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1861 - GREENWICH SIXTY YEARS SINCE
A straight road - Southern outfall sewer - Live British workmen - Winding and pumping engines - New Cross Road - Greenwich Hospital and its pensioners - Collegemen's chapel - Characteristic hymns - Hospital wards - Trafalgar model - Painted Hall - Changes in Hospital - Out pensions - Deplorable results - Empty Hospital - Removal of the Dreadnought.
GREENWICH is a peculiar town. It is longitudinal in a sense
quite distinct from the meridional, inasmuch as only one road for vehicular
traffic traverses it from west to east. If that should become blocked a detour
of miles via the Dover Road, Blackheath, and Maze Hill, would be obligatory in
order to travel on wheels between the western and the eastern hemispheres. The
widely- flung Park and Observatory would have to be doubled. This solitary
highway passes for about one-third of a mile between the Hospital with the river
behind it and the Naval School backed by the Park: a nice wide road bordered by
neither houses nor shops.
So, when the great southern outfall sewer was constructed along it in the early 1860s a rare upset of traffic was experienced for three weeks or a month. Yet the work was carried on with vigour by swarms of sturdy navvies and willing - note the fact in 1924 - bricklayers. There was life in the British workman of those days, and the present generation - or degeneration - are simply consumers of the stores of prosperity he, by his hardihood, laid up.
In the short length from the Parish Church to East (now Eastney) Street were employed four winding-engines to pull up and tip into carts the soil excavated in the trench below; and two pumping-engines going day and night, for [-204-] there was plenty of water to be got rid of. The winding-engines had vertical boilers, and two of them oscillating cylinders, like the Thames steamboats, which moved so fast when at full speed that they could not be followed by the eye. Such oscillating winding engines are quite unknown to-day. One of the pumps was also of unusual construction; it was by Tuxford and Sons, Boston, Lincolnshire, and had a kind of side-lever engine in a domed closed compartment, the doors of which had to be opened for oiling purposes, occupying the usual position of the smoke-box. This machine must have had a return flue, for the chimney was at the same end as the furnace. She pumped at the corner of the classical Tea Pot Row (now Park Row) for several weeks. As the work proceeded through Greenwich towards Charlton, these half-dozen engines were shifted along and remained under my observation for several months.
The huge brick sewer culvert was sometimes built up with single bricks over wooden centering, but also, at places, of curved segments containing many bricks (already set in wooden moulds) which were lowered and mortared into place. As a rule, the spoil was removed in carts, but in the New Cross Road near its junction with the Lewisham Road rails on sleepers were laid and the rubbish taken away in trucks up the Lewisham Road. The Marquis of Granby tavern standing at this point was for weeks the centre of an active though temporary railway system.
Interest centred quite naturally a good deal round the Hospital and its quaintly dressed denizens, then some thirteen hundred in number, including a few survivors from Trafalgar. Many had lost a limb. Indeed, there used to be an annual cricket-match between one-armed and one- legged Collegemen, as the pensioners were termed locally. Some were quite vigorous and followed odd employments in the town. A few married men even maintained a little household outside the Hospital. One of these I came to know slightly. He had a wife and one room in the now- demolished Clark's Buildings, East Street; but, in my estimation, was chiefly remarkable for the possession of a [-205-] grey-and-white Tom-cat of exceptional intelligence and (when so minded) docility, which he had had the patience to train in various un-cat-like directions. The animal was eventually lost or stolen and the poor Collegeman was inconsolable.
There were many stages of senile decay, mental and physical, among the pensioners; but most were able to go about, and of these specimens were always to be found in the Park, down by the river, or on Blackheath, ready to earn a little by yarning of battle, wreckage, and sudden death. Some did so quite well and with every semblance of truth. Sad to say, many were also untiring patrons of the numerous taverns in the vicinity-little pubs, some of them, hidden up courts and alleys and often owning names calculated to attract the old-time tars. I remember one, in East Street, called the Fortune of War, which displayed a decently painted sign swinging over the doorway, representing a jovial pensioner with two wooden legs quaffing from a foam-surmounted quart pot clutched in his one remaining hand. In such places Jack Collegeman would dowse his gum in liquor until quite broached to. But there was strict discipline for drunkards within the Hospital gates. Alter a seafaring life in the early 1 800s predilections towards grog and bacca were understandable and excusable; it would have been almost as reasonable to blame the needle for turning to the pole as the poor stranded Collegeman for loving his beer, pipe and quid.
They were of all kinds, however. Many were religious, and of their own free will went to church or chapel outside the Hospital, although their spiritual wants were supposed to be catered for inside. There was a little chapel in East Street-dissenting, of course, but I don't remember its special sect-constructed apparently out of an old-time barn, which was affected principally by Collegemen. It contained an enormous pulpit, so big in comparison with the very moderate size of the room that the preacher might almost have used a bo'sun's rattan round the congregation in the event of signs of somnolence or punctuated precepts with taps of a belaying-pin. It was indeed an imposing [-206-] quarter-deck, and, I fancy, must have been purchased second-hand from some place of worship of much larger measurement, for it was altogether too grand for an otherwise extremely humble domicile. The poor worshippers appeared very much in earnest, and made the neighbourhood resound with their hymns. Their special favourite was Cowper's well-known-
"There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Emmanuel's veins,
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains."
The old tars used to roar out the six or seven verses to the original well-marked melody, which accentuates admirably the words calling for emphasis, with right good-will, so that passers-by had to hear whether they wanted to or not. It seemed a part of every service, so much so that the tune became known locally as the Collegemen's hymn. What could have been its attraction for the old salts ? Why did they consider it a likely ratlin for their climb to heaven? The blood flavour? Accustomed as they had been to desperate fighting, warfare and carnage for the best years of their lives; to think, talk and dream about it; to regard it as the mainspring of their prize-money, fortunes and ambitions: I imagined that very likely the habit had persisted and engrossed them so much that now, in the "sere and yellow leaf," it came natural and comforting to associate blood with religion and redemption. Poor old chaps!
