London History Day - Archive Photo

This year, Historic England’s ‘London History Day’ falls on Sunday 31st May, the date that Big Ben first began to chime.

As part of the 2020 event, we recognise the resilience of the nation’s flagship veteran community at the Royal Hospital Chelsea as it attempted to withstand the aerial bombardment that rained over the capital during the Second World War.

“About 11.18 there was an extremely heavy explosion without previous warning, evidently from a land mine. Clouds of dust filled the air, debris fell within 300 yard radius of the Infirmary. The east wing was completely destroyed, a large crater occupying the site. The remainder of the Infirmary was badly damaged, the roof being removed”.

The Royal Hospital Chelsea War Diary (author unknown), entry for 16 April 1941

September 2020 marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the intensive bombing raids on London and other UK cities during the Second World War that became known as ‘the Blitz’.

One of the most evocative and well-known events of the 20th century, the Blitz has been represented countless times on the silver screen and in literature alike.

However, the experience of the Royal Hospital and the Chelsea Pensioners during the Second World War has not been widely shared before now.

London History Day - Archive Photo


“The 2 dorm windows on the staircase facing east were blown to the ground with part of the roof. The staircase was completely smashed but a small sandbag shelter under the stairs was left undamaged and the four pensioners in it were unhurt though covered in and blinded by dust.”

The Royal Hospital Chelsea War Diary (author unknown), entry for 26 October 1940

Positioned on the bank of the River Thames, which provided a map of the capital under cover of darkness, the Royal Hospital was likely to fall under the eye of Luftwaffe pilots navigating their way over London. 

The Royal Hospital was faced with a dilemma: could the Chelsea Pensioners be evacuated to safety; and, if not, how could their home be defended against an aerial onslaught? 

Visit our online exhibition, Chelsea at War: The Spirit of Resilience, to find out (click on the image below):

The Royal Hospital would like to express our thanks to one of our volunteers, Martin Cawthorne whose detailed research in the archives and academic studies at the University of Oxford have helped to inform the content and narrative of this exhibition.

Activity - Make your own Shako:

Whilst you’re celebrating London History Day, why not take part in an activity at home for all the family.

Here is our how-to guide for recreating your own version of the Chelsea Pensioners’ iconic shako, or peaked cap (click the image below to open the full guide):

Go further and explore the full range of family-friendly London History Day activities with Historic England.


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