Greenwich was once home to thousands of swash-buckling former sailors, some missing a limb or an eye but still wild men of the sea at heart.
Who were the Greenwich Pensioners?
Just as Chelsea Hospital was built for soldiers who had been injured or grown old in the service of the crown, Greenwich Hospital was created for seamen in 1695.
Seamen contributed sixpence a month from their pay towards the upkeep of the hospital. Pensioners were admitted from 1705 and originally wore a uniform of dark grey with a blue lining and brass buttons. The colour of the uniforms changed to brown and then blue. Pensioners who broke the rules were forced to wear a yellow coat known as the ‘canary’ and make amends with extra chores.
Those former sailors and marines who lived in the hospital were known as ‘in-pensioners’ and those who drew a pension but did not live on site were known as ‘out-pensioners’.
Almost 3,000 sailors were living in the Hospital by 1815. According to recent research by the Greenwich Maritime Institute, the average pensioner entered at 56 but they ranged in age from 12 to 99. Younger pensioners had been injured at sea.
By all accounts the ‘Greenwich Geese’ as locals referred to them were a rowdy bunch and barely resembled our modern image of elderly pensioners. Records show frequent fights and other behaviour shocking to the public morals of the time.
It was not uncommon for pensioners to leave and return (after a waiting period) to the Hospital. Alternatively, many invalids made their way back into service: wooden leg, eye-patch and all.
Families of pensioners were not allowed to live with them in the Hospital so many lived in the Greenwich area. In many ways the Hospital was more like a workhouse than a retirement home as we understand it today.
In 1869 the Hospital closed and the Royal Navy decided to pay pensions directly to former sailors.