Sir Christopher Wren's design for the Royal Hospital is based on the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris.
The original building was intended to house 412 veteran soldiers and their officers and comprised a single quadrangle, known as Figure Court. However, before work had begun it was realised that the buildings would be insufficient and Wren added two further quadrangles to his design. In 1686, construction was approved and building commenced.
In 1692, the Royal Hospital was able to open its doors for the first time. On February 4th, the first group of 99 Chelsea Pensioners were installed and on March 28th the full complement of 476 was made up when they were joined by a further 377 residents.
The early funding of the Royal Hospital was made from deductions from army pay, with occasional funding from other sources. This continued to be the Royal Hospital's main source of revenue until 1847. Since then the Royal Hospital has been supported by 'Grant-in-Aid' from the Ministry of Defence and a small income from the Army Prize Money and Legacy Fund.
Ranelagh Gardens and the Rotunda
In 1698, soon after the Royal Hospital was completed, part of the grounds was given to Richard Jones, 1st Earl of Ranelagh and Paymaster General, through a grant from King William III. Ranelagh built his own residence on the land. Although the house no longer remains, the grounds became known as Ranelagh Gardens.
In about 1742, Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens opened. Like their rivals in Vauxhall, the pleasure gardens were open to the public and provided a popular place for entertainment and socialising. Pleasure gardens eventually fell out of favour and Ranelagh’s was closed in 1803. Its famous Rotunda, a venue for balls, banquets and concerts – where a young Mozart played – was demolished in 1805.
Today’s Ranelagh Gardens were laid out by John Gibson in around 1860, who designed Battersea Park and several Royal parks. Landscaped with graceful undulations, the Gardens boasted an ornamental canal, spanned by a Chinese-style bridge. Parallel to the canal was the Great Walk, lined with lime trees, and a narrower path called Ladies Walk. Although many of these features are gone, the Soane Pavilion remains as a reminder of the Gardens' past.
Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens, with its rotunda, attracted crowds of fashionable people.
360-degree virtual tour
Click the image below to see our 3D models depicting how the Rotunda would have looked.
A century of great loss, followed by great regeneration, and hope for the future.
The Royal Hospital Chelsea suffered physical damage during the Second War World, with numerous direct hits from enemy bombs during the blitz. Parts of the Royal Hospital Chelsea were also heavily damaged, with some loss of life, during World War I. After being reconstructed in 1923 the buildings were then destroyed by a V2 rocket in 1945.
After the bombing of the East Wing in 1940, the wood used to repair it was that left over from the repair of the House of Commons: it's possible to pick this out due to its lighter colour.
On 16th April 1941 the Infirmary building at the Royal Hospital was hit by an aerial mine which destroyed its East Wing and damaged the rest of the building so much that it eventually had to be demolished. Four nurses, the wardmaster and eight Chelsea Pensioners died in the attack, and 37 others were injured.
Life during World War Two has been nostalgically recalled as a time when people rallied together in spite of adversity and this was no different at the Royal Hospital Chelsea.
The Chelsea Pensioners and staff made their own contributions, from growing their own vegetables to forming two Home Guard units. Unfortunately though they also witnessed the horrors of the Blitz. Veterans who thought their combat days were over were once again in the firing line as the Royal Hospital became a target for Hitler’s bombs. Public air raid shelters were built on site, and the Royal Hospital was also used as an air defence location. Throughout the war years the Royal Hospital kept a comprehensive diary that documented events on a daily basis.
Royal Hospital War Diary
25 August, 1939
The first blackout was practised as the threat of war loomed over Europe and shelters were dug at different locations around the hospital grounds. A day later was the first gas mask fitting inspection, which reputedly caused some malcontent amongst the Pensioners who were faced with the distressing decision of whether to keep their facial hair!
2 September, 1939
A party of 50 Pensioners were evacuated to Rudhall Manor along with support staff where they remained until 1946. Notable art works were transported to Montacute House in Somerset for safe keeping. As the war progressed and bombing became more frequent, there were more evacuations to Ascott and Moraston houses. However, most of the Pensioners and staff remained at the Royal Hospital throughout the war.
16 April, 1941
This day saw one of the heaviest air raids of the Second World War and the Soane Infirmary was hit by an aerial mine that exploded and destroyed the East Wing. Tragically, there were heavy casualties; four nurses, the Wardmaster and eight Chelsea Pensioners were killed and 37 others were injured.
3 January, 1945
The North East Wing took a direct hit from a V2 rocket; the wing was completely destroyed and many surrounding buildings were significantly damaged. Five people from the Royal Hospital lost their lives as a result of this attack and 19 others were injured. Pensioners were temporarily accommodated in Sloane Gardens, sent on leave or evacuated.
The total fatalities during World War Two at the Royal Hospital was 21, with 33 people wounded. There were 29 bombing incidents and 117 incendiary devices that hit the Royal Hospital.
Since 1913 the Royal Horticultural Society's Chelsea Flower Show has been held annually on the South Grounds.
The Chelsea Pensioner accommodation - or 'berths' - were enlarged in 1954-55 and again in 1991 to resize them from 6' by 6' to 9' by 9'.
2002 saw the restoration of the large mural painting in the Great Hall by the artists Antonio Verrio and Henry Cooke.
As part of the celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee in 2002, the statue of King Charles II was regilded. The Royal Hospital Chelsea presented the Queen with the parade chair (which can be seen in the Museum) and Queen Elizabeth II presented the Royal Hospital with the Sovereign Mace, which is now carried at all of the Royal Hospital's ceremonial events.
In March 2009 the Margaret Thatcher Infirmary (pictured), designed by Sir Quinlan Terry, was opened and is a state of the art care home and hospice for Chelsea Pensioners.
As of October 2015 all Chelsea Pensioner berths have been upgraded to meet the needs of the 21st century veteran, with all berths designed with a study area and en suite bathroom facilities. Read more about this upgrade work here or watch the video below.