‘Like being in the forces – you help fellow man’ Chelsea Pensioner on Royal Hospital life

Chelsea Pensioners say they love living in retirement home

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The Royal Hospital Chelsea is undergoing a significant change in the history of the Chelsea Pensioners as it’s currently offering up 30 vacancies behind its doors. The historic retirement home, in which a number of veteran army men and women reside, offers retired service men and women the chance to live the remainder of their lives in comfort and with their fellow heroes. BBC’s The One Show delved into the historic moment by sending presenter Angellica Bell to the home itself.

Teeing up the moment, The One Show host Alex Jones said: “It’s a busy day tomorrow for the Chelsea Pensioners because they’ll be out in their iconic scarlet coats to celebrate the establishment of the retirement home, the Royal Hospital Chelsea.”

Jermaine Jenas then chipped in: “Yes, for many of the residents, it’s given them a new lease of life and now there’s an exciting opportunity to welcome 30 people to live there as Angellica Bell found out.”

Angellica explained that around 300 army veterans already live in the grounds – which opened in 1683 – where residents are offered three meals a day, a bedroom with an ensuite, and face no bills.

Outlining the historic moment, Angellica went on: “For the first time in its history, 30 rooms have become available.”

Sergeant Major Ross Martin is the man tasked with perusing the applications for the vacant spots and also spoke to Angellica about what he’s looking out for.

“There’s nowhere like it in the world,” the Sergeant Major began. “This is a one-off. ‘The Chosen 300’ is what we call them.”

When asked who gets to live there, Sergeant Major Martin explained: “It’s only British Army veterans. So they have to be 65 years of age, they have no financial ties outside really, their wives have passed away, their husbands have passed away, their kids have grown up…

“So loneliness is a big factor here,” he explained. “The great thing is they say it adds five if not 10 years to the pensioner’s life when they come in here.

And two men who could attest to this were veterans Mike Bardell and Billy Knowles who welcomed Angellica into their living spaces.

“I hadn’t planned to come here,” Billy explained after moving in in October 2021. “But when the wife died, that’s when I thought to myself, ‘I’m sick of knocking around in this three-bedroom house.’

“So I thought what would I do, I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll give the Chelsea Pensioner thing (a go), see if they’ll take me in’.

“I got in and it’s absolutely brilliant,” Billy added before Mike explained his story and praised the institution: “I just missed the wife.

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“I wanted company. I had nobody but myself. I thought about the Chelsea Pensioners so I applied.

“Best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” the retired serviceman added.

Billy then joked the only thing he worried about now was “what I’m going to have for my lunch”, before Angellica asked about the iconic scarlet uniforms.

“You grow an inch,” Mike admitted. “We are representing people who aren’t here.”

Billy then delved into the activities he and others take part in as part of the community, explaining: “I’m in the singing group, I’m also in the bowls team, so I go bowling. 

“You can do pétanque. There’s the art room, there are pottery rooms here… If you think of something that you want to do, the hospital will go out of their way to get you to do it.”

When asked what it took to be a “good” Chelsea Pensioner, Mike replied: “Patience, understanding (and) caring about your fellow guys.

“It’s like being back in the forces, any of the guys in your squad or your troupe needed help, you go and help them.”

The One Show airs weekdays at 7pm on BBC One.

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