Foundation stone of the Royal Hospital for Seamen laid at Greenwich
Tue 30 Jun 20
On 30 June 1696, John Evelyn recorded in his diary: ‘I went with a select Committee of the Commissioners for Greenwich Hospital, and with Sir Christopher Wren, where with him I laid the first stone of the intended foundation, precisely at 5 o’clock in the evening, after we had din’d together. Mr Flamstead, the King’s astronomical Professor, observing the punctual time by instruments.’
Thus began a grand, patriotic architectural project intended to house the veterans of the Royal Navy and create a magnificent royal building by the Thames on the approach to London. It had been a project close to Queen Mary’s heart before her death from smallpox at the end of 1694. Her grief-stricken husband, William III, swiftly issued a Charter in the names of both William and Mary, backdated to 25 October, ‘to erect and found an Hospital .. for the reliefe and support of Seamen serving on board the Shipps or Vessells belonging to the Navy Royall.. who by reason of Age, Wounds or other disabilities shall be uncapable of further Service at Sea and be unable to maintain themselves’. A Commission was appointed, with Evelyn as treasurer and Wren as architect, to carry the project forward.
The precise observation of the time for the laying of the foundation stone, perhaps chosen as an auspicious moment for the new project to begin, suggests that astronomy and astrology were still intermingled in the late 1600s. ‘Mr Flamstead’ was John Flamsteed, the Astronomer Royal based at the Royal Observatory on the top of the hill in Greenwich Park. His attitude to astrology was often hostile, but in 1678 he wrote to a friend, ‘You know I put no Confidence in Astrology, yet dare I not wholly deny the influences of the stars since they are too sensibly imprest on’.
John Evelyn was treasurer to the project and his task was not an easy one: getting hold of money and balancing the books was a constant prom. By November 1696 there was already a cashflow crisis: £2000 promised by the King had not arrived and workmen needed paying. When Evelyn stood down as treasurer in 1703 at the age of 83, the Royal Hospital was half built: he recorded that more than £85,000 had been spent and estimated that the Queen Anne and Queen Mary buildings would cost a further £128,000.
Evelyn was not paid for all the time and effort he contributed to the development of the Royal Hospital. Neither was Christopher Wren, who offered his services free of charge as an act of charity. Wren was committed to the scope and ambition of the scheme: he ensured that the foundations of all four blocks of the new Royal Hospital were laid by 1701. He was afraid that the Hospital would be reduced in scale if the money ran out and he wanted to make sure it would be completed in all its grandeur.
The foundation stone laid on 30 June 1696 was the start of a new range just to the west of the 1660s building originally intended as a new palace for Charles II: together these buildings would form King Charles Court. Some of the bricks used for the new building were supplied by a Mr Foe, later known as Daniel Defoe, journalist and author of Robinson Crusoe (1719). In 1696 Defoe owned a brick factory in Tilbury, Essex and was chasing government orders.
The first Greenwich Pensioners came to live at the Royal Hospital in 1705, but the buildings weren’t completed until 1751, long after both Evelyn and Wren had died. Wren’s brick King Charles Court range, for which the foundation stone had been laid in June 1696, was said to be in poor condition by 1811. It was demolished and replaced by a stone building designed by the Surveyor to the Hospital, John Yenn. By 1816 the overall residential capacity of the Royal Hospital had reached its peak of 2710, enabling it to welcome the generation of Greenwich Pensioners who had seen service in the great sea battles against Napoleonic France. The Pensioner population of the Hospital remained at this level until the 1840s, when demand for an institutionalised haven declined and many preferred to receive a cash pension and take their chances out in the community.