Thames Pathway

Journal of a Walk Down the River Thames

by Keith Pauling

Greenwich Naval College

The path next takes me on a narrow walkway in front of the Old Naval College. This baroque masterpiece was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and is one of the most magnificent structures in London. Originally the buildings were constructed for the purposes of a hospital, but now it is used by a variety of organisations under the controlling body of the Greenwich Foundation.

In a former time the site was that of the Palace of Placentia, more commonly known as the Greenwich Palace. It was reputed to be the favourite home of Henry VII and was the birthplace of Elizabeth I. The palace unfortunately fell into disrepair during the years of the Civil War, and was eventually demolished in 1694.

The idea for a Royal Hospital for Sailors on the site came from the then Queen, Mary II wife of William III. The idea soon gained momentum, and when Sir Christopher Wren and his assistant Nicholas Hawkesmoor volunteered their services free of charge as the architects of the building the project swiftly got under way. The Queen however was not so passionately in favour of the hospital that she would let it interfere with her view of the river from the Royal House. Wren had to design the buildings according to the Queen’s wishes hence why there is a distinctive gap in the buildings that enabled the royals to continue to enjoy their view of the Thames from their residence.

The hospital took sixteen years to complete between 1696 and 1712, but when finished was a magnificent example of architecture. To be fully appreciated in all its splendour the building needs to be viewed from the opposite bank which can be reached by using the Greenwich foot tunnel.

The Hospital became established as a home for injured sailors, along similar lines to the Chelsea Hospital for injured and pensioned soldiers. Greenwich pensioners wore distinctive blue uniforms in a similar way to the more well-known red of the Chelsea Pensioner. Many sailors benefited from the hospital, and the Greenwich Hospital Charity still exists to support seafarers and their dependants.

When the hospital closed in 1869 the buildings were adapted to become the home of the Greenwich Naval College teaching all of the new technologies that were required in the ever-changing Royal Navy. Thus it remained until the College moved to its present location at Shrivenham, near Swindon in 1998.

It is no surprise to find that the buildings are all Grade I listed to give maximum protection. The site today is administered under the direction of the Greenwich Foundation and a remarkably good job they are doing to make full use of the facilities. The University of Greenwich leases a large part of the buildings for educational use. The Trinity School of Music has also leased a considerable amount of space for its various melodic uses. In addition to all this the Greenwich Foundation open the grounds and information centre daily for the benefit of the general public.

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