All You Need To Know About The Chelsea Pensioners

Ever wondered why certain veterans get to wear a rather splendid red coat or whether women can become Chelsea Pensioners?

Chelsea Pensioners are famous around the world for their iconic, eye-catching bright-red long coat uniforms.

This scarlet army of extraordinary men and women are all highly respected veterans who all once served their country during some of the biggest conflicts of the last century.

Chelsea Pensioners are residents at the Royal Hospital Chelsea – a retirement and nursing home for former members of the British Army, located in Chelsea, London.

After their service has ended and they have retired from civilian life, Chelsea Pensioners can feel lonely and isolated, but the Royal Hospital provides a place where they can belong with comrades. 

Many In-Pensioners at the Royal Hospital Chelsea have lost a partner and crave the comradeship that many experienced while serving in the British Army. 

That's where The Royal Hospital plays its part – instilling in its residents a renewed sense of independence and pride. 

However, these veterans are more than just their iconic coats. Below we reveal many unknown details about their fulfilling, varied lives.

What Is A Chelsea Pensioner?  

From 1692 until 1955, the Royal Hospital Chelsea was responsible for paying all British Army pensions. That's why all Army pensioners were often referred to as Chelsea Pensioners. 

There were Out-Pensioners – those around the UK or abroad who received their pension in cash from agents around the country –  and In-Pensioners, those who retired at the Royal Hospital.

Now only pensioners who live at the Royal Hospital are officially called Chelsea Pensioners.

The Out-Pensioners title has fallen out of usage. 

The Royal Hospital Chelsea believes in "active ageing" and encourages the Chelsea Pensioners to support each other. This includes accompanying each other when going to appointments outside the grounds, spending time together socially and visiting each other in hospital. 

Royal Hospital Chelsea Building Chelsea Pensioner Statue North Front Shutterstock
Royal Hospital Chelsea

How Do You Become A Chelsea Pensioner? 

If you or someone you know wishes to apply to become a Chelsea Pensioner, the requirements are pretty simple. Primarily you have to be a former soldier who is able to live independently and willing to surrender their British Army Pension. 

This last stipulation is because as soon as Chelsea Pensioners become residents they do not have to pay for accommodation or food. 

The residents live in private rooms with an ensuite bathroom and study on the historic Sir Christopher Wren designed 'Long Wards'.

Veterans who wear the iconic long scarlet coat are recognised worldwide for representing the Royal Hospital Chelsea and the wider veteran community.

Former soldiers, non-commissioned officers and late-entry officers of the British Army, who have reached state pension age and who fit the eligibility criteria are encouraged to apply. 

Britain's Got Talent 2019 Winner

Getting used to his newfound fame is Chelsea Pensioner Colin Thackery, who beat magician Ben Hart and Mentalist X in June 2019 to win ITV's variety show Britain's Got Talent.

The 89-year-old told ITV's 'This Morning' he would be giving his winnings of £250,000 to the Royal Hospital Chelsea and his family. He said:

"We've got a new centre that we're wanting to build, a visitor centre, an activity centre – I'd love to think that I set the whole thing off.

"And of course, I've got family and grandchildren who want to get on the property ladder."

Mr Thackery sang his way through the competition, performing songs like 'We'll Meet Again', 'Wind Beneath My Wings' and 'Love Changes Everything'.

During his semi-final and final performances, he was joined on stage by a chorus of his friends from the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

He also won the opportunity to perform at the Royal Variety Performance in front of their Royal Highnesses, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Colin is the oldest person ever to secure their first record deal and his debut album, 'Love Changes Everything' was released in December 2019. He also released a book in November 2019 called "Colin Thackery – My Story: How Love Changed Everything".

In a special BFBS, the Forces Station programme, broadcasters Richard Hatch and Verity Geere spoke to Colin about the rumours about his life being turned into a movie, his military career and pride at performing for Her Majesty The Queen. He said:

"I served her for 25 years. If I thought I could sing to her too, I would die happy."

LISTEN: Colin Thackery: The Next Stage

Are There Female Chelsea Pensioners?

An important milestone for the history of Chelsea Pensioners was marked in 2019 – 10 years since the Royal Hospital Chelsea accepted applications for female veterans. 

In March 2009, Dorothy Hughes and Winifred Phillips became the first female in-pensioners.

It took more than 300 years but as Lord Walker, former Governor Royal Hospital Chelsea said at the time:  

"There was a lot of debate, but at the end the general view was they were soldiers – they earned their pensions – they have every right to be here."  

Dorothy served with the 450th Heavy anti-aircraft battery in London during the London Blitz and Winifred spent more than 22 years travelling all over the world finally retiring as a Warrant Officer 2nd Class.  

In 2009, Dorothy explained to Forces News why she wanted to become a Chelsea Pensioner. She said: 

"At 85 I knew that my health might not last all that long – in no way would I sit in an old people's home knitting.

"I decided that I really wanted to start a new life and one of the best parts of my life was having been in the forces." 

"I feel as if I was back in my battery again – we were all mates – we don't think of each other as men and women – it’s just mates." 

Winifred and Dorothy spent several years at the Royal Hospital Chelsea alongside other female in-pensioners before passing away, Winifred in 2016 and Dorothy in 2018.

Today, Marjorie Cole, pictured above, is the only original female Chelsea Pensioner from 2009 who still wears the iconic scarlet red coat. 

Marjorie became a resident in July 2009 and was aware of how historic her arrival was. She said: 

"Although we're accepted now, a few of the men were against us coming. 

"But women gave their lives in World War I – they were driving horse-led ambulances and working in field hospitals."

"They fought in World War II as well: some operated gun sights. 

"They were in Afghanistan and Iran too, and are still fighting for their country now." 

