Greenwich has had a firm place in English history since Viking raiders arrived here in 1009. It was from Greenwich that they raided Canterbury, ransacking the city in 1012 and capturing Archbishop Alfege – whom they murdered here, allegedly on the spot where the parish church now stands. In 1415 Henry V formally created the Manor of Greenwich establishing what would be a long relationship with the monarchy.

Greenwich's maritime history stems from its location on the Thames: there was a substantial fishing community until the late-19th century as well as much shipping activity related to London's role as a major port. The strong naval connections began in 1694 with the establishment of the Royal Hospital for Seamen, subsequently the Royal Naval College, and with the role of the Royal Observatory in advancing navigation and astronomy from the 1670s. The proximity of both the former Royal Dockyards at Woolwich and Deptford (established in the 16th century) and the other maritime activities of London reinforced this link.

The Palace of Placentia

The Palace, which no longer exists, stood by the Thames on the present site of the Old Royal Naval College and was the foundation of 'royal Greenwich'. It replaced the earlier manor house of Bellacourt, developed from about 1428 by Henry V's brother Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, who created the enclosed the Park in 1433.

After his death in 1447 the manor reverted to Queen Margaret (wife of Henry VI). She renamed Bellacourt Placentia, or Pleasaunce, and it underwent major redevelopment from 1485 by Henry VII, with further additions by Henry VIII. He and his two daughters, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I, were born there and it remained a major royal residence until the Civil War began in 1642. It then fell into less noble uses and decay until Charles II demolished the buildings in the 1660s and began a new palace on the site: of this only one uncompleted wing was built, now part of the King Charles Court of the Old Royal Naval College.

The Queen's House

In 1616 Anne of Denmark (the wife of James I), commissioned Inigo Jones to build her a villa at Greenwich, bridging the Deptford to Woolwich Road at the bottom of the palace gardens and linking them to the Royal Park on the south side. At her death in 1619 only the ground floor was built. This remained thatched over until work resumed for her successor Henrietta Maria (queen of Charles I) in 1630.

The House was completed between 1635 and 1638, the first floor substantially modified by Charles II in 1661–62 and the road shifted to the north about 1697. This left the House wholly within the Park. In 1805–06 it and its grounds were divested by the Crown as home for what became the Royal Hospital School, with supplementary buildings to east and west linked to the House by colonnades from 1807 on. When the school moved to Suffolk in 1933, the House was restored and the adjoining buildings converted as premises for the new National Maritime Museum.

Greenwich Hospital and the Royal Naval College

William III founded the Royal Hospital for Seaman at Greenwich in memory of his co-monarch and wife Queen Mary II, who had championed it. She died of smallpox in December 1694 and the charter was backdated in both their names to 25 October. Sir Christopher Wren designed the buildings, incorporating the unfinished wing of Charles II's 1660s palace on Mary's instructions.

Work on the four 'courts' began in 1696 but was only completed in 1751. However, from 1705 the Hospital provided residential accommodation for maimed and destitute Naval seamen – the Greenwich Pensioners – of whom it housed 2710 at its largest in 1814, with many more 'out-Pensioners' dependent on it.

One of the greatest events in its history was in January 1806, when its Painted Hall, decorated by Sir James Thornhill in 1708-25, was the scene of the lying-in-state of Vice Admiral Lord Nelson before his body was sent up-river for burial in St. Paul's Cathedral. After 1848 the mid-Victorian peace rapidly reduced demand for places in the Hospital and it finally closed in 1869, though the organization continues as a charitable body today.

In 1873 the buildings became the new home of the enlarged Royal Naval College, which moved from Portsmouth that year, remaining at Greenwich until 1998. The Greenwich Foundation, a management trust, was then created to maintain and re-purpose the site, and open it for greater public benefit as the Old Royal Naval College. The Queen Anne, Queen Mary and King William Courts (with the former Infirmary building) are now the headquarters campus of the University of Greenwich. The King Charles Court will be home to Trinity College of Music and the Jerwood Library for the Performing Arts from 2001.The Greenwich Hospital records are now with The National Archives within the following classes: ADM 169, ADM 73, ADM 161 and WORK 31.

