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Nell Gwyn, the favourite of Charles II, has the credit of having recommended to that monarch the adoption of Sir Stephen Fox's project. Sir Christopher Wren was employed, and king Charles laid the foundation stone of the building. Sir Stephen Fox's heart must have been in the undertaking, for he spent in it twelve or thirteen thousand pounds of his own money. It was in 1682 that the first stone was laid.
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I have walked through the college, the three courts, the garden, and the terraced walks, from the entrance down to the side of the Thames, talking with the gray-headed soldiers, picking up scraps of information, and examining the large bronze statue of Charles II., and other curiosities.
It appears that there are near five hundred in-pensioners in the establishment, that regular garrison duty is kept up, and that Divine service is performed three times every week in the chapel. The number of out-pensioners is very great. A poundage is paid by the whole British army to support the college, and every officer and private soldier contributes a day's pay once a year to the fund. The parliament is ever ready to make up a deficiency, for neither the old soldiers nor the old sailors of England are neglected.
In talking with these old firelocks of England, the pensioners, I learn that the origin of the
present regular army was the corps of I ife Guards, established by King Charles II. ; for the “ Yeomen of the Guard” of Henry vii., and the archers or sergeants-at-arms of Richard 1., could hardly be called soldiers. I learn also, from the same authority, that there are not, were not, and never will be, any soldiers like those of Old England. Aged as most of the inmates of the college are, some of them can bristle up even now when a bayonet is spoken of. It is high time for them to be still, and to live in peace and charity with all mankind.
I should take a peep at the boys in the Royal Military Asylum near, dressed up in their red jackets, blue breeches and stockings, and black caps, going through their exercise ; and at the girls in their red gowns and blue petticoats, both the one and the other marching to their meals to the sound of the drum ; but Greenwich Hospital, which I mean to see to-day, is at some distance. I must, therefore, instead of visiting the asylum, step on board a steamer. Chelsea College, I bid thee farewell! Would that thy gray-haired and furrow-browed inmates were fighting as manfully against sin in their age, as they have contended against their foes in their youth! Would that they were ready to give glory to God, rather than to themselves, saying, “ Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty; for all that is in the
heaven and in the earth is thine : thine is the kingdom, O Lord, and thou art exalted as head above all. Both riches and honour come of thee, and thou reignest over all; and in thine hand is power and might; and in thine hand it is to make great, and to give strength unto all. Now, therefore, our God, we thank thee, and praise thy glorious name,” i Chron. xxix. 11–13.
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Ay, this looks like a palace indeed, with its wings, cupolas, pillars, courts, and terraces ! And there are long rows of pensioners seated on the benches, talking together, and gazing at the ships and steam-boats on the river. There are, I am told, at the present time, more than two thousand seven hundred of these furrow-faced, quiet looking old sojourners snugly nestled in the hospital. About seven hundred of them are maimed, and the infirmities of age must now be creeping, or rather leaping on the remainder ; but there is a shadowy side to everything, and I suppose this is the shadowy side of Greenwich Hospital. If wisdom and gray hairs of necessity went together, this princely pile would be approached with reverence; but we must not expect too much of these “men of many years,” for the sea is but an indifferent school for the mind and manners. The warring elements, and the rage of battle, may teach a man many things, but they are not the best instructors in the fear of the Lord, or in the humanities that should be practised among mankind.
“When looking,” says one, “on the faces and forms of the soldiers and sailors of Chelsea and Greenwich, you would hardly regard them as the thunderbolts of war; for age robs the eye of its fire, and the body of its strength, and habits of ease impart an appearance of quietude altogether opposed to the fierceness of the stormy fight; but for all this, these are the men who have fought England's battles, and borne the fury of desolating war.”
William and Mary founded Greenwich Hospital for the reception of three hundred seamen, aged and maimed ; and the tablets, at the entrance of the hall, show that liberal hearts and hands have not been wanted to support this British institution. Little less than sixty thousand pounds have been presented by private people.
This is a changing world, and time is not only a puller down, but also a builder up of palaces. Where the hospital now stands, the old palace, ir which Edward vi. died, once stood. Report says that there is not a more beautiful modern building in Europe, used for a benevolent purpose, than the hospital. Sir Christopher Wren was the designer, but he only saw one wing of it completed. .
Well-dressed visitors are walking on the terraces, and many, of a humbler cast, are looking
around them with wonder. The faces of the young are full of holiday. While I am regarding the different groups, some of them are regarding me; thus it is that old and young furnish entertainment for each other.
This splendid building is in five parts, King Charles's, Queen Anne's, King William's, Queen Mary's, and the Asylum, or Royal Hospital Schools; and this grand square, in which I now stand, with the statue of George 11. in the centre, must be between two and three hundred feet wide.
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I have seen the old men at dinner in the hall, and never before saw such a varied cluster of aged heads and wrinkled brows together. I could have sat down with the “ ancient mariners,” and talked with them for an hour. How different the stormy scenes in which they have acted a part, to the quietude of the life they now lead! I have visited their cabins, for each has one to himself, and seen pictures of sea fights, and old admirals, and family portraits, and models of ships, and shells, and sharks' teeth, and curiosities of other kinds. Now and then a thumb-marked Bible was visible, but more frequently a jest-book and boasting ballad. Most of the pensioners must be treading on the brink of an eternal world ; but I fear, without being severe in my judgment, that not many of them are prepared to say, in the valley of the shadow of death, “O death,