Inside The Chelsea Pensioners' Club

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 19 months ago
Inside The Chelsea Pensioners' Club
Left to right: Charmaine, Leo and David in the Chelsea Pensioners' club

Forget being handed the keys to the City of London; it's the Chelsea Pensioner's scarlet coat that really gets you places. Sporting one of these bright-buttoned beauties is a ticket to free cab rides, dinner invites and incessant requests to have your picture taken with strangers. Wearing one, you earn a special type of London celebrity status — the kind only Beefeaters and a handful of others enjoy.

"I must admit, it doesn't fit me now anywhere as near as it used to," says David Coote, formerly of the Grenadier Guards, and also a Sandhurst sergeant major. "I've only been here a year and I've already put on half a stone." He's alluding to the catering at Chelsea, which we'll hear plenty more about.

We are in the club room of the Royal Hospital Chelsea — a smart den furnished with tartan armchairs military gimcrack and board games — talking to three of the pensioners who frequent it. The Chelsea Royal Hospital is, in a way, London's most luxurious old people's home.

Established by Charles II as a refuge for veteran soldiers, it now houses around 320 pensioners, who give up their military pension in exchange for the sort of lodgings most Londoners daydream about. The Wren-designed complex is less old people's home, more city palace, what with its colonnades and Potteresque Great Hall. "I'm just learning how to play Quidditch," quips former Irish Guard, Leo Tighe.

Pensioners may find themselves at Chelsea for various reasons, but loneliness, all three admit, is what really does it. Says Leo, "I went through a marriage breakdown. For the first time in my adult life I found myself living alone. Also my dog died, which was more tragic than losing the wife!"

Charmaine Coleman, who served in the Royal Military Police for 23 years, decided to come here when she found herself living with two cats, two tortoises and no relatives.

"I temped for two weeks once in an old people's home," she says, "watching them sitting there in a lounge, just sleeping and not doing anything, not talking. And I thought 'how can you have 24 hours of the day sitting doing nothing?'"

No fear of that for Charmaine; at 83 she's signing up for sky dives; "I did a lot when I was serving in Germany," she says, "I did 23 freefall jumps but I'd never done a tandem jump and I thought 'ohh, strapped to a fella! I'll have a go at that!'"

She's also abseiled off the Humber Bridge ("But there's nothing much to that," she says, nonchalantly), performed a wing walk, and is now trying to organize zipwiring on Snowdonia. She puts her name down for most things on the hospital's Friday bulletin. "While I'm fit enough, I'll do it. Because there's going to be a day when you can't," she says.

"The most daredevil thing I do is walk across the road," says Leo, underplaying his own extra curricular activites.

The scarlet coats are a pass to many a free cab ride

Last year, both Leo and David travelled to Malta to lay wreaths. They do trips to the tennis at Wimbledon, Chelsea FC and Cadogan Hall. And what about that little flower festival which happens each summer, in the pensioners' back garden?

"I hate gardening," says Leo. "I did go and have a look last year, had a walk round, says David, "all I ended up doing was posing for photos for people from everyone all around the word. I couldn't move." He says this in a way that suggests he actually relishes his iconic status.  

Daredevils the gents might not be anymore, but their hellraising years aren't quite behind them. While the strongest thing we're sipping at the moment is coffee, by their own admission, Leo and David's usual is beer: "We do love to come in here on Tuesday when they have bingo," says Leo, "We hate bingo, and we come in and make as big a nuisance of ourselves as we can."

When the mood takes him, Leo's also partial to a boogie. "I'm a brilliant dancer," he says, "Michael Flatley has nothing on me." Is there a quota for drinking, we wonder? "Don't put ideas like that into people's heads!" Leo shoots back.

Certainly there's little restraint when it comes to the food served up at Chelsea. While 'hospital' may usually denote the most egregious sort of cuisine, that isn't the case here: "They make every kind of roast you can think of," says Leo, his eyes widening.

"You get soup, four choices of a main meal, four choices of a pudding, tea and coffee, cheese and biscuits," chips in Charmaine, explaining that pensioners can invite friends along for £10 a meal. "Leo buys the tickets for £10, then sell them on to people for £20!" jokes David.

Another room in the club: not too shoddy

And every Christmas, the Ceremony of the Cheeses lands over 60 slabs of the stuff at the pensioners' feet. "We eat it for the rest of the year," laughs Leo.

But keeping 320 pensioners satisfied with their lot isn't always easy. "There are frivolous complaints like 'the fish fingers are too small,'" says Leo, "I think a lot of the people who live in here were in a stately home before!"

We wonder if there are any hardships at all? "Everything here can be done for you," says David, "laundry, dry cleaning, or you can do it yourself. I still do all my own washing and ironing and all that. "So do I," pipes up Leo.

One thing most new residents find tough acclimatising to is the berths — cabin-like private quarters, which were the brainchild of Christopher Wren, and now measure 2.7m squared. "Moving from a king sized bed to a single bed is a trauma, I  tell you," laughs David. "I kept falling out. In the end I had to move it against the wall, so I could bounce off it."

Single beds aren't the only reminder this is a military establishment: "If pensioners get caught smoking, they can get put out for three months", says Charmaine, "When you get put out, you either go in a home, or you've got to pay £1,000 a week or something — or you got to stay at a friend's."

We picture pensioners stealing away in the night, for a cheeky puff behind the golden statue of Charles II.

"The only thing I do miss here, apart from female company," says Leo, "is cooking. I love to cook, but can't do it."

There we go, talking about food again. And as the strains of Louis Armstrong's What a Wonderful World begins to waft through the club, the three pensioners begin to make noises about leaving. It's almost lunchtime, and they wouldn't want to miss that.

Though the club room is private, you can visit the museum, take a pensioner-led tour of the hospital, drink in the coffee shop and marvel at the Wren Chapel.

Last Updated 15 May 2017