The Royal Naval College records are held by the library, but are currently closed access, please refer to the Manuscripts department.

Dreadnought Seamen's Hospital

In the early 19th century, a fund for the relief of distressed seamen was established and followed in 1821 by the formation of the 'Seamen's Hospital Society'. The first hospital ship (Grampus) was loaned by the Admiralty and moored at Greenwich in October 1821.

By 1831 this vessel had become too small and she was replaced by a larger hulk, named Dreadnought. Once again as demand increased this vessel became inadequate and she was superseded by the 120-gun Caledonia, later renamed Dreadnought. In 1867 the Admiralty gave permission for part of the then little used Greenwich Hospital to be used as a new base for the Dreadnought Seamen's Hospital. The Dreadnought hulk remained in use as isolation accommodation until 1872. The hospital continued to expand until 1948 when it was handed over to the Ministry of Health, continuing as a hospital for seaman until its closure in 1986.

The Library holds the records of the Dreadnought Seamen's Hospital, with access to staff records restricted. Please contact the manuscripts department for further information.

The Royal Hospital School, Greenwich

In 1712 the Governor of the Hospital began using the money collected from visitors to the Painted Hall to support the educational needs of ten sons of poor Greenwich Pensioners. They were first taught at Thomas Weston's Academy, near the Park off modern King William Walk, and subsequently in two hospital school buildings on the same site. That of 1783 still largely stands as part of Devonport House (now under conversion as a University residence and conference centre).

In 1805, the Royal Naval Asylum (begun in Paddington for orphaned children of naval seamen in 1798) was granted use of the Queen's House as a new home by George III. They moved in 1806 and the House's flanking colonnades and wings were built in several phases to accommodate its expansion, the first starting in 1807. In January 1821 the Hospital School was amalgamated with the Asylum, under Greenwich Hospital direction, to become the 'upper and lower schools of Greenwich Hospital'. In 1892 it was officially renamed the Greenwich Royal Hospital School and, as the Royal Hospital School, moved to its present site at Holbrook, Suffolk, in 1933.

The Greenwich Hospital School records are now held at The National Archives, within the following classes: ADM 72, ADM 73, ADM 161, ADM 163 and ADM 164

The Royal Observatory, Greenwich

The Observatory was founded by Royal Warrant of King Charles II in 1675, and completed in 1676, to advance navigation and astronomy. Its special task was to try and solve the problem of how to determine accurate longitude at sea, something only achieved in the 1750s, both by astronomical means and (more practically) Harrison's development of the marine chronometer.

John Flamsteed was appointed as the first Astronomer Royal, his followers including Edmond Halley, James Bradley and Sir George Biddell Airy, who established Greenwich Mean Time. This was adopted as the international standard in 1884 when Airy's Prime Meridian at Greenwich (Longitude 0o) became that of the world.

The astronomical organization, under the new title of the 'Royal Greenwich Observatory' (RGO) moved to the clearer conditions of Herstmonceux, Sussex, in the 1950s. The 'Old Royal Observatory' at Greenwich then became part of the National Maritime Museum.

In 1990 the RGO again moved to Cambridge (where its archives are still housed in Cambridge University Library) but was closed in a general reorganization of British astronomy in 1998. Its remaining historic instruments, other items and part of its educational role in modern astronomy were then transferred back to the Museum, with the Greenwich site reverting to its former name as the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, (ROG).

The National Maritime Museum

In 1910 the Society for Nautical Research (SNR) was formed, one of its aims being foundation of a national maritime museum. In 1927, members of the SNR made proposals for the museum to occupy the buildings of the Royal Hospital School at Greenwich after its intended move to Suffolk. With official blessing, a National Naval and Nautical Museum Trust first met on 30 November that year to progress the project, chaired by Lord Stanhope and with Professor Geoffrey Callender, Secretary of the SNR and Profesor of History at the Royal Naval College, as a key member. (In 1931 the Admiralty approved a change in title to the 'National Maritime Museum' Trust, a suggestion of Rudyard Kipling).

