Revamp for Royal Hospital Chelsea

Andover Advertiser: Chelsea Pensioner Tom Mullaney on one of the refurbished 'long wards' Chelsea Pensioner Tom Mullaney on one of the refurbished 'long wards'

The Royal Hospital Chelsea, home of the Chelsea Pensioners, has unveiled one of its biggest changes in more than 300 years.

The hospital, founded as a retirement home for soldiers by King Charles II in 1682, has undergone a major refurbishment that has seen its famous but "claustrophobic" accommodation transformed into eagerly-awaited modern living quarters.

Until now the Chelsea pensioners, famous for their distinctive scarlet coats, have been living in the Grade I listed buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren in the 17th century.

The U-shaped building facing the River Thames has wings of four floors, each with 200ft back-to-back corridors divided by a central wall.

Known as the "long wards", the corridors each have a row of wooden "berths", originally measuring 6ft by 6ft, then later enlarged to 9ft by 9ft, with no natural light or air conditioning, and shared toilet and shower facilities for a whole ward.

They have now been completely refurbished and the berths enlarged to give each suite its own window, bedroom, bathroom and study.

The original 300-year-old carved oak has been re-used but "in-pensioners" can enjoy new rooms with their own en-suite bathroom, as well as wider corridors to socialise in.

The move is the latest in a period of improvement at the famous site - in 2009 The Margaret Thatcher Infirmary boasting 125 en-suite rooms, a gym, doctor's surgery, chapel and hydrotherapy pool, replaced a 1960s building.

Around 300 people live at the Royal Hospital Chelsea (RHC), which is open to any former soldier over 65 who is, according to the original charter, " unencumbered by spouse". There are currently six women after they were admitted in 2009.

To live at RHC, residents give up their Army pension in exchange for a room, three meals a day, and access to medical facilities.

For many, whose average age is just over 82, the only criticism would have been the standard of accommodation, and they have welcomed the new rooms with open arms.

Tom Mullaney, who served with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME), has lived at the hospital for six years.

The 80-year-old, originally from Liverpool, joined the army in 1950, serving across the world for 25 years before joining the Merchant Navy for 10 years, then working in coal mines in Kent until he retired at 65.

The widower welcomed the new accommodation, saying there was "no comparison" between it and its predecessor.

" The old ones were very drab, there was no windows in the berths and there was no windows, there was no air conditioning and they were a bit dingy.

"These are about two-and-a-half the size of the ones we left. The other ones were 9x9x9 and once you got a bed in and various essentials there wasn't a lot of space for anything else.

"People tolerated that for 340 years and it was good enough for me, but when I saw the plans for this I was ready to move.

"This is the lap of luxury ."

Mr Mullaney praised the arrival of en-suite facilities, replacing the previous shared bathrooms at the end of the ward that meant a long walk for some residents.

" It's a pity we didn't have them two years ago. I'll never forget one time - they gave us all a tablet and when we said 'what's this for?', they said 'chronic diarrhoea and sickness is sweeping the country, it'll be here tomorrow'.

"Imagine that - 300 old men and the nearest toilet was 50 yards away..."

The grandfather-of-four, who has carried out guided tours for visitors for several years, said RHC offered "every possible thing you could desire".

"At the end of the day if you're living on your own, you can come here and you're entitled to every single thing a person might need - w e've got a nice pub, we've got a first-class infirmary, a gymnasium, a hydrotherapy pool.

"We're invited all over the world and all over England, and w e go to Chelsea Football Club every Saturday.

"And there's the camaraderie - if you can't pick a friend out of 300 men there's something wrong with you."

He said it was one of Britain's institutions that he thought would "last forever".

"There's various reasons why people are here - your wife dies, there's divorce, some people go off the rails with booze and things like that.

"But always at the back of your mind you know there's a place and as long as you behave yourself, it's here for life."

RHC's marketing and communications manager Laura Card, said: "We want to give the guys the facilities that they deserve but equally we want them to come out and not to be isolated in their rooms like can happen in some care homes.

"A lot of the guys said they quite liked their old berth, they were quite happy with their way of life but t his is going to make a huge difference to them."

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