A Chelsea Pensioner is an British ex-army serviceman who has been rewarded for long and diligent service with a special pension.
Charles II's reign marked a number of innovations as well as restoration of old traditions. One such innovation (according to legend, the idea of Nell Gwynn),was the establishment, in 1682 of the Royal Hospital Chelsea in London, designed by Sir Christopher Wren.
Throughout the 17th-19th Centuries (apart from the odd year here or there), there was no official, automatic military pension. Instead, they were granted as a boon to good soldiers, which provided an incentive to stop those nearing retirement ignoring orders etc.
The hospital (and Royal Hospital, Kilmainham in Dublin) functioned as a proto-old age homes, looking after ex-soldiers who were deemed worthy of being granted a military pension. These became known as Chelsea Pensioners.
Of course, not all Chelsea Pensioners live in the hospitals. Those who do are known as in-pensioners, while the rest - the vast majority who get money instead of bed and board - are known as out-pensioners.
Eligibility for pensioner-status was dependent on fulfilment of a few criteria:
- The recipient must not be an officer, but rather an enlisted man or NCO.
- The recipient must have either served 20 years in the army, or have been injured in battle or by environmental conditions.
- The recipient had to have a letter of recommendation from his commanding officer.
These measures excluded the already-rich and those who couldn't get a letter of recommendation. This still left a fair few claimants, who would have to present themselves in person at the Hospital for a medical.
Here's the catch: Chelsea Pensioners could still be called up for military service, provided they were fit enough to do the job. Many were called up in the 1720s to serve in the Colonies in America. Even in peace-time, some of the fitter pensioners were expected to man the garrisons of London.
Unsurprisingly, the Chelsea Pensioner system brought with it another thoroughly modern problem: benefit fraud. With no photography, fingerprinting or fast method of communication, it became relatively easy to claim money as an absent or even deceased pensioner. The army and later the War Office tried to introduce better security, and Parliament made it a capital crime to impersonate a Chelsea Pensioner under what became known as the Bloody Code.
Chelsea Pensioners are still around today (according to one source, there are about 350 in-pensioners, with an average age of 81). However, the Royal Hospital Chelsea no longer pays out pensions; since 1955 they have been rolled into the state pension scheme.
The pensioners have a dress uniform of a red jacket and pointy (napoleon-style) black hat. They often appear at state events. They celebrate Founders day on May 29th in memory of Charles II and Nell Gwynn; they cover a statue of the King with oak, and drink a lot.