Sir James Caird was asked to join the trustees in May 1928: he was a successful shipping magnate, businessman and anonymous benefactor of numerous causes, including the SNR's successful campaign to preserve Nelson's Victory in the early 1920s. Between 1928 and 1934 Caird, advised by Callender, spent over £300,00 on art and artefacts, which later became known as the 'Caird Collection'. Caird continued to support the Museum to his death in 1954, endowing it with the Caird Fund, which now largely finances research.

On the 25 July 1934 the National Maritime Museum Act was passed and a permanent board of governing trustees created, again under Lord Stanhope (until 1967) and with Professor Callender as the Museum's first Director until his death in 1946. The renovation of the Queen's House and former School buildings, and installation of the collections, took place between September 1934 and April 1937. These included the Greenwich Hospital collection of nearly 300 paintings, built up as the 'Naval Gallery' in the Painted Hall since 1824, and the contents of the Royal Naval Museum, which came to the Royal Naval College in 1873. The cost of renovating the School buildings was largely met by Sir James Caird. The Queen's House and the West Wing complex were redeveloped first. The Admiralty took over East Wing during World War II, when the Museum was largely closed, and this was only developed as public gallery space in 1951.

The Museum was formally opened by King George VI on the 27 April 1937. All the buildings (including the Observatory) have since undergone substantial renovation or redevelopment, first in the 1970s and then from the mid-1980s to 1999, when the main galleries of the West Wings were remodelled in a £21 million Heritage Lottery funded project, reopened by HM The Queen in May 1999. Fit for the 21st century, Museum now also stands at the heart of the UNESCO Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site, established in 1997.

Records relating to the Museum are held as a legal requirement and subject to the 30- year closure rule. Enquiries should be directed to the archivist, Geraldine Charles, who may be contacted on 020 8858 5613. The National Archives also has records relating to the Museum's original conversion and related matter (in PRO WORK 17).


The following is a selected list of books on Greenwich and the Museum held in the Library.

Greenwich: General

  • Aslet, C., The Story of Greenwich (London: Fourth Estate, 1999) 914.216
  • Barker, F., Greenwich and Blackheath Past (London: Historical Publications, 1993) 914.216
  • Bold J., and van der Merwe, P., Maritime Greenwich: The World Heritage Site Guide (London: Collins and Brown/ National Maritime Museum, 1999)
  • Hamilton, N., Guide to Greenwich: a Personal Guide to the Buildings and Walks of One of England's Most Beautiful and Historic Areas (Greenwich: Greenwich Bookshop, 1972) 914.216(026)
  • Mills, M., Greenwich Marsh: the 300 Years Before the Dome (London: M. Wright, 1999) 914.216
  • Spurgeon, D., Discover Greenwich and Charlton (Greenwich: Greenwich Guidebooks, 1991) 914.216
  • Webster, A. D., Greenwich Park: its History and Associations (Greenwich, Henry Richardson, 1902) 914.216

The Queen's House, National Maritime Museum and Royal Observatory

  • Chettle, G. H., The Queen's House Greenwich (Greenwich, National Maritime Museum, 1937) 725.171(421.6)
  • Littlewood, K., and Butler, B., Of Ships and Stars: Maritime Heritage and the Founding of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (London: Athlone Press, 1998) 069(26:421.6)
  • Howse, D., Greenwich Time and the Longitude (London: Philip Wilson/National Maritime Museum, 1997) 529.771
  • National Maritime Museum., The Old Royal Observatory, Greenwich (London, Merrell Holberton/ National Maritime Museum, 1998)
  • National Maritime Museum., The Queen's House: a Royal Palace by the Thames (Greenwich: National Maritime Museum, 1990) 069(26:421.6)

