The Chatham Chest

One of the few things that I actually remember from school history lessons was the Spanish Armada. I remember that Francis Drake was playing bowls at Plymouth (there was a good illustration in my Ladybird book, all colourful doublets, cheery British hearts-of-oak and stormy skies,) that there was a chain of beacons dramatically lighting up the country like that bit in Lord of the Rings and that the Spanish were whopped.

Later I found out that Drake’s bowls might not have happened, that they were a bit academic anyway since the beacons took bloomin’ days to get lit – they could have sent a messenger in half the time – and that the Spanish very nearly didn’t get whopped – but that’s Progress for you and the history I learned was much more romantic than today’s tedious ‘serious’ historians who shatter dreams by telling you “what really happened…”

But I digress already. What happened immediately after the Spanish Armada wasn’t particularly romantic in anyone’s book. Sailors, soldiers and other sea dogs who fought in the fray came back with all manner of horrific injuries, many of whose included missing sundry limbs or other body parts. There was absolutely no provision for these former ‘heroes’ and they lived pathetic lives, languishing in gutters, begging and generally making an embarrassment of the British Navy. Even the healthier ones found that there wasn’t enough cash in the coffers to pay them off on discharge.

One man was really bothered about this, and in 1590, Sir John Hawkyns got together with his mate Sir Francis Drake to set up what may well be the world’s first pension fund. The Chatham Chest was (is) exactly that – a giant treasure chest that was kept in Chatham Dockyard ( one of the big naval homebases up until the 1980s.) The basic premise was that 6d would be taken from every sailor’s wage each month – quite a sum at the time – and that the chest would be used to pay pensions to the unfortunates who were injured at work. It was on a sliding scale – so much for one leg, so much for two, so much for an eye etc. etc. Each pensioner also got a lump sum, which had the amazingly modern-sounding name “smart money.”

It all sounds absolutely fantastic, but there isn’t a pension fund in history that hasn’t had a few ups and downs. Right from the start the idea of fraud was top of the list of problems the founders anticipated, and the chest was cunningly constructed with five locks. Each key was given to a separate person, each of whom had to be present to get at the loot.

The problem wasn’t really one of individual embezzlement though. Although the cash flowed to start with, it wasn’t long until the chest became an unofficial cash cow for any purpose that the navy needed a little extra for. For starters, there was no way of ensuring that the money deducted from wages actually ever reached the chest, and even once it was in there, the money mysteriously got syphoned off for various purposes. The sailors themselves probably began to get suspicious when they started receiving their wages in sixpences.

After another skirmish with the Spanish, there were more limbless sailors who needed pensions than there were healthy ones to pay-in and it all got to be yet another deep embarrassment for the navy. Sam Pepys noted in 1667 that there just wasn’t enough money in the coffer to pay everyone – and even he accepted that it “will make us scorn to the world.” Eventually Central Government chipped in, albeit most ungraciously.

So why am I writing about this? Because when it was finally decided to build a hospital at Greenwich for these tragic, limbless maritime figures similar to the one at Chelsea for ancient soldiers, the contents of the Chatham Chest were eventually brought here and merged with the hospital trust to create an integrated pension system (of sorts.) Mind you, it took until 1814 to complete the merger.

All this sounds a bit negative, but actually the Chatham Chest was actually a truly important move. It was essentially one of the very early beginnings of the welfare state, especially when the government accepted, to some extent, that they had a duty of care and in that alone, it was a success.

The chest itself belongs to the National Maritime Museum, but if you want to see it, you’ll need to go to Chatham Dockyard Museum, which is the most sensible place for it to reside, since it was born and used there. Actually Chatham Dockyard is a rather excellent place for a day out for Greenwich, but that’s for another day…


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