Going to Pension

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Chelsea Hospital
Royal Hospital Chelsea

By Jeanette Lee, Guest Writer

In these days of pensions being a right for the aged or disabled, funded either by superannuation or Social Security, it is easy to forget that in the 19th century pensions did not exist for the working class who, if they were unable to make provision for their old age, were expected to work until they dropped or were supported by their families. Alternatively, if this was not feasible, they had the prospect of ending their days in a Union workhouse. The establishment of the Royal Chelsea Hospital by King Charles II in 1682 recognised the need for on-going care for men who had spent their lives in the service of their country, providing care and pensions for both in-patients who lived in the hospital and out-patients who lived in the wider community both in England and abroad.

Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Gazette after the Battle of Waterloo, by Scottish artist Sir David Wilkie
Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Gazette after the Battle of Waterloo

From 1783 to 1806 for men who volunteered to serve in the British Army the period of enlistment was for life, from 1806 to 1829 the term of enlistment was reduced to seven years in the infantry, ten in the cavalry and twelve for sappers and gunners. In 1829 it reverted back to life, until in 1847 when it was formalized by nominating the period of enlistment as 21 years for infantry and 24 for cavalry. Short service was introduced in 1870 whereby the period of enlistment was 12 years (1).

A man wounded or injured in the service of the Army who had served less than a prescribed period was entitled to a temporary pension for a limited time. Men who were desperate to leave the army, chose to go absent without leave, or suffered self-inflicted injury were subject to Court Martial and suffered severe punishments.

In order to assess the entitlements of each soldier they were issued with a ‘Soldiers Account Book’ which detailed the allowances and entitlements due to them and gave a personal record of their service. It detailed the different rates of pension that could be awarded according to length of service, rank or an injury or disease that had been incurred while on military service but not due to intemperance or vice.

Soldiers going to pension, even after lengthy service, were required to have a medical examination and to appear before a medical board to prove they were indeed incapacitated or worn out. The pension ended with the death of the pensioner, often leaving his family destitute.

Chelsea PensionersThe War Office recognised that some serving soldiers who had established families while serving in the colonies might be reluctant to leave when their regiments were posted to other countries and accordingly they could actually ‘buy’ their way out or, in the case of longer serving men, were awarded deferred pensions which meant that at the age of 60 they could claim a pension commensurate with their length of service.


(1) Mr. Kipling’s Army, Byron Farwell, W.W. Norton & Company Inc, New York, page 81.