(Photo: Lewis Khan)
"I was a chef instructor in the Army at Aldershot, and never imagined I would become a Chelsea Pensioner - it felt like I had won the lottery, it's absolutely wonderful.
When I heard they were admitting lady pensioners I went for it. I'm so proud to be an ambassador for the Royal Hospital and for women, and to meet people every day from all over the world."
When the Royal Hospital opened its doors to women in 2009, Marjorie Cole jumped at the chance. Ten years on, she looks back at what brought her to the Royal Hospital and talks about what makes life as a Chelsea Pensioner so special.
"My life began at 65 when I became a Chelsea Pensioner”
I was born in 1944 and joined the Army in 1961. I was in the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC). I’d been working in a big bakery called Jacksons, but I wanted to do something exciting. My dad said, “You won’t last five minutes”. I was determined to prove him wrong.
A career in catering for the WRAC
My training was near East Grinstead, then I was stationed in Kingston, in Richmond Park. I was working in the bedding store – there were no duvets in those days. We were in wooden billets with a tin locker, a bed, a chest of drawers – you could hear the deer rattling their antlers outside! I thought it was a bit like boarding school, but you got paid.
I finished there in 1963. I wanted to be a physical training instructor, but I didn’t finish the course – they said I didn’t have the right accent! So I went in to catering and did that until 1971. I went up through the ranks and ended up teaching cookery. I loved it. The ingredients were fresh and I got real job satisfaction. During those years, I went to Singapore twice – in 1965 to 1966 and again in 1969 to 1971. It was fantastic. I’d go water skiing in my time off.
In July 1966 I went for demob, but I missed the Army and joined up again in 1967. I went out as a Corporal and came back as a Sergeant. I was in Guildford, Beaconsfield and York, as well as Singapore. I loved York, where I was running a kitchen for the junior ranks of the WRAC, but I ended up in hospital for two months with back problems.
After that, I was posted to Northern Ireland. It was during the Troubles and we lost some men. My back problems returned and I had another operation. After rehab in RAF Chessington and some time posted to the Larkhill School of Artillery, I was then posted to Guildford. I was there at the time of the pub bombings. We lost two young recruits – they were only 17. Then in 1975 I went to Aldershot as cookery instructor – but in 1977 my back problems led to a medical discharge.
I went back to live with my parents in Hull, but I was 33 and really wanted a place of my own. I lived in my cousin’s flat for a while and got a job as head chef in a hotel – but it was too hard because of my back. After that, I applied for a job as catering manager of a smelting works, but it went to a man who was less qualified than me and I became very depressed. I moved to a flat above my parents. They both died and my lovely little Yorkshire terrier was killed and I ended up severely depressed and on sick benefit. My social worker suggested I move into sheltered housing and I moved to a one-bedroom flat in Hessle.
“When we moved in, we were creating history”
Every month I went to Army veterans’ meetings in Hull. It was there I heard that the Royal Hospital was taking in lady Pensioners. I thought, I have no immediate family and it would be a chance to get back into uniform, so I applied. You had to be 65 to join and I moved in on 27th July 2009, the day after my 65th birthday. Two older ladies – Dorothy and Winifred moved in too. We were the first women here. We were creating history. Now I’m the only original one left.
Although we’re accepted now, a few of the men were against us coming. But women gave their lives in World War I – they were driving horse-led ambulances and working in field hospitals. They fought in World War II as well: some operated gun sights. They were in Afghanistan and Iran too, and are still fighting for their country now.
When I came here, I said “I just want to be treated like a Chelsea Pensioner. I want to do the same as the men.”
“We’re a military family here”
I do my own thing here. On Mondays I play whist and I’m the bingo treasurer too. I like to go out and represent the Royal Hospital. People love to see you in your scarlet uniform on the King’s Road – they say, “You always look so smart.”
I give talks at women’s institutes and go to schools and kindergartens to speak to the children. Sometimes the little ones ask: “Are you the Queen?”! I’ve also been working in the Wren Chapel for 10 years, telling visitors about its history where I meet people from all over the world. In the winter months I volunteer at a church night shelter – we serve hot meals and some people sleep there.
Every day is a new experience. I’ve been to Wimbledon and to St James’s Palace, but the Royal Hospital is a beautiful place too. I love Founders’ Day and there was show-jumping here as well – it was magical. I like raising money for the Royal Hospital at the Chelsea Flower Show. You get to meet the public and Alan Titchmarsh always gives me a hug!
I’ve met Prince Harry four times now. Once he said, “Me and her go back a long way” and another time he said, “We’ve got to stop meeting like this”!
“I never dreamed I’d be a Chelsea Pensioner”
I always used to watch the Chelsea Pensioners at the Festival of Remembrance and I never dreamed I’d be one! I’m so proud to be wearing the Queen’s uniform again. You get respected and valued here and I can stay for the rest of my life.
It’s special here because we all have something in common – we’re a military family. We’re so well cared for. You get the uniform, three meals a day and lots of opportunities. My money worries have been taken away. If I wasn’t here, I’d be in Hull worrying whether I could afford to heat a room or eat, like many pensioners do. Here I don’t have to worry about practical things and I get lots of fun opportunities.
“We set up the ground for other women”
There are fewer women than men here, but that’s not an issue for me – I’m just one of the boys! One reason is that women’s regiments were never as big as men’s.
Dorothy, Winifred and I set up the ground for other women. One year, Dorothy and I travelled by bus and gave out tulips for International Women’s Day! I always insist on representing women at the Festival of Remembrance too and in 2017 I was at a ceremony to mark 100 years of women in the Forces.
As one of the first women here, I’ve got my name in the history books. I’m proud to be a Chelsea Pensioner. “I start every day with a cup of tea and a vanilla ice cream in the coffee shop. It’s my secret for staying young!”