Traveler's Tales

The Sweet Soldiers at the Royal

by Jennifer Berg

Photo: Steve Punter / Flickr

During a trip to London last year, my sister and I found ourselves outside the impressive gates of The Royal Hospital in Chelsea. Neither of us knew much about the place, but curiosity led us inside. As we turned into the courtyard, two elderly gentlemen in navy blue uniforms came up to us and said cheerfully, "Hello, hello! Are you the new recruits?"

They were Chelsea Pensioners, friendly, impromptu guides pointing out the parts of the Hospital that had been hit during the Blitz, telling us with a wink how things had changed since "the ladies arrived."

The Royal Hospital in Chelsea has housed retired military personnel since 1692. The beautiful grounds and gardens designed by Christopher Wren are open to visitors year-round. There are more than 300 Pensioners living in the Hospital, but only three women, who were first admitted in 2009. One Pensioner told us he had greeted one of the new women by asking if she had been part of the W.R.A.C. (Women's Royal Army Corps). He told her that he had heard it stood for "warm, round, and cuddly." Cheeky!

The Pensioners encouraged us to explore the grounds and to make sure to see the chapel. My sister and I thanked them and wandered a bit. We were approached by another Pensioner in blue, this time a woman. She walked up to us and said, "hello, I'm Winifred Phillips. I'm 83, and I'm the first female Chelsea Pensioner. Do you need any help?" My sister and I said that we were looking for the chapel. She said confidently — and with some authority, "yes, follow me!"

Ms. Phillips led us to the lovely chapel and showed us the gorgeous dining hall, chatting all the way. We learned that she had joined the service after World War II and spent 22 years crossing the globe. She had been stationed in places such as Egypt, Cyprus, and Singapore. She has written a book, My Journey to Becoming the First Lady Chelsea Pensioner and she wasn't the least bit intimated to be surrounded by all the men. She actually preferred their company. At that point she begged her leave — as there was a matter she had to discuss with administration. She strode briskly away — leaving my sister and I aghast. What a pistol!

We felt so fortunate to have wandered into the Royal Hospital. We had initially been amazed by the architectural history, but found the place full of living history as well, of old soldiers waiting to share their stories.

On my next trip to London, I returned to the Royal Hospital and traced down Ms. Phillips. We went for a bite at the local pub. She was feisty as ever.

FIND IT

The Royal Hospital Chelsea
Royal Hospital Road
London
SW3 4SR
+44-20-7881-5200

Donate to the Chelsea Appeal.

See Winifred. She's so cute! (Zimbio)

FOR YOUR BEDSIDE TABLE

My Journey to Becoming the First Lady Chelsea Pensioner, by Winifred Phillips

"Dorothy Hughes and Winifred Phillips become first female Chelsea Pensioners," Times of London, 3/13/2009