Women at the Royal Hospital
8th March 2020
In March 2009, the Royal Hospital opened its doors to the first female Chelsea Pensioners: Dorothy Hughes, who joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) in 1941, and Winifred Phillips, who enlisted with the Women’s Royal Army Corps (WRAC) in 1948.
Dorothy and Winifred, who were both in their 80s when they took up residence at the Hospital, are sadly no longer alive. Today Marjorie Cole (also ex-ATS) is the longest serving female Pensioner. She arrived the day after her 65th birthday in July 2009.
You can meet some of today’s female Pensioners below.
“It was a cold snowy day in 1964 and my friend Hazel and I were walking down the London Road when we saw a sign in a window saying ‘Join the WRAC’. We had no idea what the WRAC was, but we were freezing so we decided to go in. The sergeant there made us a cup of tea and seemed keen to take it further. When I got home, I said to my mum, ‘I want to join the Army.’ That’s how it was. There was no forethought or anything; it just happened by accident. I was 17 and a half, not very obedient, and had no idea where I was going in my life. Going into the Army was the best thing that could have happened to me – looking back, it feels as though I was guided. My mother wasn’t pleased at all, but Dad had been in the Navy and he was delighted. He pushed my mum into signing – I think he knew what was good for me.
After five and a half years, I had a choice of signing up for another 22 years or leaving. My mother had developed a heart problem, and she wanted us at home, so my conscience made me go back to her. After I left the Army, I did accounts in an aircraft factory for a while. Then a friend of mine who’d been in the QAs (Queen Alexandra Nursing Corps) said to me, ‘I think you’d make a lovely psychiatric nurse.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be joking!’ but she insisted I came and had a look. So, for the next 28 years I was a nurse. I did my Registered Mental Health Nurse first, and then when I qualified, I went to the local general hospital and did my State Registered Nurse – so I have both qualifications. I preferred psychiatry, so spent most of my working life doing that.
After 25 years with my partner, the relationship ended and we had to sell our property. I was desolate really. I was retired, I lived with my great niece for a while and then the council found me a delightful bungalow, but I was very unhappy mentally. I belonged to the WRAC association and I used to go to their regimental dos and things. One year, I went to something in a hotel and at breakfast time these two women came in dressed in Scarlets. Looking back, I think one of them was Charmaine. I wasn’t introduced to them, but I was looking at them and thinking, ‘These two women are there. I wonder if they’d have me?’
When I got home, I sent off for an application, but it came back with a note asking me not to send it in yet, as they had a backlog and weren’t accepting anyone. That was in January 2016. I kept the form hidden under my bed – I didn’t want to tell anyone in case it didn’t work out. Every week, I looked at the website and the first day I saw they were accepting applications, I took it out, checked it was up to date, signed it and ran down to the post office to send it off. They must have been surprised when they got it the next day, covered in first class stamps!
About a week later, they phoned me and interviewed me. They must have liked what I said because they invited me for a four-day stay in October. One of the chaps who looked after me was Derek. He showed me around and all the blokes on his ward made me feel comfortable. I thought, ‘Yes. This is a place you won’t ever be lonely. This is a place where you’ll always have somebody to talk to and you won’t be looking out of the window wondering if you’re ever going to see anybody again’.
I didn’t come here to die, I came here to live.
We danced around each other, the chaps and I, until they started getting to know me. And once they got to know me, I think they realised I wasn’t a threat, I was just a human being like them, and we all started to gel. I’ve been on the same ward ever since. I don’t even notice that I’m a woman in a male environment. Almost everybody is kind and thoughtful, sometimes funny and witty, we can all be grumpy when we want it to be. Like a family really.
What brings people together more is the military background. This is as near as I’m ever going to get to the Army again. It’s the camaraderie and it’s the unity. And when you’re in the Army you watch each other’s backs. When you think about it, we’re all here for the same reason, we’re all here because we were on our own and didn’t know which way to turn.
The place is beautiful too. I love the history – even the chimneys and the brickwork. And I could live in Ranelagh Gardens. Sometimes when I walk there it’s a different world, a fairyland. I see foxes and squirrels – it’s magical.
Before I came here, I felt like I’d stopped living. I didn’t come in here to die, I came in here to live. And I’m doing so many things I’d never ever have done had I not joined. I have no regrets at all; joining the Royal Hospital Chelsea has been a wise decision. I am happy.”
“I signed on for the army for three years. After that, I could sign up for another three years, or for 22. I enjoyed what I was doing and got a chance to go on a driving course, so I decided to stay for 22 years.
My first overseas posting was Cyprus; I served twice in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and afterwards I was in Germany. I did three and a half years in Berlin, when the Wall was still up. We used to escort people leaving for Helmstedt in our military police vehicles. I got made up to a staff sergeant when I was there.
