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Ex-soldiers and Freemasons Michael and Sandy found their way to London’s famous Royal Hospital via very different paths. As Sophie Radice reports, they have both discovered a fellowship of kindred spirits in the Chelsea Pensioners
It is easy to see why The Royal Hospital Chelsea has been called ‘the most beautiful elderly people’s home in the world’. It provides sheltered accommodation, nursing and medical care for 300 Chelsea Pensioners, otherwise known as The Scarlet Men. Not only does the hospital sit within 66 acres of parkland overlooking the Thames, but the buildings – designed by Sir Christopher Wren – are breathtakingly elegant and impressive.
Completed in 1692, The Royal Hospital has been looking after old and infirm veteran soldiers for well over three centuries. Charles II decided that the nation had a duty of care to the men who had risked their lives in battle, now known as ‘The Nations Covenant’. Phases of redevelopment and sensitive modernisation started with the opening of the Margaret Thatcher Infirmary in January 2009, which can care for up to 120 pensioners, and the completion of 34 en-suite study bedrooms.
Each of the nine foot by nine foot ‘berths’, which lead off a communal corridor with shared bathrooms, will be modernised in time. One of the spurs to start refurbishment was the introduction in 2009 of the first female Chelsea Pensioner, Dorothy Hughes, aged 85. Now there are six women, and the numbers of female Chelsea Pensioners will increase over the years in order to reflect women’s growing role in the armed forces. Although there was some initial grumbling about ‘change’ echoing through The Long Wards, the four-storey wings containing the pensioners’ living quarters, it seems that most of the residents are quite proud of the ladies in their midst. As one said: ‘There are complaints when the puddings alter slightly so there is always going to be resistance about a major change like this.’
Although the Freemasons do not have a formal relationship with The Royal Hospital, they have long been generous benefactors. In 2009, The Freemasons’ Grand Charity presented donations totalling £550,000 to ten charities nominated for consideration by HRH The Duke of Kent in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of his installation as Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England. The Royal Hospital Chelsea received £50,000 to assist with the building of the Margaret Thatcher Infirmary.
Several Chelsea Pensioners who are also Freemasons have been hoping to encourage a greater number of fellow masons who have served in the army to consider spending their later years at this prestigious London address. Former servicemen Sandy Sanders and Michael Allen are the driving force behind this push to increase awareness of what life is really like at The Royal Hospital. Both go to lodges to give talks and encourage follow-up visits and tours of the buildings and grounds by Freemasons and their families.
Sandy originally became interested in the Freemasons while serving with the army in Cyprus in the 1960s. ‘One of the officers went with his wife on a trip to Egypt for the weekend leaving their children with friends. The couple were killed in a plane crash and when I started to sort out fundraising for the youngsters, another soldier told me not to worry because he belonged to an organisation that was already covering it. I remember saying that I wouldn’t mind belonging to something as caring as that,’ recalls Sandy.
Sandy eventually joined the Freemasons in 1982 when he left the army and became a member of a lodge in Buckinghamshire. When he decided to move to Portugal in the hope that the climate would better suit his wife who had polycystic kidneys, he helped set up the Prince Henry The Navigator Lodge in the Algarve but had to return to the UK as his spouse became increasingly unwell.
In 1999 Sandy found that his kidneys were a match and he donated one of them to his wife, who enjoyed a further eight years of life before passing away. Sandy had a cousin whose father-in-law was a Chelsea Pensioner and after a four-day trial Sandy decided that this was the place for him now that he was a widower. Sandy works in the development office, is a tour guide and is still a Freemason at a London lodge. He has a ‘lady friend’ who lives nearby and ‘obviously found the red coat irresistible’.
Michael Allen also has a girlfriend who he met since becoming a Chelsea Pensioner so perhaps there is something about the distinctive scarlet jacket. He became a Freemason in his forties when he left the army to work at St Paul’s Cathedral.
‘I had been born into the army and lived in army housing all my life until then. I found that I didn’t speak the language of civilian life. I felt there was no work ethic, loyalty or comradeship. When I was initiated into the St Paul’s Cathedral lodge it was such a relief to be back with men who believed in all the qualities I felt non-army life lacked. People who I trusted and who were decent.’
Michael divorced and found himself as a 60-year-old in sheltered accommodation with 24 women in Cambridgeshire. It was his GP who suggested that he would be eligible to become a Chelsea Pensioner and as soon as he went for his trial Michael knew that it was the place for him. ‘It is such a sociable place. The Royal Hospital has its own bars, cafes, allotments, shops and restaurants. As it is catered, we eat communally in The Great Hall so there is always an interesting conversation going on.’ Michael also has two jobs, working in the internet café and as a tour guide.
QUALITY OF LIFE
The lieutenant governor Peter Currie is understandably proud of the quality of care The Royal Hospital offers its residents, whose average age is 83. ‘While I know that the buildings and grounds of The Royal Hospital are exceptional and we are lucky enough to be considered an essential part of British culture, I do think that there is a great deal the rest of society could learn about looking after the elderly in all the different stages of later life.’
Currie explains how the hospital offers sheltered accommodation, an onsite GP and an extremely active and communal life to those that are fit and well. ‘For those that have health problems we have an excellent care home and hospice for end of life care,’ he says. ‘A pensioner who joins us at 65 and stays here for 20, 30 years will have enjoyed a high quality of life, working if he or she wants to, surrounded by like-minded people and will die somewhere he or she knows and is known. I can’t see why this sort of model couldn’t be replicated in towns and cities throughout the UK, with the rest of the community considering this sort of provision
of care as a moral and financial duty.’
The Royal Hospital has an exceptionally friendly and warm atmosphere. There is a lot of laughter with pensioners sitting together not only in the armchairs in The Long Wards but outside on benches and in the cafés and bars. The requirements to become a Chelsea Pensioner are that you are over 65, have served in the army, give up your army pension on coming to live at the hospital and that you don’t have any family who are financially dependent on you. For ex-servicemen who are Freemasons, it would seem like a natural progression and an enviably convivial way to spend your later years.
If you want to find out more about becoming a Chelsea Pensioner or would like a Chelsea Pensioner to speak at your lodge meeting, go to www.chelsea-pensioners.co.uk