The Story of Greenwich Hospital


The Story of Greenwich Hospital


A LITTLE more than two hundred years ago, on a bright Summer’s day, a lady might have been seen pacing up and down the marble terrace of an old house at Greenwich. It was a Royal holiday home, just an easy distance from the noise and heat of London, and none loved it better than Queen Mary, wife of William III. She was fond of the country, and her garden at Greenwich was a great joy. Here she had introduced from her Dutch home the black tulip, the square boxedged beds, the quaintly-cut shrubs, and cockleshell walks, and these are still to be seen. But to-day she was very sad. A great victory had been won over the French at La Hogue by her husband against that powerful monarch, Louis XIV. There had been great rejoicing in London— bells pealing, flags flying, bonfires lit—but the victory, alas! had been gained at a sad cost. Thousands of brave sailors had come back terribly wounded, many of them disabled for life, and it made Queen Mary’s heart sick to see these men, who had served their country so well, returning to die in penury, or to limp about the streets, dependent on the chance bounty of some passer-by. She resolved to alter this state of things; such a blot must be wiped away. She looked round on the peaceful landscape and green fields of her holiday home. She and William had many places to go for a holiday. Why could they not turn Greenwich Palace into a Sailor’s Home of Rest ?

The Thames was near at hand, with its ceaseless tide of shipping. Comrades would pass by on vessels outward bound; the old men might still enjoy a breath of briny air, and have a chat with chums. Her husband was in Holland just now, but she would speak to him about this pressing matter directly he came back.

It would be difficult to broach the subject, she knew, and her cheek paled at the thought. Mary was naturally shy and retiring, and her husband—cold and reserved, a subtle politician, and a stern soldier—had not helped to make her popular. People misunderstood her, and thought her dreamy and unsympathetic, when she was really only shy and frightened. So it was with some timidity, when her husband returned, that she unfolded the plan so near her heart.

William listened to all she had to say, but did not receive the project with any enthusiasm, and though he did not actually oppose the scheme, took no steps towards its speedy accomplishment.

He always laid his own plans with great consideration, and seemed to think this idea of Queen Mary’s sudden and premature.

He loved his wife dearly, though he never let her see it, and he little knew how sad she felt when'he told her he must think it over, it would not do to be in a hurry. Thus three years passed away, and nothing was done. An epidemic of small-pox broke out ; the Queen caught it, and was dead in three days. She was only thirty-two years of age, and William was broken-hearted.

“I was the happiest man on earth,” he cried to Bishop Burnet, who came to console him, “and am now the most miserable. She had no faults. You could not know — nobody but myself could ever know —her goodness !”

Then he thought of her earnest pleading for the poor sailors, and determined that the most superb monument ever erected should be raised to her memory, to take the shape of a Hospital and Home of Rest.

No time was lost. Sir Christopher Wren was requested to immediately furnish plans, and soon one of the finest edifices in Europe arose-the admiration to-day of all who gaze upon it.

An inscription running round the big hall tells everyone that William III claims no merit for the idea, but gives the entire praise to Mary. Had the King lived a little longer, he intended to erect a beautiful statue of his wife, to be placed in a conspicuous part of the grounds. But that part of the design was never carried out, and few people who gaze on those noble buildings, and all the objects of interest within them, are aware that Greenwich Hospital is a memorial of the virtues of the good Queen Mary, of the love and remorse of William, and of the great victory over the French at La Hogue.


Greenwich Hospital is situated on a terrace 280 yards in length. It consists of four blocks, named King Charles (after Charles II), King William, Queen Mary, and Queen Anne. They form a most imposing feature in the landscape. On an eminence in the park near at hand, appears the Royal Observatory, and though it has nothing to do with the hospital itself, yet one must say a word about it, for time for the whole of the world is set from Greenwich, and all our clocks and watches would be of no use without it. It was built by Charles II in 1675 on a high spot which was called Flamstead Hill, after the famous man who was the first Astronomer Royal. John Flamstead was born at a tiny village in Derbyshire, and received his education at the Free School of Derby. He became so famous that this beautiful observatory was erected for his sole use. From here he calculated time, the roll of the tides, and many other things which to-day greatly add to our comfort and happiness.

But to return to the hospital. In one of the great blocks is the painted hall and beautiful ceiling. It was once used as a refectory, but now serves as a gallery of famous naval pictures.