I liked everything about the Army. I enjoyed all the free sport. I went skiing in Germany and I was the only woman on a fencing course in Aldershot – I’m a bit of a tomboy. I also did canoeing and rock-climbing at the outward bound school in Towyn, near Aberdovey, in Wales. My mum was getting older, so after 23 years I came out and lived with her in a council house in Barking. I worked for Trusthouse Forte in security for a while and then got a job with Melton Borough Council as a driver – I’d got my HGV (heavy goods vehicle) licence when I was stationed in London.
Being a woman in that job was unusual. It took about a year for the others to accept me – I wasn’t one of those helpless types! I progressed up to HGV2 and was driving the cesspit tanker and the gulley sucker, the gritter and the snow plough.
The best thing I ever did was come here. I was living in a nice little house with my two cats and 15 tortoises. I’d read about the Royal Hospital and one afternoon I thought, ‘There’s going to come a day when I need to be looked after’. I certainly didn’t want to go into an old people’s home. I’d temped in one once and they’d sit in a lounge twiddling their fingers and sleeping. So, I applied, came in for my four-day stay and liked everything about it – the atmosphere, mixing with soldiers again and wearing a uniform. It was like a new posting. I liked the people, the food was good and I had a nice room. I thought, ‘This is the life’.
You couldn’t get bored here
So, I sold my car and my house, gave my cats and my last tortoise to animal charities and moved in. I’ve enjoyed it ever since. There’s nothing I’ve not liked about this place. When I was in the Army, I did freefall parachuting, so when one of the Captains suggested doing a tandem jump I thought, ‘Why not?’ I was out first but it took ages to come down as the fellas were all bigger and heavier than me. Then a ‘wing walk’ came up. You’re strapped to a post on top of the plane going at about 100 miles an hour. Then last year I did a ‘death slide’ – on a zip wire over the slate quarries in Llandudno. I do golf putting here as well and I play boules and table tennis. People come and entertain us. I take people for pie, mash and liquor in Tooting and I’ve taken part in the World Conker Championships twice. You couldn’t get bored here – I’m better off than in ‘civvy street’”.
“I grew up in Patagonia – my dad was a bank manager there – but I was at boarding school in England and grew very fond of it. I experienced the Blitz in London. When I was nearly 14, I was going to have tea with my auntie and was walking down Leadenhall Street. All of a sudden, the sky was full of noise. Then a bomb fell on a building I was just passing by and a man was hurled out of the window and crashed down on top of me. I was underneath this poor man who was dead and dismembered. I managed to get my hand out and wave to the Red Cross who were digging people out. They washed me, gave me clean clothes and took me to my auntie’s. We went out for tea and the cinema as if nothing had happened! We just carried on. It was part of life and everybody was in the same boat, millions of us all suffering. That’s why we enjoy this beautiful peace we’ve got now and I hope to goodness it goes on.
At the end of 1940, I went back to Argentina. It was after Dunkirk and everyone was afraid we’d be invaded. I went on my own, because there was nobody to take me. We sailed to Gibraltar and there we picked up our convoy and set off across the Atlantic. We had to go as fast as we possibly could. There were 15 or 16 young schoolboys on board. The captain got them to look out for submarines, to keep them out of mischief. One night one of the boys yelled, ‘Submarine’ and we all had to rush out on deck. We went to our places with whatever we could carry. They were lowering the lifeboats when the captain leaned over the bridge and roared out, ‘It’s only a bloody whale!’.
The grown-ups were hugely relieved, but the boys were frustrated as they thought it would be great fun to be in the ocean in an open boat! A little while later, two of our ships were blown up and sank and we had to experience the awful sight of people drowning. The convoy couldn’t stop, as it would have caused chaos and we’d have been rammed by other ships. Our sailors threw ropes over the edge and managed to save quite a few. But it was something you never forget. You’re haunted, you have nightmares about it. It makes you rather vengeful as well, these blasted submarines killing innocent people, children – that’s what spurred me on later.
When I got back to Buenos Aires, I had to go to school until I got my school certificate. That was when I started wishing I could come back to England to help fight. A message had gone around the world from this government saying that for every volunteer one person less would be conscripted in England. Thousands of people joined up. I was enlisted there when I was 17, and they must have been in touch with people in England, because there was a man waiting for me when we docked at Tilbury. He said he was going to take me to work. They’d taken down all the road signs, so I didn’t know where I was going and that’s how I ended up at Bletchley Park.
‘Don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Just don’t speak about it to anybody’”
When I got to Bletchley Park, all they said was, ‘Don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Just don’t speak about it to anybody’” and we didn’t. We didn’t know the significance of what we were doing, we just did it. It was very, very hard – but if you’re interested in puzzles, and I was, it was interesting.
I’ve got my Morse code up there on the wall still. I can remember my Bletchley Park password! It was mainly women on the machines, but the men taught us how to use them. Billy Knox was still there when I went and Alan Turing of course. He was quite nice, quiet, a little bit withdrawn. The machines had to be on 24/7 and we had to change shifts every day. I was always a bit tired. But we had lovely fun – we were all still schoolgirls really, very young. We did charades, played games in our spare time and danced and there was a little band. It was a bonding experience.
