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From Seamen to Pensioners

Black Greenwich Pensioners hailed from all parts of the Caribbean, West Africa, the Americas and Great Britain. Before joining the Royal Navy some were merchant seamen, carpenters or enslaved plantation workers. One had been a Marylebone pub landlord.

This picture from the cover of a piece of music called The Life of a Sailor, dating from about 1860, is called The Yarn. It shows five shipmates, one of them Black, relaxing on deck.

© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

For most Black seamen the transition to Greenwich Pensioner was straightforward. They were accustomed to living alongside Europeans, having messed with them for years as shipmates. The cramped conditions below decks and a diet of beef, mutton, cheese, bread and beer would have prepared them for life at Greenwich Hospital.


Pensioners go into the West Dining Hall in the Undercroft of the King William Building at Greenwich Hospital. One is a Black veteran with grizzled white hair. Two of the Pensioners carry jugs to bring away tea or another drink.

London Illustrated News, 25 March 1865. Photographed by Ardon Bar-Hama

For Black men who had been petty officers at sea, life on land might have involved some loss of status. Rank and experience would count for little against the everyday slights they would face outside the Navy.

Married men and those with families often lived close to the Hospital as Out-Pensioners. A second source of income or a return to sea was sometimes needed to supplement their meagre pensions.


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