Chelsea Icons

The Chelsea Pensioners are the scarlet-coated men and women who have become icons of Chelsea, London and indeed the UK. But did you know that the history of the veterans dates back more than 300 years? By Lorna Davies


The Chelsea pensioners reside at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, their 324-year-old home founded by King Charles II, sandwiched between King’s Road and the River Thames.


Some 300 army veterans live at the Royal Hospital today, including those who have served in Korea, the Falkland Islands, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and the Second World War. Others may not have served in campaigns, but all understand what it means to be a soldier and the potential sacrifice that it entails.


In 1681, Charles II issued a Royal Warrant authorising the building of the Royal Hospital Chelsea to care for those “broken by age or war”. Sir Christopher Wren was commissioned to design and erect the building, while Sir Stephen Fox was commissioned to secure the funds necessary to progress the build.


The Royal Hospital opened its doors in 1692. On February 4, the first group of 99 Chelsea Pensioners was installed, and on March 28 the full complement of 476 was made up when they were joined by a further 377 residents. Next year the Royal Hospital celebrates its 325th anniversary.


The iconic long scarlet coat is worn with pride by the Chelsea Pensioners. However, many people don’t realise that Pensioners wear two types of uniform, known fondly as ‘scarlets’ and ‘blues’.
The scarlet coat and tricorne hat are worn with white gloves for ceremonial occasions. For all other events the scarlet coat is worn with the shako cap.
The blues and shako uniform is worn on a daily basis by most Chelsea Pensioners. It can only be worn within a two-mile radius of the Royal Hospital.


The first ever female Chelsea Pensioners were Dorothy Hughes and Winifred Phillips, who were accepted at the Royal Hospital in 2009 after 10 years of campaigning. There are currently 14 female Chelsea Pensioners.


In November 2010, seven Chelsea Pensioners released an album to raise money for the Chelsea Pensioners’ Appeal. Featuring Dame Vera Lynn, Katherine Jenkins, The Soldiers and Janey Cutler, the album is full of well-known wartime songs and includes their traditional march, “The Old Brigade”.


In 2015 the Royal Hospital became a music venue for the first time. Since then Live at Chelsea has hosted Wet Wet Wet, Damien Rice, Simply Red and more. Funds raised go towards the maintenance of the site and to the care of the Chelsea Pensioners.


Last year, the Long Wards (Chelsea Pensioner accommodation) were renovated for only the second time since the Grade I-listed hospital opened in 1692. The refurbishment means that all the Pensioners now have a full-sized bedroom and shower room. Sir Redmond Watt, governor of the Royal Hospital, said the new accommodation “is truly excellent and up to 21st-century standards”.


In April this year, a sweet pea was named after the Chelsea Pensioners’ distinctive apparel. Mr Fothergill’s in Suffolk is donating 25p to the Royal Hospital Chelsea for every £2.19 packet of 20 Scarlet Tunic seeds sold.
If you would like to find out more about the Chelsea Pensioners or support the Royal Hospital Chelsea, please visit