The ceiling and walls of this hall were exquisitely painted by Sir James Thornhill. One day, as he was standing on the scaffolding, palette in hand, engrossed in his work, he was stepping back, quite forgetting where he was, when some one fortunately happened to enter, and seeing the artist’s peril, began defacing some of his painting on the wall, causing Sir James to angrily rush forward to expostulate, and in this way his life was saved. The pictures hung round the hall are numerous and impressive, showing the greatness and importance of England’s navy, and the brave men who ruled it. As you come out of the painted hall you will probably see youths disporting themselves on the greensward outside before going back to study in one of the four blocks, now a naval college. Why are they here, and what has become of the old pensioners whose blue coats and cocked hats and long yarns were till 1870 the glory of Greenwich Well, it is a long story, and we will try and tell it as briefly as possible before going to see the monuments and naval museum. The hospital—as we already know —was erected by William III in memory of Queen Mary. The King gave £2,000 a year towards keeping it up ; then Parliament granted money, and there were large sums also from private individuals, and unclaimed prize money. When the pensioners first went in (in 1738 there were over 1,000 living there) they were very happy, being comfortably housed, clothed, and fed. But in course of years it was noticed that the number of those wishing to enter began to decline, complaints were made of mismanagement, and in 1865 Parliament ordered an inquiry to be made, with the result that it was found the vast revenues had been very much misapplied, and it was thought best to make a clearance of everything and start afresh. Good terms were offered to the pensioners to leave and have money given them instead in the form of out-pensions, in order for them to live with friends and relatives, and most of them elected to do so. By 1870 this system was made compulsory, and Greenwich ceased to be a refuge for seamen. The brass-buttoned, blue-coated old men with wooden leg or arm disappeared from the scene.

For some few of the old men the change was good; for others, alas ! it proved the reverse. Temptations to drink were offered to some, others were neglected by their relatives, and many of them died in miserable circumstances. Three old men absolutely refused to leave. The hospital had been a real home to them, so they were allowed to remain there till their death.

For a time all the buildings remained closed, except the infirmary, which was taken possession of by that excellent institution, the Seamen’s Hospital Society, whose hospital ship, the Dreadnough, moored off Greenwich, was for years so familiar to all the passengers on the Thames.

One of the old pensioners— Drago by name— is still living in the hospital. He is considerably over eighty, and still able to attend Divine service on Sundays in the Greenwich Hospital Chapel. Seamen from every clime and race are received here, and some few of the poor old Greenwich fellows, who were banished from their original home, are able to end their days here in peace. May we hope that those who spend a pleasant day at Greenwich will not forget to turn in here, and leave a thankoffering for the mercies of health and strength, the infirmary is one of the most useful bits of Greenwich life.


After the pensioners left their old home, the revenues of Greenwich hospital were carefully rearranged, and it was decided to make one of the blocks a naval college for educating naval officers of all ranks above that of midshipmen, and the other block into a naval museum.

But the expenses of the naval college are not borne by Greenwich. The navy pays the hospital £6,500 a year rent, and the money goes in out-pensions for old sailors, and provisions for widows and orphans, as well as in maintaining the Greenwich hospital school, with its ship on dry land, of which we hope to speak presently. The big block known as Queen Anne’s forms the naval museum. There are no less than seventeen rooms in the museum, filled with interesting relics of every description, including those of Alexander Selkirk, Sir John Franklin, and last, but not least, Lord Nelson.

There is a fine chapel connected with the college, richly ornamented, and built in the Grecian style of architecture. But we must now cross the road, and visit the Greenwich hospital school, which, standing apart from the majestic blocks, is apt to be overlooked by visitors. It is close to the Queen’s house, the old holiday home from whence Queen Mary looked out and evolved her scheme of helping the sailors, and this historic house is now the residence of the captain of the dry land ship. Here is a splendid school for the sons of seamen; a nursery for the navy girls—daughters of seamen—are helped from the Greenwich funds, 300 being educated at Wandsworth; but the boys, over 1,000, remain at Greenwich. Here they are thoroughly instructed in seamanship by means of a full-rigged model ship, the work going just the same as if they were in mid-ocean. Fifty-five of the little fellows sleep on board every night, and everything is kept in perfect order and cleanliness —in fact, ship-shape. Besides seamanship, they are taught cooking, washing and tailoring.

The entire control of Greenwich hospital and all its institutions is now in the hands of the Admiralty, and there is a proviso in the charter that should there be at any time, by reason of prolonged naval wars or other adversities, sailors requiring refuge, all the buildings shall revert to the original scheme for which good Queen Mary and William III intended them.

As it is, a splendid work is being judiciously and properly carried on for building up our navy, which, as England develops, requires strengthening in every particular, and no one who has the welfare of our country at heart should lose an opportunity of visiting Greenwich, one of the most interesting places in the world.