Monday, 28 November 2016

The Old Royal Naval College Visitor Centre

London SE10 9NN

Thursday November 24 2016

There is much to see in Greenwich‘you need more than day’ say the posters and that is absolutely true. Today was our second visit in two weeks and third overall and there will be more to come.  

The best approach for Wren’s masterpiece (this or St Pauls’ – you choose) is of course by river but we took the DLR route today and made our way into the side entrance of the visitor centre. This is a slightly strange mixture of a tourist office with tours and information specific to Greenwich but also somewhere offering London-wide leaflets (it was here, back in 2008 I picked up the four London bus maps which started us on our eventual 5 year bus odyssey), a café and substantial toilets but threaded through these there is as well a history of the site and above all the buildings.  This I suppose dignifies this visit as a museum rather than a generic look at buildings.

In the far corner (I think this should be more central as chronologically it comes earliest) are the displays relating to the original Tudor Palace, in the main erected by Henry Tudor (VII) as he took over the kingdom following the Wars of the Roses – it was to be the birthplace of three future and very memorable monarchs: Henry VIII, Mary and Elizabeth. The palace extended along the riverfront where even now they are finding interesting artefacts as the foreshore recedes and included a friary and a chapel.  The Friary, which put up some criticism of Henry’s ‘marriage plans’ was of course the first to go with William Peto (who had been Katherine of Aragon’s confessor) imprisoned and exiled for preaching a rather controversial anti-Anne Boleyn sermon. The exhibits here include Tudor rose plasterwork embellishments and fragments of the chapel floor and windows plus a ground plan of what was a very substantial site. After Elizabeth’s death the palace was abandoned and as other noble (hangers-on?) local families left also land changed hands...

Chronologically the next significant building was the Queen’s House (which will form the basis of a separate blog) but its very position, perched halfway up the hill, determined the design of what was to be the Seamen’s Hospital down by the river. The displays in the Visitor Centre backed by video commentary (Dan Cruickshank who sadly has appropriate things to say but says them in such an annoying way I tend to switch off – is it only me?)  focus on several aspects of architecture looking at the building materials, the design and the specification – in this case somewhere for the pensioned/retired and almost invariably disabled ex-seamen to live. Wren had precedent here with the formidable Chelsea Royal Hospital for army veterans At Greenwich his brief was more complex as he needed to allow for the river frontage and leave a clear view up to the Queen’s House. The result was a hugely pleasing symmetrical building of open courtyards with two domed communal buildings – the chapel and dining room, so plenty of room for the residents to take the air, watch the river and probably smoke… The stone has worn well and the life of Wren points out that he had a strong sense of civic duty, which indeed is his legacy of several great public buildings. There are reconstructions of what a seaman’s room might have been like (some were communal) and an idea of how he might have spent his day; according to this hardly one of riotous living. The project had originally been that of Queen Mary but when she died of smallpox the surviving William III completed it. Among its Governors was former Admiral Hardy who had served so memorably with Nelson, which must have been a thrill for the pensioners who much admired Nelson. (The main Maritime Museum has an exhibition looking at the life Emma Hamilton, but that’s for another day).

There were two intriguing wooden statues, not unlike the figure-heads we had seen round the corner two weeks ago, called ‘Gin’ and (slightly fatter) ‘Beer’, which apparently adorned the buttery where the pensioners ate.

We did go out to look at the Dining Hall which is considered very worthwhile – however it is currently closed for a major renovation and when re-opened will apparently (presumably at a cost)  include a raised walkway the better to be able to admire James Thornhill’s painted ceiling. We still remember when the Dining Room was the naval college’s and smelt persistently of cabbage…

The Chapel is equally handsome and beautifully proportioned with some intricate Coade Stone on the ceiling – this is a later building as fire had demolished the original chapel.

By the late 19th Century the Seamen’s Retreat was losing numbers as post Waterloo there were fewer conflicts thus fewer casualties of war and   those there were preferred to live at home. It took a mere four years to turn the Hospital into a college for the training of Royal Naval Officers, which opened in 1873 under the auspices of Sir Astley Cooper Key. It took students from round the world and eventually trained the merchant marine also. When I said to Jo that it seemed a bit late in the day to be training folk she pointed out that previously the officers had bought their commissions and other ranks were ‘press-ganged’.
Within 40 years they would be training sailors for war and essentially focussed only on ‘hostility’ training thereafter. There had been training facilities in Portsmouth both before they moved here and after they moved back to the South West.   Their motto indicates they embraced (not literally we hope?) the training of women also.  

(Minerva as well as Mars..)

These buildings have now been taken over by the University of Greenwich and the students were much in evidence today as we left this lower part of the Unesco heritage site.  



  1. William III was the husband of Mary II. William IV was not born until the 18 th century.

  2. Thank you both - you can tell my history went from the end of the Tudors round to Victoria...