While reading about cut-purses, highwaymen and general cozenry around Greenwich, I discovered that, far from being the angelic old gentlemen that was the popular image of the Greenwich Pensioners, many of the descriptions of wanted men in the 17th and 18th centuries included desperadoes who’d scarpered with “a suit of blue clothes, one hat, a pair of shoes, three pairs of stockings, a shirt marked G.R., a stock, cup, spoon, and towel.”
They acquired their nickname ‘Greenwich Geese’ from a tale of light-fingeredness told by a disgruntled local farmer whose flocks kept going missing. He woke up one night to hear a cacophony of cackling from his barnyard and on peering out of the window, saw no geese at all – but he did see a bunch of rapidly-disappearing elderly gentlemen in blue outfits making a quick getaway in a boat. (Given that virtually every picture I ever see of Greenwich Pensioners seems to involve at least one wooden leg, I can’t help feeling there’s a sitcom in there somewhere.)
“There, go my geese, there go my geese!” he shouted – and the name stuck. History does not tell us whether he ever got his birds back or whether they went to supplement what was, admittedly, a pretty rubbish diet.
Looking at how the pensioners lived from day to day, it’s sort of understandable, even if not exactly condonable, that they’d take to a spot of farmyard-breaking. I was reading The Pictorial Guide to Greenwich from 1844 recently (mostly fascinating for its less-than-appreciative remarks about Thornhill’s murals in the Painted Hall…”uninteresting”…”want of taste”…”extremely ludicrous…”) which has descriptions (and the engraving above) of the living quarters – which, it would seem, tourists could just wander around at will.
“It has a rather sombre look; and despite the cleanly neatness of the sleeping places, which are something between ship’s cabins and civilised bedchambers, the thought will force itself upon us, that the old men, after their lives of stirring danger, must find this place dull. “
It goes on to describe the different ways that each cabin’s effort towards personalisation – one “gay in coloured prints,” others had sheaves of naval songs, models of ships, books or carvings, which had “occupied the leisure of seven long years of an old pensioner who thus whiled away the tedium…”
It’s exactly the excuses we hear for crime purveyed by Youf Of Today, isn’t it, only this is Senile Delinquency. Nothing to do, nowhere to go. Presumably providing table tennis bats and once-a-month discos wouldn’t have cut it for them, either. In fact when I think of all the almshouses, with their frequently-ignored rules, the hospital with its Geese and the highwaymen of the heath, I begin to think that we’ve got it soft these days…
I should perhaps point out Greenwich Geese have nothing to do with Winchester Geese despite the two existing around the same time as each other and being just a few miles apart. At least, I assume they didn’t have anything to do with each other. Given the tales of drunkenness and half-inchery, I’m beginning to wonder…