Others of their favourites were-
"On the other side of Jordan, in the sweet fields of Eden,
Where the Tree of Life is blooming, there is rest for you"
"We sing of the realms of the blest,
That country so bright and so fair;
And of t are its glories confessed-
But what must it be to be there ?"
Although not ostensibly open to the public, the various wards of the Hospital were accessible to those with sufficient assurance to assume a pretence of having business there. [-207-] I wandered about them often and was never once challenged. Under the buildings are long arched stone corridors yielding long vistas and giving a suggestion of interminability. Along these we boys sometimes raced neck-and-neck. In King Charles's Ward was the great model under glass of the Battle of Trafalgar which now stands in the United Service Museum, Whitehall, not improved by its transfer, since the ocean waves are now much more distinctly divided into squares than they were at Greenwich. Nelson knew how to join battle apparently better than others know how to join the mere model of it. We saw it often and listened deferentially to descriptions of the momentous engagement by those who professed to have been there all the while. In the Painted Hall were the Nelson relics: the coat in which the hero was killed, his decorations, etc. Some, such as the custodians of these national treasures have not allowed to be stolen, are there to this day. One of the yarns connected with the Hall was that the ornate ceiling was painted by the artist lying on his back on a scaffolding, and that he contracted some dreadful spinal disease in consequence.
There was a kindly atmosphere about the Hospital. The nurses were evidently on good terms with their old and suffering charges; visitors were freely allowed, and although discipline was, of course, necessary, it was only what the tars had been accustomed to. There were no outward signs of harshness, nor did the Collegemen complain.
Alas! in 1865 all this happiness and contentment was put an end to by Act of Parliament. At the instigation, it was said, of the Duke of Somerset, it was resolved to take only infirm and helpless sailors and marines into the Hospital and to assign out-pensions to all others. Moreover, inmates already there were to be offered out-pensions if able-bodied enough to leave. It was argued that such out-pensions would enable many to live with relatives or friends, and by relieving them from the (assumed) ignominy of wearing uniform and submitting to the restrictions of what was, after all, only a glorified pauperdom, gratify their sense of independence. Unfortunately, Mr. Gladstone and his lieutenants were won over by the huge economies promised. [-208-] Out of some 1,350 inmates largely of dubious capacity to look after themselves in a world from which they had long been secluded, some 950 accepted out-pensions, to the great jubilation of the politicians or cranks who had engineered the cruel and dishonourable renunciation of the nation's promises and engagements with its seamen and marines.
The fateful day came, on September 26th. Each man was given an advance or bonus in cash - there was no meanness about Great Britain! - and at the gates he found his friends, and lots of 'em. The manner in which uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces, not to mention wives, sprang out of nowhere to welcome the dear old salts with money in their pockets and weekly stipends of 14s. to follow on was remarkable. And there were worse. Brazen-faced hussies walked off with doddering old sillies, while male harpies were not lacking. That same night some of the men were penniless and slept in casual wards; others got locked up for drunkenness. And those who escaped such snags were not always better off. Instead of the roomy, airy wards and dormitories of the Hospital and its wholesome and regular, if plain, food, very many had to pig in with already crowded families in insanitary houses and to take pot-luck of whatever happened to be going. Those inclined to drink lost the beneficent restraint of the Hospital and went to the bad by the nearest road. No doubt there were lucky ones to whom the change meant improvement, but they must have been exceptional, for the tales of the mortality which followed the reform (!) were appalling. John Bull had to pay but few of the allowances long. God preserve Chelsea Hospital from such reform!
These deplorable effects had been foreseen by local men who understood the Collegeman and his ways, and pointed out in good time to the Government, but in vain.
Having emptied the Hospital, the authorities were at a loss what to do with it. Yet when, in 1867, it was desired to abolish the floating seamen's hospital Dreadnought and transfer the patients to part of the empty premises, the Lords of the Admiralty made all sorts of difficulties. In 1868 the Pall Mall Gazette rated them soundly: "Buildings [-209-] capable of accommodating, 3,000 have only 350 inmates, which cost ?120 per annum each, instead of ?60 in the old, in-pension days - splendid revenues misapplied and diverted. The Lancet found "the smell of desolation about the place." The Times, in 1869, said that "except for the Governor, who draws ?3,000 a year, and a lot of officials mostly doing nothing, the Hospital is practically empty." I paid a farewell visit there in May, 1869, before starting for India and learned that it was the intention to remove the remainder of the infirm pensioners to Netley! And so the job was completed. The impulse may be an unjust one, but I rarely pass a statue or picture of Gladstone without my thoughts involuntarily reverting to the poor Greenwich Collegemen.
I regretted the disappearance of the picturesque old Dreadnought keenly, for I had known her at the same old moorings since childhood and without her towering bulk and black-and-white streaks the Thames hardly looked the same. She was famous throughout the world, for no sick seaman, whatever his nationality, was ever refused admission to her hospitable tween decks. She was run by the Seamen's Hospital Society on voluntary contributions.
The original Hospital ship, placed in position about 1837, was the actual Dreadnought of 98 guns which fought at Trafalgar, where she captured the Spanish three-decker San Juan and sustained a loss of seven killed and twenty-six wounded. She had been removed in 1857 and replaced by another three-decker of very similar appearance, to which the old name was transferred. Her real one I do not remember. In twenty years over 63,000 patients had been accommodated, and the charity was a very noble one.
source: Alfred Rosling Bennett, London and Londoners in the Eighteen-Fifties and Sixties, 1924