Meet Chelsea Pensioner Billy Knowles

9th May 2024

Chelsea Pensioner, Billy, joined the Army at 15 years old as an Infantry soldier. During his 25 years in the Army, he eventually became a drummer, working up to a drum major and leaving the military as a Warrant Officer. 

Billy has been at the Royal Hospital Chelsea for three years. His love for music continues; he is part of the singing group and teaches ukulele to his fellow Pensioners. Billy shares more on his time in the Army and how he is spending his time at the Royal Hospital Chelsea… 

Boy Soldier

Born and raised in Wallsend, just outside of Newcastle, Billy began his Army career at 15 years old. After watching a programme about the British Army on the Rhine, Billy and his school friend headed to the Army recruiting office. 

“One day, I came into school, and I’d watched a programme the night before. It was about the British Army of the Rhine. My mate says, ‘did you see that programme last night about the Army?’. I said aye. He goes ‘you’ve got your bus money, got your dinner money?’ I said aye. He said, ‘we’ll get registered and bunk off school.

So, we went to the recruiting office. 14-years-old! We jumped on the bus and went down to the recruiting office. We walked through the door and the Sergeant asked how old we were. I told him 16 and he looked at me and said, ‘you’re not’. So, I told him I was 14 and he said, ‘you can come in in a year.’ 

But I always remember that he gave us our bus and dinner money. That was it for me. I thought the Army must be great, they give you all this money. I came home with more money than I went to school with. I was happy as a teddy bear!

My uncle had been in the Army. He served during the end of the war in the 15th/19th The Kings Royal Hussars Regiment. He told me to join that regiment. ‘Whatever you do, don’t join the Infantry,’ he said. I didn’t get into that regiment. I was told I could join the Infantry. So, September 1969 I was badged to the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. 

My mother was not too pleased. The recruiting Sergeant turned up at the house a few weeks after I’d been in the office. She knew nothing about it. She opened the door and he said ‘I’ve come to see your Billy. He wants to join the Army.’ She told me I was not joining. It was the time the Troubles had just started, and she didn’t want me going to Ireland. I asked me dad to persuade her. She signed the papers. Reluctantly!” 

Becoming a Drummer

“I trained for two years as a junior soldier. You get drill training, weapon training, tactics. But when you’re there as a kid, you also do hobbies. One of the hobbies was drumming. But I wasn’t a drummer! I did basketball. I know I’m not very tall, but I did basketball. I was a pretty good timekeeper and referee. It was a bit like the Royal Hospital. Anything you wanted to do as a junior, you probably could. 

After I passed as an infant soldier, we got sent to our depot just outside Cambridgeshire. I got put in an eight-man room. Three of the lads are drummers. All going to the First Battalion Fusiliers. That’s where I’m going. So, they said, ‘be a drummer.’ 

I knew nothing about drumming! I had sung at school, so I guess I was a little bit musical, but I wasn’t a drummer. So, they told me to play the glockenspiel. I didn’t even know what a glockenspiel was. Never mind play it. 

So, I told the Drum Major I wanted to play the glockenspiel. He went ‘you’re in’. I got posted to Gibraltar and one of the lads in me room turns up and hands me this big suitcase. I opened it up and inside is this big glockenspiel. We had to play the bugle everyday which I learnt quite quickly so I learnt how to play the glockenspiel too. The issue was, I couldn’t play it and march at the same time. I was messing up the parade. 

One of the lads suggested I learn the side drum. So, I was given a six-week trial. I learnt how to play the side drum and passed. That’s how I became a drummer. I spent most of my Army career as a drummer.”

On Parade
Bandsmen and drummers soldiers on parade

Billy saw service in Northern Ireland and Cyprus during his 25 years in the British Army. As a drummer, he also participated in many parades. This included playing in front of the Royal family. 

“That was quite something getting to play in front of the Royal family at Horse Guards Parade for the Queen’s birthday. I got to do that twice as a side drummer and once as a Drum Major. 

I got to do parades at Wembley. That was spectacular. Played for the Duke of Kent and the Queen Mother." 

Life as a Chelsea Pensioner

Since joining the Royal Hospital Chelsea, Billy has continued his love for music. He is part of the Chelsea Pensioner’s singing group and has recently set up a ukulele class for Chelsea Pensioners and Royal Hospital staff to learn. 

He has also been trying out a new hobby and became part of the pace sticking team. 

“It’s not something I did in the Army. But when I came for my four days stay, I saw them doing the pace-sticking. When I joined the Royal Hospital, I thought why not give it a go. 

Eventually, I became the driver for the team. My drill’s good and shout loud. So, I became the driver. Last year, we won the London District Competition. Amazing day!”

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