They are instantly recognisable by their scarlet coats and tricorne hats. Now the iconic Chelsea Pensioners are to welcome the public into their home at the Royal Hospital Chelsea for the first time.
The project has been made possible thanks to a £3.2m donation by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which will restore parts of the hospital grounds and open the first ever public museum at the site.
A Grade I- and Grade II-listed building, designed by King Charles II and Sir Christopher Wren, the hospital was opened in 1692 as a retreat for veterans.
Today, the hospital accepts residence applications from any former soldier of the British Army over the age of 66 who faces the prospect of living out their advanced years alone.
Some 300 army veterans currently live there, including soldiers who have seen action in Korea, Northern Ireland, and Cyprus, as well as in the Falklands War and World War II.
In addition to restoring the Sir John Soane Stable Block, the three-year project will create a new Outreach, Heritage, and Visitor Centre for the 66-acre site.
This will be open daily and will include a permanent free exhibition on the history of the Royal Hospital – with opportunities to meet members of the community in person.
The hospital will also be running a programme of activities during the course of the project, including tours and heritage events, as well as outreach schemes, internships, and work-experience placements.
Gary Lashko, chief executive of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, said: ‘We are immensely grateful to the Heritage Fund for this grant, which will enable the hospital to open up the Stable Block to visitors for the first time.’
‘The site has been in urgent need of restoration for some years, and we are now closer to realising its full potential as a hub for visitors; including other military veterans in the community; and as a site for sharing our unique, centuries-old history.’
The National Lottery Heritage Fund is the UK’s largest funder of heritage projects, with almost £8.3 billion awarded to more than 49,000 projects since it was founded in 1994.
Eilish McGuinness, the fund’s chief executive, said that she hoped the grant would provide ‘behind the scenes access to this beautiful building, but also tell stories connected to the Chelsea Pensioners’ heritage and history, and linking to the wider community.’