The Royal Hospital: History of the foundation

Pages 7-11

Survey of London: Volume 11, Chelsea, Part IV: the Royal Hospital. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1927.

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The history of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, as a national institution, needs the preface of a few remarks upon the circumstances which led to its foundation. In the Middle Ages the care of maimed and disabled soldiers fell to the great "Hospitals," or guest houses of the poor, with which the country was so amply furnished by the charity of wealthy citizens, either directly or through the means of monastic houses. At the time of the Reformation, however, not only were those great vehicles of charity, the monasteries, dissolved, but chantries and many hospitals, the endowments of which were religious in character, were destroyed, and in the reign of Elizabeth complaint was made of the absence of relief for the aged and impotent poor, of the "disfurnishinge the Realme of places to retire maymed souldiers unto," and of "enfeeblinge of their hartes when they knowe not how to be provided if they be maymed," all "arisinge upon Dissolution and givinge away of Hospitall landes and Revenewes." (fn. 1) The parish books of all our churches are filled with petty disbursements in relief of old and wounded soldiers who seem to have wandered about the country, sometimes with a licence from a magistrate or a letter of credentials, with which they appealed to the benevolence of all and sundry whom they met. In 1592–3 an attempt was made by Parliament in "An Acte for reliefe of Souldiours" to regularise this haphazard system, and every parish was directed to levy weekly rates, the funds being disbursed by persons appointed in each county. The Act did not work, but some better success attended the subsequent practice of a direct commendation by the Council of the individual soldier to the Justices of Peace of the county in which he was born. It is in these official "Council Warrants" that we find a reference to a proposed yearly pension. (fn. 2)

In 1598 a licence is recorded "to erect a hospital in Buckingham for 36 maimed unmarried soldiers dwelling in the town or three hundreds of Co. Bucks and to purchase lands for their maintenance not exceeding £200 a year." Private benefactors continued the medieval practice and made special provision for soldiers in certain towns. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, founded his hospital in Warwick in 1571 for soldiers born in the counties of Warwick or Gloucester. At Hereford in 1614 Sir Thomas Coningsby built a Hospital for "eleven poor old soldiers or mariners of three years' service at least in the wars," and set them under a "commander." No public scheme was, however, attempted, beyond the county system of relief, until the time of the Civil War, when Parliament began to vote sums of money from the sequestration funds at its disposal. In 1651 the idea of a national institution seems to have been suggested, when "the House of Commons gave instructions to the Council of State to take care that maimed soldiers be relieved and to 'consider of a healthful place' for their residence." (fn. 3)

The problem, however, remained unsolved, in spite of the labours of a committee of the House of Commons which enquired into the soldiers' grievous wrongs, at the Restoration. The formation, early in Charles II's reign, of the beginning of a regular army at length forced the issue, and the foundation of the Royal Hospital was the direct result.

There has been some controversy on the question to whom is entitled the credit for suggesting an enterprise which in its fruition has become so justly renowned. The tradition that Nell Gwyn prompted the King is mentioned by Peter Cunningham in his Story of Nell Gwyn (1852), (fn. 4) but there is no evidence to support the tale, which would seem to be discredited by the silence of contemporary records. On the other hand, the ascription of the scheme to Sir Stephen Fox by Canon Richard Eyre in his funeral sermon (published 1716) is also without direct confirmation, as Mr. Robert Pierpoint argues in his defence of the Nell Gwyn tradition. (fn. 5) It has been shown above that the subject had already been canvassed in Parliament in the time of the Commonwealth, and it is reasonable to suppose that the obvious necessity of quarters for invalided soldiers was not hidden from the King and his advisers, nor did it require a more forcible advocate than the pressure of circumstances.

John Evelyn's account of the proposals is worth giving textually. He was himself acquainted with the site not only as a member of the Royal Society, but also because he had been responsible for the prisoners-of-war who were accommodated in the College. The following are the extracts from his diary:—

"1681. 14th September. Dined with Sir Stephen Fox, who proposed to me the purchasing of Chelsea College, which his Majesty had sometime since given to our Society, and would now purchase it again to build an hospital, or infirmary for soldiers there, in which he desired my assistance as one of the Council of the Royal Society.

"1682. 27th January. This evening, Sir Stephen Fox acquainted me again with his Majesty's resolution of proceeding in the erection of a Royal Hospital for emerited soldiers on that spot of ground which the Royal Society had sold to his Majesty for £1300, and that he would settle £5000 per annum on it, and build to the value of £20,000 for the relief and reception of four companies, namely, 400 men, to be as in a college or monastery. I was therefore desired by Sir Stephen (who had not only the whole managing of this but was, as I perceived, himself to be a grand benefactor, as well it became him who had gotten so vast an estate by the soldiers) to assist him, and consult what method to cast it in, as to the government. So, in his study we arranged the governor, chaplain, steward housekeeper, chirurgeon, cook, butler, gardener, porter, and other officers, with their several salaries and entertainments. I would needs have a library, and mentioned several books, since some soldiers might possibly be studious, when they were at leisure to recollect. Thus we made the first calculations, and set down our thoughts to be considered and digested better, to show his Majesty and the Archbishop. He also engaged me to consider of what laws and orders were fit for the government, which was to be in every respect as strict as in any religious convent.

"1682. 25th May. I was desired by Sir Stephen Fox and Sir Christopher Wren to accompany them to Lambeth, with the plot and design of the College to be built at Chelsea, to have the Archbishop's approbation. It was a quadrangle of 200 feet square, after the dimensions of the larger quadrangle at Christ Church, Oxford, for the accommodation of 440 persons, with Governor and officers. This was agreed on."

