a retirement home and nursing home for former members of the British Army located in Chelsea, London. Historically, however, the phrase applied more widely, referring to both in-pensioners and out-pensioners.
(Pictured right: Chelsea pensioners in their scarlet coats and tricorne hats).
In- and out-pensioners
During the reign of King Charles II, the Royal Hospital was still under construction, so he introduced a system for distribution of army pensions in 1689. The pension was to be made available to all former soldiers who had been injured in service, or who had served for more than 20 years.
By the time the Hospital was completed, there were more pensioners than places available in the Hospital. Eligible ex-soldiers who could not be housed in the Hospital were termed out-pensioners, receiving their pension from the Royal Hospital but living outside it. In-pensioners, by contrast, surrender their army pension and live within the Royal Hospital.
In 1703, there were only 51 out-pensioners. By 1815 this figure had risen to 36,757.
The Royal Hospital remained responsible for distributing army pensions until 1955, following which the phrase "out-pensioner" became less common, and "Chelsea pensioner" was used largely to refer to "in-pensioners".
Life of in-pensioners
Upon arrival at the Royal Hospital, each in-pensioner is given a "berth" in a ward, a small room (9 feet x 9 feet) on a long corridor, and is allocated to a company. In-pensioners surrender their army pension, in return receiving board, lodging, clothing and full medical care.
The size of the hospital berths has increased over time. There are 18 berths to a ward.
(Pictured left: A ward within the Royal Hospital Chelsea).
Conditions for admission as an in-pensionerTo be considered for admission as an in-pensioner, a candidate must be:
A former non-commissioned officer or soldier of the British Army (Commissioned Officers are eligible provided they served for atleast 12 years of non-commissioned service or if they have been awarded a War Disability Pension while serving in the ranks)
In receipt of an Army Service or War Disability Pension
65 years of age or over (this may be waived if a candidate is suffering from a seriously disabling, incurable but not immediately life-threatening condition requiring long-term care)
Free from the obligation to support a wife, partner or family
Until 2009, only male candidates were admitted. It was announced in 2007 that female ex-service personnel would be admitted on the completion of modernisation of the long wards. The first women pensioners, Winifred Phillips and Dorothy Hughes, were admitted in March 2009.
In-pensioners are entitled to come and go from the Royal Hospital as they please, and are permitted to wear civilian clothing wherever they travel. However, within the Hospital, and in the surrounding area, in-pensioners are encouraged to wear a blue uniform. If they travel further from the Hospital, they should wear the distinctive scarlet coats instead of the blue uniform. The scarlet coats are also worn for ceremonial occasions, accompanied by tricorne hats.
In uniform, the pensioners wear their medal ribbons and the insignia of the rank they reached whilst serving in the military. They may also wear other insignia they earned during their service and many pensioners now wear parachute jump wings and even SAS jump wings.
It is illegal to impersonate an in-pensioner; at one time this was punishable by death.