Rarely do the words ‘royalty’ and ‘modesty’ go hand in hand. Standing atop a marble plinth in the main courtyard of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea is a gilded statue of King Charles II, garbed in Roman military gear. Presented to the King by Tobias Rustat in 1682, the looming 7ft6 statue draws the gaze, and awe, of any visitor walking by.
After the Charles’ death in 1685, the statue was moved to the Royal Hospital, a home for retired veterans who were “broken by the age of war”. Inspired by Les Invalides in Paris, Charles II sought to provide a similar refuge for British soldiers returning from war.
To source financing for the Hospital, Charles enlisted the services of Sir Stephen Fox, the first ever Paymaster of the Forces. Fox proved himself adept in the role, devising a scheme that would fund the construction of the Hospital by taking one penny per week from military wages. Ten years later, the Royal Hospital opened its gates to its first veterans.
Over the course of the next 325 years, Royal Hospital Chelsea (RHC) became the home for tens of thousands of veterans. Known as the ‘Chelsea Pensioners’, their distinctive scarlet uniform is ubiquitous in the streets of the Royal Borough. The Hospital itself is neither a charity nor a business per se; it is owned in trust by a group of commissioners who advise the executive board of the RHC to ensure the well-being of the Pensioners and to safeguard its historic buildings. The titular head of the organisation is the Paymaster-General, surrounded by six other Ex-Officio Commissioners and ten Specially Appointed Commissioners, who are chosen for their particular skill (law, property, finance etc.). There is a Governor-General, also a commissioner and appointed by the Queen, who remains on-site and typically serves a six-year term.
And then there is the CEO, whose full list of duties would exceed far beyond the inches of this feature. Until Gary Lashko’s appointment in early 2016, every CEO of the Royal Hospital came from a military background. Having spent most of his professional career in housing and care, Lashko was far from the bookie’s favourite. Recalling his appointment, Lashko smiles and gives an answer that was probably similar to the one he gave in the interview: “the housing associations that I worked for were like the Royal Hospital,” says Lashko. “They were basically small businesses but also not-for-profit and very regulated. I had four regulators at my last place!” Business-like, heavy regulation and non-profit; it would almost be worth drawing a Venn diagram but the similarities between the two roles were salient. Evidently, the commissioners thought so too and in February 2016, Lashko became the first CEO of Royal Hospital Chelsea without a military background.
Lashko confesses that his appointment as the first non-military CEO drew a guarded reaction from the Chelsea Pensioners but his interactions with them around the site suggest otherwise. Walking as a president might on the campaign trail, Lashko’s long, purposeful strides are regularly interrupted by warm greetings from Pensioners. As CEO, Lashko is more than aware of the tough decisions that he will have to make: “a lot of work needs to be done,” says Lashko, “and that’s not only to ensure that we can keep going on for the next ten or twenty years but for the next 325 years.” There is a fear among the pensioner community that this work may tarnish the character of the RHC but Lashko, before the question is even asked, is quick to address the concern: “our primary aim,” says Lashko, “is to modernise but to protect the traditionalism of the Hospital. We wouldn’t have it any other way.” Thus far, the effusive CEO has kept to his promise; over the past two years, Lashko has, with minimal disruption, developed and adapted RHC services to provide more domiciliary care so that pensioners can stay in their accommodation for longer rather than move to the infirmary.
Throughout its history, the ever-tenuous relationship between the preservation of tradition and the necessity of modernisation has been managed well by the Royal Hospital. Little better exemplifies this sentiment than the refurbished Pensioner accommodation that once slept 36 men on each floor, who shared four toilets and two showers. With a ratio of nine men to one toilet, all former soldiers, it would not be unreasonable to infer that this would lead to more problems than one. Since its refurbishment however, Chelsea Pensioners both male and female, now have en suite accommodation, a study area, a bedroom and importantly, a window. Pensioners also live communally, reinforcing the strong sense of kinship among veterans.
The concept of the ‘military family’ is one that is cherished dearly by the Chelsea Pensioners, particularly when they may no longer have a family of their own. At the Royal Hospital, the community is predicated on the shared military history and experiences of its Pensioners. They are bound by a sense of pride because, as Lashko emphasises, they are not only representing the Hospital but also soldiers of the past. History drips from its walls, piecing together stories of all the veterans that once lived here; on display near the CEO’s office are two French Imperial Eagles rumoured to have been kissed by the Little Corporal himself, and in the main courtyard are four French howitzers, captured during the Battle of Waterloo. Ceilings are adorned by large mural paintings in the Great Hall and Chapel, further enveloping visitors and Pensioners into its rich history. It is this grandeur, undergirded by the compassion of those who work here, that makes the Hospital such a special place.
To ensure that it can run as smoothly for the Pensioners of today as it can for the Pensioners of tomorrow, the Royal Hospital Chelsea depends on the continued support of the wider community and the nation at large. Recently, it has been building inter-generational ties through outreach programmes and school visits from the Pensioners who, according to Lashko, “automatically attract the attention of the kids!” Through these schemes and the hosting of its more iconic events like the Chelsea Flower Shower, Lashko believes that Royal Hospital Chelsea will remain a stalwart of military care for another 325 years. Following on from what has been a very promising start to his tenure as CEO, Lashko is extremely well-placed to achieve this ambition.
To donate and find out more about the Royal Hospital, please visit www.chelsea-pensioners.org.uk
Photo credits: Deep Creative Design