We knew that what we were doing was important. I had to receive messages in Morse in German and then translate them to English. I could speak German because I went to a German school in Buenos Aires when I was young, and I’m bilingual in English and Spanish. When I read the messages, I realised what we were doing. We got the locations of where the submarines were and what they were planning to do, so we could let the Air Force know and they could sort the submarines out, we hoped.
I met my husband in Buenos Aires. We were married for 50 years and had a daughter and two sons. After he died, I stayed on in a little place called Market Rasen. Then I began to get scared living on my own – I thought I heard footsteps in the night. My daughter Jane had heard about the Royal Hospital and wondered if I was eligible. That’s how I ended up here. I bonded with the other women on the Ward and we went on some lovely outings and had parties too. I’ve made lots of male friends too.
Our Army service makes us compatible here. It’s a marvellous place – whatever we want we get, provided it’s reasonable! I think Pensioners live longer here because of the peace. We have companionship and pleasure – we get outings if we want to go – and we don’t have to worry about the roof, the shed, the locks, the garden – nothing!”
“My Grandmother brough me up. Mum was very naïve when she had me. She’d spent most of her childhood in a sailor’s orphanage because her father was in an asylum and my grandma had four girls to support. Grandma worked as a ‘kipper girl’, following the fishing boats around the coast during herring season. My mum married a policeman when I was eight and I had to go and live with them – I hated it, because it took me away from my grandma. By the time I was 12, I was out of control, but my grandma was living on the Isle of Man and Istayed with her during the herring season. I had a very happy time with my grandma. There was always food on the table, but sometimes she had to pawn the blankets to put it there.
I was 17 when I joined up. I was working in the Co-op offices, I’d fallen out with Mum and I just wasn’t happy. I felt it would give me opportunities. I was a kid during the war and all the neighbours had gone away and fought – they were starting to come back and talk about it and it was interesting. So, I went and got the forms and asked my grandma to put her sign on them – she’d been working since she was 10 and couldn’t read or write.
I went AWOL for two days, 11 hours and 41 minutes. I lost my stripes, of course.
When I joined, we got 21 shillings a week, and I was able to give grandma seven shillings. Years after she said to me, ‘That was a lifesaver, it paid the rent.’ I went to Guildford for my basic training. It was November 1949 and we weren’t given much choice of what we could do. Thirteen of us were sent to Bicester to work with the Ordnance Corps. We were all under 18. I missed my grandma when I was at Bicester, so I went AWOL for two days, 11 hours and 41 minutes. I lost my stripes, of course. After that I did a cross-posting to Chilwell – it was nearer to Grimsby where my grandma was, so I used to hitch home and see her.
I got promoted to Lance Corporal again and then I was posted to an ammunitions site in Nesscliffe. I was supervising with my friend Cath and I think every troublemaker in WRAC Ordnance was sent there! After that, I went into clerk’s training and then I was posted to a TA unit in Swansea. I was in digs and it didn’t suit me, so when I was 21, I ended up coming out of the Army. After about a year and half, working in the office at Birds Eye, I decided to join up again. I told them I wanted to go into the Royal Signals. I went on the training course and thought I’d get posted overseas – but I did so well they posted me back to Catterick where I’d done the training, as an instructor.
I did two years at Catterick and was made sergeant again, then I was posted to Aldershot, Salisbury, Wilton and Northern Ireland. I’d found my niche in communications and I loved every minute. But then I got married and you had to come out of the Army in those days. It was a big mistake.
I met my husband at Salisbury, where he was a sergeant in the Pay Corps. By then I was one of three females working for the Royal Signals who were chosen to be a new grade, and we were sent to Preston Barracks in Brighton to do a cipher course. It was there we fixed a date to get married. I don’t know why I got married – I was 29 and had a good life. It didn’t work out.
My husband I went our separate ways back in England. I applied for a job in an aviation communications centre in Rotorua, New Zealand. And then I heard about a job at GCHQ in Cheltenham, for the foreign office, and applied for that too. I got accepted for the New Zealand post and went to book my passage. When I got back, there was a letter on the mat offering me the GCHQ job. There was an Indian couple in the flat opposite me and I got them to toss a coin for me. Heads for New Zealand, tails for Cheltenham. Cheltenham won – and I worked there for 30 years. It was signals, what I’d always wanted, and I loved it.
I like the camaraderie here, that’s the most important thing. And on this ward we share – we put cakes and fruit on top of the sideboard; Jim brings tomatoes and things from his allotment; I put out the chocolate biscuits I got as a present. They’ve given me a scooter and Mike, my ward NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer), has bought a buzzer, so if I need help, he’ll come straight away. Everyone is so helpful, and the staff are lovely.”