AT CHELSEA HOSPITAL.
By DESMOND YOUNG.
TO the average Londoner, Chelsea Hospital is merely a home for military “veterans battered in their country’s wars.” Rightly considered, it is more. It is, by means of its inmates, a bridge—the only accessible bridge—between the Army life of the past and of the present, between the battles of yesterday and those fought in the valleys of Abyssinia, on the burning plains of India, and in other parts of the world where the arts of peace have long held sway. For no man is eligible for its benefits under the age of fifty-five unless disabled by severe wounds or loss of limbs, and, as a consequence, its inmates, numbering about 570 all told, represent the pick of the oldest of our warriors.
Worn-out fighting material are they, as is evidenced by the pathetic fact that, though some men have rested in the haven for a quarter of a century, the average duration of life there is only about five years. As the last abiding place of the very cream of our superannuated fighters, then, Chelsea Hospital is, and ever will be, the link connecting deeds of military glory separated by long intervals.
Many and varied are the circumstances that bring veterans together under the hospitable roof of the famous institution. Sometimes an old soldier marries a young wife, with the usual result—jealousy, quarrels, unhappiness. Taught in the bitterest of all schools, that of experience, that May and December will not mate, he seeks the shelter of the Hospital, sure that there peace and comfort will be his. Many an in-pensioner has a wife outside, but it is significant that she is rarely his equal in age. Seldom will a scarred and wrinkled warrior leave a helpmeet who has spent spring and summer with him, who has travelled with him hand in hand through life, who has shared his joys and sorrows since youth and hope were high. In other cases a broken-down veteran is alone in the world. The sole survivor of his race, he has not a single relation to whom he can look for assistance. This being the case, what more natural than that he should bethink him of Chelsea Hospital ?
The unfilial conduct of sons and daughters is another prolific cause of soldiers relinquishing their pension. And what stories of such ingrates cluster round the case of unclaimed medals in the Great Hall!—a case wherein repose scores of war decorations bestowed on inmates dead and gone, some of them of considerable intrinsic value. Again and again have such insignia been applied for by persons who would not give their departed owners a shilling—nay, who played the parts of Goneril and Regan in the oft-acted tragedy of Lear. Other veterans there are—though these, happily, are in the minority—who “sup sorrow by spoonfuls” through business troubles as well as through the unnatural conduct of their children. Inheriting money, they embark in shopkeeping and the like, fail, and then enter the Hospital, there patiently to await the last summons.
Once an old soldier joins the establishment, he does not often leave it voluntarily, because, in addition to being comparatively well off, he can adapt things exactly to his liking. There are no irksome rules to worry and annoy him, and no duties to be performed. ” We haven’t to do anything,” said one fine old soldier, “except attend church on Sunday.” If a man chooses, he can remain out till nine o’clock every night in the week, and by getting permission—granted as a matter of course—he need not return till twelve. He can, too, go away on furlough as opportunity serves. There is practically no restriction on him.
Just the same degree of liberty is accorded him in purely domestic matters. Every man has his own cubicle, which is his “castle,” and concerning which he has full power to use the words of a poet now beyond the reach of the interviewers and other animalcule to whom he addressed them: “No foot, if you please, over threshold of mine.” No other pensioner can enter it unasked. He is the lord and master of his little home. Here he is free to do as he pleases. He rises when he likes; welcomes whom he likes; goes out when he likes; eats when he likes (for his food is put into his cubicle at stated times, and not served at a common table); does exactly as tastes and habits dictate without let or hindrance from anybody.
That this absence of rule tends to make the in-pensioner more comfortable is plain in every ward. Even old soldiers, accustomed as they have been to that cast-iron, inflexible routine which stifles individuality and converts men into machines, have not all the same tastes and dispositions; and the great difference in the arrangement and decoration of the cubicles shows the wisdom of the governors in recognising this circumstance. While some are as plain as a barrack room —destitute of everything beyond absolute necessaries—others are embellished, externally as well as internally, with pictures from the illustrated papers, tobacconists’ show cards, and a wealth of similar odds and ends. Nor is this all. In a few of the cubicles a marvellously elaborate scheme of decoration has been carried out on a shelf over the bed. The centre-piece is a loud-voiced clock, which is flanked on either hand with tiers of fancy cigarette and tobacco boxes, match boxes, photographs and pictures given away with packets of cigarettes, and other trifles. All this does not sound very promising material as a substitute for such wall ornaments as plaques and oil paintings; but it really brightens up a cubicle to an amazing extent, and truly remarkable are the perseverance, ingenuity, and taste displayed in making the most of it.