What Is Founder's Day? 

For more than 300 years, Founder's Day has celebrated King Charles II's pivotal role in establishing a refuge for veterans of the British Army. 

Every year since 1980, a member of the Royal family has taken the salute at the Founder's Day Parade. 

In 2014, dressed in his Household Cavalry Blues and Royals uniform, His Royal Highness Prince Harry was the first serving soldier to review the Chelsea Pensioner's annual parade since the Duke of Kent in 1974.

Founder's Day is held as close to May 29 as possible – that is the date of King Charles II's birthday and his accession to the throne in 1660. 

About a thousand guests are invited to the event which commemorates the opening of the hospital by King Charles II in 1682. 

Outside of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, the day is known as Oak Apple Day, in a tribute to the escape of the King after the battle of Worcester, when he hid in an oak tree to avoid capture by the Parliamentary forces. All the members of the parade wear sprigs of oak leaves in his honour. 

Dressed in their famous scarlet jackets, Chelsea Pensioners are a reminder of the debt owed to those who have served over the years. 

Chelsea Pensioner In-Pensioner Stormtrooper Bognor Regis Sussex UK 22 June 2019 Shutterstock
A Stormtrooper poses with a Chelsea Pensioner in Bognor Regis in June 2019

Where Do Chelsea Pensioners Live?

Chelsea Pensioners moved into brand new living quarters in 2015 after a 21st-Century makeover of their 327-year-old home, the Royal Hospital Chelsea. 

In Sir Christopher Wren's time, the Long Wards were state of the art. Now, they are fully modernised to make them fit for today's war heroes.

Forces TV was given an unprecedented glimpse behind the scenes in their six-part documentary series Chelsea's Scarlet Army.

Elderly Hands Keyboard Shutterstock

Silver Surfers And The Mannequin Challenge

In 2014, Chelsea Pensioners became 'silver surfers' after wifi was installed throughout the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. 

This was perfectly timed because in 2017 the in-pensioners took part in the Mannequin Challenge, a worldwide video craze started by teenagers in America. 

The challenge was to record a video of people frozen for the camera, with the song 'Black Beatles' by Rae Sremmurd playing in the background.

As you can see below, the Chelsea Pensioners did not disappoint.

WATCH: The Chelsea Pensioners take on the Mannequin Challenge
The Chelsea Pensioners take up the #MannequinChallenge

The Chelsea Pensioners have taken up the #MannequinChallenge! The Nation's iconic veteran soldiers are seen enjoying each other's company and the fantastic activities on offer at their 324 year home, the Royal Hospital Chelsea. If you would like to support the work of the Royal Hospital in delivering first class care and a fitting home for our brave veterans, visit our website to find out more: www.chelsea-pensioners.org.uk

Posted by The Chelsea Pensioners on Thursday, 17 November 2016


Christmas Cheese Celebration

To kick off Christmas in style at The Royal Hospital Chelsea there is a festive tradition stretching back more than 300 years. 

The pungent ceremony of the Christmas Cheeses began in 1692 when the governor of the hospital asked the local cheesemonger to supply pensioners with cheese as a Christmas treat. 

In 1959, Dairy UK took over responsibility for getting the cheese to the Chelsea Pensioners. The UK cheesemakers donate the finest of their cheese to keep the tradition alive. 

The highlight of the ceremony is the cutting of the ceremonial cheese. 

In 2016, Chelsea Pensioner Mary Johnston got the event off to an official start by cutting the event's ceremonial cheese – a 24kg Montgomery Cheddar. She said: 

"It's a great honour to have done it, and I am the first lady to have cut the cheese."

Taxi Days Out For Chelsea Pensioners

Each year, generous London black cab taxi drivers take Chelsea Pensioners, and other veterans, on a day trip outing – giving up a day's fare for the journey.

This includes regular trips to seaside places such as Worthing, or other day-trip locations, in a tradition that dates back to 1947.

What Is The Criteria For Being A Chelsea Pensioner? 

To be eligible for admission as a Chelsea Pensioner, a candidate must be a former non-commissioned officer or soldier of the British Army who is: 

  • Over 65 years or of State Pension age (whichever is the greater) 

  • Either in receipt of an Army Service Pension or War Disability Pension which you would be required to surrender upon entry to the Royal Hospital OR if you do not receive an Army Pension you would be required to make a weekly financial contribution (payable by Standing Order) towards your living costs. This contribution will be based on an assessment of affordability completed during the application process. Please note, if you are in receipt of an Army Service Pension and/or War Disability Pension you may also be required to make a top-up contribution (also based on an assessment of affordability)  

  • Free of any financial obligation to support a spouse or family 

  • To be able to live independently in the sheltered accommodation (Long Wards) – the Royal Hospital Chelsea is unable to accept direct entries to the nursing wards 

Also eligible for admission are any former officers of the British Army who meet the criteria, provided they served for at least 12 years in the ranks before obtaining a commission or if they were awarded a disablement pension while serving in the ranks. 

Applications are accepted from any individual who meets the above criteria. 

The Royal Hospital Chelsea receives many more applications than they have available rooms and want to ensure that the most suitable candidates are chosen for the opportunity to live at the Royal Hospital and fulfil the role of a Chelsea Pensioner. Therefore, there will be occasions when applications are not successful. 

As part of the selection process, the Royal Hospital Chelsea will take into consideration an individual's Army service record, together with an assessment as to how an individual will benefit from a place at the Royal Hospital and how an individual would be able to represent both the Royal Hospital and the wider veteran community.  

How to Apply To Be A Chelsea Pensioner

Contact the Chelsea Pensioner Admissions Officer Nicola Seccombe.

Phone: 020 7881 5204

Email: [email protected] 

Cover Image: MOD