Launched by such able men as Sir Stephen Fox, John Evelyn and Sir Christopher Wren, the Royal Hospital was bound to be well and wisely devised, both as regards its buildings, which will be described later, and its functions, which are now to be considered. The initial difficulty, however, was to find the means to meet the cost of the structure and of the establishment. A detailed history of the measures taken is given in the official account of The Origin and Early History of the Royal Hospital, and can only be summarised here. Public appeals were made, but very few persons responded; indeed, they can be set down in a few lines: Sir Stephen Fox. £1300; (fn. 6) Sir Leoline Jenkins Kt. £100; Tobias Rustat. £1000; Thomas Tufton, Earl of Thanet. £500; William Earl Craven. £20; William Blaithwait. £241.10.0; the Archbishop of Canterbury £1000; the executors of the Bishop of Winchester. £500 the executors of Walter Mortimer. £200. These gifts were reinforced by a balance of secret service money remaining in the King's hands, but it was soon evident that some surer means of raising funds must be found.

A defect in the arrangements for the payment of the army, curiously enough, provided the solution. To prevent the inconvenience of delayed pay, Sir Stephen Fox, paymaster to the Forces, had advanced money to the men, deducting a discount of 12d in the pound. The King in 1679, under royal warrant, directed that payment should be punctually made, and the customary poundage deducted. In 1683 one-third of this poundage (as from 1st January, 1680–1) was allowed to the Royal Hospital, and this proportion was increased later until the whole was absorbed. (fn. 7) A levy on money paid for commissions, and also on salaries of officers on half pay still further augmented the available resources, and in this way it may be said that the army has in the main paid for the Hospital with its own money. An important additional source of revenue since 1792 has been found in unclaimed prizemoney at sea, and there have been many other acquisitions of funds through benefactors, sale of lands, etc. The above methods of raising money continued in varying degree until 1847, since which year the Hospital has been maintained by funds directly voted from Parliament.

From the Hospital accounts it has been computed that the cost of the building and furnishing during the years 1681–1702 was a little over £152,000, to which must be added £4860, the cost of the site. A payment of £10 appears in the accounts for 1687–92 to Mr. "Hawsemore" for drawing designs for the Hospital, and in 1692–9 £1000 to "Sir C. Wren for his great care and pains in directing etc. the building of ye Hospitall, and settling workmen's bills for ten yeares past."

The first stone of the Royal Hospital was laid by the King with due ceremony on 17th February, 1681–2, (fn. 8) and the buildings were furnished for the reception of inmates on 28th March, 1689, when 476 non-commissioned officers and men were installed. (fn. 9) The Chapel and the Burial Ground were both consecrated by Henry Compton, Bishop of London, on 30th August, 1691. (fn. 10)

Jones, Earl of Ranelagh

It was intended at first to constitute the Board of the Royal Hospital a Corporation, thus following the medieval practice when hospitals often had a corporate constitution and common seal. This intention was not, however, carried out. The first Board of Commissioners (supported by warrant dated March 3rd, 1691–2) was composed of three members: Richard Earl of Ranelagh, Paymaster-General of the Forces; Sir Stephen Fox, one of the Commissioners of the Treasury; and Sir Christopher Wren, SurveyorGeneral of the Works. By letters patent dated 6th February, 1702–3, an independent Board of Commissioners was created, the members being five, namely, John Howe (Paymaster-General), Sir Christopher Wren, Chas. Fox (Paymaster of the Forces in the Low Countries), and the Governor and Lieut.Governor of the Hospital. "On the Board thus created was imposed the entire management of the pension system, of which Chelsea Hospital was the centre, with that of the invalid companies employed as garrisons in various parts of the kingdom." (fn. 11) The system of out-pensions came inevitably to absorb the main activities of the Board, but as we are concerned here solely with the Hospital we cannot pursue this development. The Paymaster-General is the controlling force in the governing body, and the presence of the Governor and Deputy Governor is only for the purpose of debating the internal affairs of the Hospital. The number of the Commissioners and their powers have varied from time to time, but it has remained a civil authority controlling the official system of relief to invalid and pensionable soldiers.

The establishment of officers, under-officers and servants of the Hospital for January 1st, 1691–2 included the following:—


Major, to act as Lieut.-Governor.




Secretary (and a Temporary Clerk).

Deputy Treasurer and Under Paymaster.



Clerk of the Works.



Deputy Clerk of Works.

Surgeon's Mate.

Wardkeeper and Comptroller of the Coal Yard.

Master Cook.

Second Cook.


3 Under Cooks.

Master Butler and Baker (in one).

3 Under Butlers.

3 Under Bakers.


Usher of the Hall.


  • 1. State Papers, Domestic, Eliz. (8 March, 1593), Vol. 244. No. 168.
  • 2. Papers illustrative of the Early History of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea. One of these warrants is given in full, pages 6–7.
  • 3. Papers illustrative of the Early History of the Royal Hospital, p. II.
  • 4. In his Handbook of London 1850, he says: "There is a pleasant tradition that Nell Gwyn materially assisted in the foundation of Chelsea Hospital."
  • 5. Notes and Queries, 13. S. 1, pp. 423–425.
  • 6. This has been erroneously given in some books as £13,000.
  • 7. This deduction from pay was discontinued in 1783, or rather the net payments to the troops and the cheques for the Royal Hospital appeared separately in the army estimates.
  • 8. Faulkner's An Historical Account of the Royal Hospital, etc.
  • 9. See Papers illustrative of the Origin and Early History of the Royal Hospital.
  • 10. Newcourt's History of the Diocese of London, I, p. 588.
  • 11. See Papers illustrative of the Origin and Early History of the Royal Hospital, p. 103.