Work Experience at the Royal Hospital Chelsea

The Royal Hospital Chelsea is a collection of extraordinary buildings and people who, in our modern society, seem to have lost their place along with the bombs and gunshots we associate with the wars that the pensioners fought in. It is all too easy to see the scarlet coats without seeing the people underneath them. However, after a week spent in their company, it made me realise that, while the Hospital has a rich history hidden in the past, the pensioners are very much alive. I was lucky enough to work in the archives, as part of a 5-year partnership between College and the RHC, alongside five other girls from College and the archivists: Martin Cawthorne and John Rochester. Martin and John are passionate about their work and encouraged us to join in the investigations of the Hospital’s archive – using it as a resource to tell the story of the visitors and residents, while passing on knowledge from the past.

Working in the archives was far more engaging than we were at first expecting. We helped Martin and John with document assessment, digitising and cataloguing a box full of staff records from the 20th century. Reading the documents while cataloguing and assessing provided us all with an insight into the world of war, as well as the historical management of the hospital. The bombing of the infirmary during the Second World War and the constant appointment and re-posting of medical officials offered an insight into life there, which surprisingly was much like what we recognise as life in an establishment today. The constant memos and letters brought the past to life. When we weren’t sorting new documents, we got an opportunity to look at the photos in the archive - Founders’ Day Parade, old uniforms, the faces of the men we read about. They were all there, brought to life by tiny negatives wrapped in tissue paper and watercolour paintings in the back of boxes.

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We had the honour of spending time with David and Tom Lyall, two Pensioners helping in the archives. We spent hours listening to their stories and opinions – instead of what we were supposed to be doing. They did, rather serendipitously, tend to arrive just as we really started to be productive. As absorbed as we all were in the hospital’s medical staff and their stories, we were drawn to the expertly told tales of wartime Cheltenham, where the Lyall’s stayed after being evacuated during the Second World War.  

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The time we spent at the Royal Hospital Chelsea was eye-opening and inspiring. The passion with which John and Martin work tirelessly to uncover the past of the hospital, and the never-ending grins from Tom and David showed me that archive work can be sociable as well as fascinating.  Working with them encouraged us all to pursue our passion, especially concerning history and genealogy. These men are responsible for keeping the history of the hospital alive, modernising it and making sure that the incredible people of its past are never forgotten. As John likes to put it, our work in the archives is building a resource, one that we have a responsibility to use, to allow knowledge of the past to influence the decisions of the future. I am proud to say we contributed to that.

Bella, SFC1