The Royal Hospital, Miraculous Survivor in Chelsea

London Newspaper Group — CN/WPN 07-03-1980

Chelsea Society, in first lecture of series, hear about a village pride and joy which represents a miracle of survival...

By Christopher Long

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Chelsea Society opened a season of lectures on subjects related to Chelsea's past and present with a fascinating talk by Royal Hospital expert David Ascoli, presented at the National Army Museum's lecture room.

Mr Ascoli, author of the book A Village in Chelsea, said the miracle was that Royal Hospital ever succeeded or survived, bearing in mind the mind-boggling fraud and corruption that riddled the Hospital's first 200 years (writes Christopher Long).

Early governors such as the scurrilous Earl of Ranelagh (who embezzled an estimated £146,000 from the Hospital during his 17 years) and the Earl of Lincoln (who lost a fortune by speculating on the South Seas Bubble with Royal Hospital Funds) only failed to destroy the institution because of the vision and generosity of figures such as Christopher Wren, its designer, and Stephen Fox, who lived in Holland House and who personally financed the massive and ambitious project.

The wonder is that the Hospital could possibly have survived bearing in mind the corruption that operated from top to bottom, with successive governors and government officials milking the funds and speculating on the Hospital's land deals, while the pensioners sold off their equipment and rations to all and sundry.

David Ascoli's dry humour brought a light touch to a subject that might have been terribly depressing – if it hadn't at the same time been so grippingly horrific.

"You must remember," Mr Ascoli told his audience, "that Henry Fox made his money by embezzling about £412,000 from the country when he was paymaster-general. To get an idea of the present day value, you must multiply this figure by 25."

And it was this fortune that Stephen Fox later used to finance the scheme that was launched by the permanently impecunious Charles II in the mid-1600s which finally opened with 422 In-Pensioners in 1692.

Sadly, Nell Gwynn probably did not, in fact, play any great part in starting the Hospital, which was the army's equivalent of the naval hospital for pensioners at Greenwich. Indeed women played only a small role in the Hospital's history – mostly in walk-on parts as the persistent prostitutes who hung around the colonnade doing a lot of damage to Wren's concept of an institution which combined the main elements of a university college and a monastery.

The hospital was known until Victorian times as Chelsea College – a result of an earlier building which Wren incorporated into his design and which was situated in College Court on the south west corner of the present site.

In fact if it had not been for a minor insurrection in the City of London in 1661 which led to the creation of the first standing army, the hospital might never have been needed or built.

That first army, consisting of nearly 7,000 men, including the ex-rebel regiment of the Coldstream Guards, made a pension system necessary if numbers were to be maintained.

"We have Fox and Wren to thank for the superb building we have now," said Mr Ascoli. "True, the Victorians progressively destroyed Wren's beautiful Water Garden and Water Gate on the land now covered by the Embankment.

The whole concept of an artistic continuity from St Leonard's Terrace to the river was also spoilt when Royal Hospital Road separated the hospital from Burton's Court. But nevertheless, by good chance, what a good thing it was that the hospital was built in Chelsea and not, for example, in Tooting."

"Somehow," Mr Ascoli concluded, "the Tooting's Royal Hospital doesn't sound right at all."

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© (1980) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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