Greenwich Hospital/ Old Royal Naval College complex

(including Queen's House, Royal Hospital School/NMM and related buildings)

  • Bold, J., GreenwichAn Architectural History of the Royal Hospital for Seamen and the Queen's House (London: Yale University Press, 2000) 725(421.6)
  • Dawson, C. M., The Story of Greenwich: Palace, Hospital, College (Blackheath: C M Dawson, 1977) 914.216
  • Dickson, R. K., Greenwich Palace, Hospital and College (Greenwich: Royal Naval College, 1952) 355.231.42(421.6)
  • L'Estrange, A. G., The Palace and the Hospital or: Chronicles of Greenwich (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1886) 914.216
  • Newell, P., Greenwich Hospital: a Royal Foundation 1692-1983 (Greenwich: Trustees of Greenwich Hospital, 1984) 355.292Greenwich
  • van der Merwe, P., A Refuge for All (Greenwich, Greenwich Hospital, 1994) 355.292

Royal Hospital School

  • Turner, H. D., The Cradle of the Navy: the Story of the Royal Hospital School at Greenwich and at Holbrook, 1694–1988 (York: Sessions, 1990) 355.231.4(421.6)
  • Turner, H. D., The Royal Hospital School, Greenwich (Chichester: Phillimore, 1980) 355.231.41(421)
  • Waldie, P., Ghosts and Kippers: School-boy Memories from the Royal Hospital School (Holbrook: P. Waldie, 1994) 355.231.4(421.6)


  • ART/1-3 Greenwich Hospital. Copies of prints, plans and other drawings collected and compiled by R. Mylne, 3 volumes, 1793.
  • ART/4 William III: The Royal Warrant granting the site for the building of Greenwich Hospital, 1696.
  • BGR/31 Private account book of Captain William Locker, when he was Governor of Greenwich Hospital, 1799–1801.
  • HSR/V/12 H.M. King George VI's address at the opening The National Maritime Museum, 27 April 1937
  • PTF Potter's ferry: also known as the Isle of Dogs' ferry, it connected Garden Stairs, Greenwich, with the Isle of Dogs. Includes a large amount of legal documents, details relating to the history of the ferry and a copy of the original charter granted in the reign of Edward VI, as well as minute and account books.
  • REC/58 Scrapbook containing letters, newspaper cuttings, handbills and other ephemera relating to Greenwich Hospital, Greenwich Park and Lord Nelson covering the dates 1775–1893, possibly belonging to P. Lethbridge whose name appears on the front board.

Paintings, prints and drawings

The collection contains many images relating to Greenwich and the National Maritime Museum. Photographic copies can be purchased from the Museum's Picture Library.

Tel: +44 (0)20 8312 6600

Historic photographs

The Museum holds some 270,000 negatives of maritime subjects, and over 1200 albums dating from the 1840s to the recent past. This includes a wide range relating to Greenwich local history and the Museum. The Collection is based at an outstation, so please telephone in advance if you wish to arrange a visit.

Tel: +44 (0)20 8312 8600

Useful addresses

Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust
Charlton House
Charlton Road
Tel: +44 (0)20 8856 3951

London Metropolitan Archives
40 Northampton Road
Tel: +44 (0)20 7332 3820
Email: via website - Enquiry service - City of London

The National Archives
Ruskin Avenue
Tel: +44 (0)20 8876 3444

Royal Greenwich Observatory Archives
Department of Manuscripts & University Archives
Cambridge University Library
West Road
Tel: (01223) 333000

Next steps

This is one of a series of research guides produced by the Museum to help you to explore the collections. For general research help see:

Although care has been taken in preparing the information contained in this document, anyone using it shall be deemed to indemnify the National Maritime Museum from any and all injury or damage arising from such use.

© National Maritime Museum 2001. All rights reserved.

Last updated March 2024

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich London SE10 9NF
Tel: +44 (0)20 8858 4422