Half of each cubicle is taken up by a bed; the other half is for sitting and eating purposes. Such things as boot cleaning are done outside in the ward—where the necessary appliances are close at hand—and for reading, writing, and companionship, the Great Hall, with its collection of weapons, its old leather drinking vessels, known as “black jacks,” and other interesting contents, is available. There, with a congenial comrade, and his memory stimulated by the objects around him—the portraits of Britain’s famous fighting sons, and still more by the tattered fragments of flags taken from the enemy in war that hang over them—the pensioner can drive the hours along by fighting his battles over again.
Or, if the weather is fine, he can go out into the spacious grounds and mix with his fellows, or take an airing on the seats in the piazza, with his back to the memorials of British heroes—a number of mural monuments as appropriately situated as they are inspiriting.
Once a week there is a full muster in the Great Hall. Pay is given out there every Saturday morning, and the pensioners, all dressed in their best, turn up in full force to receive it. For many years the money allowance was only one penny per day, but now it is twopence, each inmate receiving fourteen-pence per week. Although this is not a large amount, it is sufficient to provide the indispensable tobacco, which is almost the only commodity that the old soldier need buy. Food, clothing, beer (a strictly limited quantity), firing—these are all free. So that he does not really require much pocket money. No doubt he could spend more than he gets; but that is a very widely distributed capacity.
Besides owning a cubicle, some of the pensioners have also proprietary rights over a plot of land. At one corner of the hospital grounds, between the disused cemetery and (strange juxtaposition!) the site of that vanished scene of so much uproarious jollity, Ranelagh Gardens, is an enclosure divided into 148 allotments about twenty feet square. Each of these is supposed to be the freehold of a separate inmate, though, as a fact, some men have two or three plots. Whether from a sense of life’s impermanence—for a pensioner often sows and another reaps—or from ignorance of one of the oldest of arts or some other cause, applications for an ownerless plot from those who do not already possess a garden are sometimes lacking. There is no demand for it; nobody seems willing to have it at a gift. And in this case it is transferred to a man who already cultivates a slice of the land.
Like the cubicles, these duodecimo pocket estates bear the impress of their owners’ hands. Not one is so small but that it reveals something of its proprietor’s idiosyncrasies. Some are filled with old-fashioned flowers—pinks and stocks, lupins and hollyhocks; and in the autumn groups of the plots are gloriously radiant with the many-hued and queenly dahlia. More architectural than anything else are the decorations of other squares. On one stands a miniature castle of pebbles and cement about five feet high, surmounted by a battlemented tower, and with door, windows, and all complete. Here and there, again, a contemplative old soldier has built him an arbour, and when it is clothed in green and the days are warm he sits in it for hours at a stretch, puffing away at his pipe and musing over the far-distant past.
“Practical” is writ large on yet another class of allotments, since they contain a cucumber frame, a few score lettuce or rows of onions, two or three beds of radishes, a sowing of mustard and cress—” something worth looking after,” as your severely utilitarian gardener says. There is an obvious reason for the growing of such crops. They can be turned into money, especially on Sunday, when the shops are closed, and when people living in the neighbourhood cannot go to their usual sources of supply for a “bit o’ green stuff for tea.”
What more can an old warrior want than a cubicle and a bit of garden at Chelsea? Nothing; and the generality of those who enter the Hospital recognise it and are contented accordingly. Many, indeed, become so attached to the place that they cherish one of the most common delusions of old age— that when “something happens” to them the whole institution must inevitably collapse and fall into nothingness. Ever since the days of the first grandfather the same fallacy has been current.
While, however, most veterans who gain admittance to the institution do not leave it till the end, some discharge themselves in a huff and go back to their old pension. A man may, for instance, get in a coterie where he is chaffed, and may ultimately vow in his haste that he will not stand it any longer. That done, he feels bound, repent his words as deeply as he may, to take his departure. But, whatever the cause may be, very few leave who do not wish to go back again.
That is not impossible. In fact, some men do return. They send in their application, and, if there is nothing against them, their names are put on the list and they await their turn—wait till the forty or fifty men having prior claims on the institution have either died or been taken in—and then they pass through the gates once more, to remain as long as life lasts.
Source: Living London Edited by George R. Sims. Cassell and Company, Limited. 1902.