The Closure of Greenwich Hospital for Seamen

News

Fri 1 Oct 21

On 1 October 1869, Greenwich Hospital for Seamen finally closed its doors, 264 years after the first Pensioners were admitted. The Admiralty’s decision to close it down sparked a good deal of debate in Parliament and the press, much of the dissent coming from Greenwich locals. One such was Alfred Rosling Bennett, later to become a pioneering electrical and telegraph engineer. His family moved to Greenwich in 1860 when Alfred was ten. In 1920 he published his childhood memories: London and Londoners in the 1850s and 1860s. He clearly spent many a happy hour in and around the Hospital: 

Interest centred quite naturally a good deal round the Hospital and its quaintly dressed denizens, then some thirteen hundred in number, including a few survivors from Trafalgar. Although not ostensibly open to the public, the various wards of the Hospital were accessible to those with sufficient assurance to assume a pretence of having business there. I wandered about them often and was never once challenged. There was a kindly atmosphere about the Hospital. The nurses were evidently on good terms with their old and suffering charges; visitors were freely allowed, and although discipline was, of course, necessary, it was only what the tars had been accustomed to.  

Alas! In 1865 all this happiness and contentment was put an end to by Act of Parliament. It was resolved only to take infirm and helpless sailors and marines into the Hospital. Inmates already there were to be offered out-pensions, if able-bodied enough to leave, to live with relatives or friends. Out of some 1350 inmates largely of dubious capacity to look after themselves in a world from which they had long been secluded, some 950 accepted out-pensions, to the great jubilation of the politicians who had engineered the cruel and dishonourable renunciation of the nation’s promises to its seamen and marines. 

The fateful day came, on September 26th. Each man was given an advance or bonus in cash, and at the gates he found his friends, and lots of ‘em. The manner in which uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces, not to mention wives, sprang out of nowhere to welcome the dear old salts with money in their pockets and weekly stipends of 14 shillings to follow on was remarkable. And there were worse. Brazen-faced hussies walked off with doddering old sillies, while male harpies were not lacking. That same night some of the men were penniless and slept in casual wards; others got locked up for drunkenness. And those who escaped such snags were not always better off. Instead of the roomy, airy wards and dormitories of the Hospital and its wholesome and regular, if plain, food, very many had to pig in with already crowded families in insanitary houses and to take pot-luck of whatever happened to be going. Those inclined to drink lost the beneficent restraint of the Hospital and went to the bad by the nearest road. The tales of mortality which followed the reform(!) were appalling. Having emptied the Hospital, the authorities were at a loss what to do with it.  

The 1865 act was followed four years later by a bill introduced by George Trevelyan, MP for Hawick Burghs and Civil Lord of the Admiralty, who reminded the House of Commons of the findings of the 1859 Commission into the running of Greenwich Hospital. The overall sentiment was that the expense of the establishment was only equalled by the discomfort of its inhabitants. 

The bill was duly passed, and it made provision for all the remaining Pensioners. The infirm were to be removed to other naval hospitals such as Haslar in Portsmouth, or to the Dreadnought Seamen’s Hospital, which it had been agreed should take over the previous Greenwich Hospital Infirmary (now the Dreadnought Building). The more able-bodied were granted a special Greenwich Hospital Pension to augment any existing naval pensions up to a maximum of £36/10s a year. To fulfil the commitment to spread its resources more widely, Greenwich Hospital funds would also be used to take out of the workhouse any seaman who had served his country and provide him with a small pension. Finally, to salve a long-standing gripe, £4000 per year was to be given to the Board of Trade for division among those Merchant Seamen who had contributed their monthly sixpences to Greenwich Hospital for ten years or more. 

Still, it must have been a sad day for Greenwich residents (especially publicans and purveyors of pipes and tobacco) when the end came. Alfred Rosling Bennett was correct in saying that at the time of the closure there were no plans for the majority of the buildings. But the idea soon emerged of a new Royal Naval College, which opened its (freshly painted) doors in 1873.