Friday, 14 October 2016

The Naval Hospital at Greenwich

Last week I produced not one, but two, blog posts about pattern-welded swords. It was a specialist subject and, as I expected, not wildly popular (though worth a look if metallurgy and edged weapons are your thing). I promised a return to normal service this week so here is something much lighter.

This week I finished the first draft of the next book about James Burke, so, what with that and writing about metallurgy, I've been a bit busy. So I have no brilliant ideas for this week's blog post.

I know that you all seem to like things with photographs and last month I spent an afternoon taking pictures at the Naval Hospital in Greenwich, so I thought I'd just share some of these with you.

The Naval Hospital was the brainchild of Queen Mary, though it was completed after her death in 1694. She was concerned that, while old soldiers had provision at the Chelsea Hospital (where they can still find accommodation as Chelsea Pensioners) there was no equivalent institution for old sailors. Note that  this was a hospital in the old sense of somewhere providing a place of shelter, rather than  a medical facility. The buildings did include an infirmary, though, which  continued operating as the Dreadnought Seaman's hospital until 1986.

The building was very grand, designed to reflect the country's gratitude to the Navy rather, perhaps, than meeting the needs of  common seamen. Indeed, one of the reasons that  the naval hospital (unlike the Chelsea Hospital) was eventually  closed down was because sailors did not particularly want to live there.

There is a good example of the way that  the glorification of  Britain's naval history was worked into the architecture here:

This shows the dead body of Nelson being delivered to Britannia by an angel and (look carefully for the tail) a merman. [Click on the photo to see the detail.]

Nelson is not wearing his uniform, but is naked except for a cloth spread across his loins. The figure is strikingly similar  to many depictions of Christ taken down from the cross. Notice Nelson's great victories inscribed on plaques held by the figures around him (including a cherub). There is Trafalgar, of course, but also Copenhagen and the Nile. Nowadays we tend to forget  the Battle of the Nile, but it was an astonishing triumph over a vastly superior French force. [And I might mention that it's the climax of Burke and the Bedouin.]

The accommodation was spacious but utilitarian. This is a view of one of the rooms nowadays.

The public rooms (most notably the chapel and the Painted Hall) were quite extraordinary,  although savings were made whenever possible. The "marble" pillars in the chapel, for example, are not real marble and the  sculpture work (including the  scene of Nelson's death shown above) are not actually carved from stone but cast in ceramic.

The Chapel
The Painted Hall
Ceiling of Painted Hall
The buildings ceased to be used as a retirement home in 1869 and were later taken over by the Royal Navy as a training college for its officers. The Navy left in 1998 and the sailors accommodation  is now used by the University of Greenwich for teaching and administration. The students there are lucky to be working in such beautiful buildings.

My books

I have written a series of books set in the Napoleonic Wars, when this hospital would have been filled with sailors who had lost limbs fighting the French. The second in the series (all the books stand alone, so you don't need to have read the first) ends with an account of Nelson's victory at the Battle of the Nile. It's called Burke and the Bedouin and if, like most people, you have never heard of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, you will know a lot more about the history of the wars with France when you finish it than you know now. Like all the Burke books, it features dark deeds and desperate fights, a beautiful woman and a sardonic streak of humour. You can buy it on Kindle for just £2.99/$3.99 or in paperback for £9.99/$14.95


  1. The building looks powerful. I think that's a good idea. I like the details, because the details hide beauty and amazingness. I still study at the university and also write a book, although there is no time for studying. But I try to reach my dream and I work for I dream about the whole world to learn about my book.