Scottish Daily Mail

Old maids in Chelsea

A life-affirming encounter with the perky lady pensioners who’ve marched into the world’s quirkiest old folk’s home

- by Jenny Johnston

So here we are in Chelsea, talking sex, shopping and shoes with two scarletcla­d ladies, one of whom goes by the name of Bimbo. oh dear. Are we on the set of some hideous reality TV programme? Well no. It’s much more fun than that — and infinitely more enlighteni­ng, given that the conversati­on to this point has also taken in Northern Ireland, Iraq, sky-diving, tortoises, the ballet, what to do if a lion attacks you while you are on an elephant, Katherine Jenkins, and the merits of pie, mash and liquor.

Now, though, Bimbo, who has already flashed some leg, has her foot in the air, and is showing off the sole of her shoe. It’s a black shoe; laced, sensible, sturdy. And just a wee bit scary. Are those steel tips and heels?

‘Yes! Nobody messes with me in these shoes,’ she says, with a wide smile. ‘I like to know I can use my toe if I have to. And the sound of the clackety-clack is good. I do like to make a noise.’

As startling as it sounds, Bimbo and her friend Marjorie (who is mostly giggling away at the banter, and saying ‘you can’t print that’ when the talk gets a bit saucy) are residents in a retirement home, and perhaps the most famous one in Britain.

‘It’s the best retirement home in the world,’ declares Marjorie, 69. ‘I dread to think where I’d be if I wasn’t here.’

‘Probably in one of those places where you all sit in a circle, waiting to die,’ says Bimbo, 82, sharply. ‘I’ve volunteere­d in one of them — it’s what brought me here. I didn’t want to end up as one of those crotchety old ladies moaning when anyone tried to help you put your tights on.’

Welcome to the royal hospital, Chelsea, home of the Chelsea Pensioners and a place of refuge for soldiers ‘broken by age or war’ for 300 years.

King Charles II founded it, and Sir Christophe­r Wren designed the iconic building — one of those that, in the sunshine, takes visitors’ breath away. To live here, as the Chelsea Pensioners do for £175 a week, is, says Marjorie, ‘like heaven on earth’. The Chelsea Flower show is held in the garden, she points out. enough said.

Until 2009, Chelsea Pensioners (all former soldiers who had served in the British Army) were exclusivel­y male. Then, in a nod to equality (and accepting that female soldiers were coming through the ranks to retirement), women were admitted.

There are now seven l ady Chelsea Pensioners — Marjorie Cole and Charmaine ‘Bimbo’ Coleman (Bimbo is the nickname she got when she first joined the Army in her 20s) among them. The aim is that the numbers will increase to reflect the gender ratio of retired soldiers.

one could quibble that there is nothing remotely ‘broken’ about these two.

Both relatively young (the average age for a Chelsea Pensioner is 82, and the oldest resident has just celebrated his 103th birthday), they may boast a dodgy back (Marjorie) and two titanium knees and a pinned hip (Charmaine), but they are fizzing with more energy than most people half their age.

The day after we meet, Charmaine is heading off to do a charity sky-dive. Later this year, she’s off on the Trans-Siberian railway. on her own? ‘No, with a friend, but when I went to the Galapagos Islands it was on my own.’

She leans in, conspirato­rially: ‘A while back I went to Morocco with one of the male pensioners. We were going to have separate rooms, but then we found out that it was going to cost an extra £500. So we just shared a room, with twin beds. There was no hanky-panky, mind.’

They are hilarious on the subject of being so outnumbere­d by dashing men in uniform (there are 274, although more than 90 are in the infirmary). ‘We do call them the boys,’ says Charmaine. ‘And we are all used to being outnumbere­d by the men, given the jobs we did.’ Is, er, romance allowed? ‘Well one of the men did get married the other day — but this means he has to leave,’ says Charmaine. ‘And it wasn’t to another pensioner.

‘I’ve been out for dinner a few times — no, no, not dates, just pie and mash and liquor. There’s a club here that we can go to as well. It’s quite sociable, really.’

Becoming a Chelsea Pensioner is a life- changing experience, perhaps even more than the move to an ordinary retirement home. Marjorie owned a house in hessle, near hull, before she moved here; Charmaine lived in Lincolnshi­re with her two cats and 15 tortoises. Getting rid of them was ‘wrench’, she agrees.

To qualify for a place as a Chelsea Pensioner, you have to prove a certain amount of service in the Army, and that you are ‘unencumber­ed by spouse’. Most of the men find themselves here after being widowed. The women, so far, tend not to have been married. Both these two were career soldiers, and Staff Sergeants. Marjorie joined the Women’s royal Army Corps in 1961, when she was 17.

‘I was as green as a cabbage,’ she says. ‘I didn’t even know where babies came from. ’

She served in Singapore, then Northern Ireland, working in regimental bedding stores, then in the catering corps.

Charmaine spent most of her career in the royal Military Police and was posted to Northern Ireland and Cyprus. The latter sounds enormous fun — she talks of going skinnydipp­ing when off duty — the former, less so. Belfast at the height of the Troubles was hell.

‘I used to be involved in the house searches and that was difficult because they hated us. one woman threw bleach over us. We could never accept cups of tea because they used to put ground-up glass in them. And I’ll never forget the sound of them bashing bin lids on the ground. That stays with you.’

Neither woman married. This was by choice for Charmaine.

‘I had a bad experience with a boy and it kind of put me off men for life,’ she says, sweeping over the kind of misogyny that was a reality for women of her generation. ‘I became more of a tomboy, I think.’

Marjorie did get engaged, but ‘he broke it off, and that was that’.

Charmaine never wanted children. (‘I’d as sooner have a kitten, thank you very much’), but Marjorie is more wistful about what might have been: ‘Sometimes, when you see daughters coming to visit some of the men, maybe with their own children, then yes, it does hurt.

‘But the wonderful thing about being here is the opportunit­ies it gives you meet young people. Did I tell you I am an honorary Boy Scout? And a few years back I met twin boys who had lost their daddy when they were three. I’ve kept in touch. I’m their adopted granny!’

When these two retired from active service they simply swapped ‘duty to country’ to ‘duty to family’, nursing dying relatives.

‘I nursed my mother through terminal cancer, then her sister, then a friend. All died,’ says Marjorie. Suddenly, she felt very alone. ‘one day, I looked around and thought: “Who will look after me, when I need it?” There was my sister, but . . . you don’t like to be a burden, do you?’

Charmaine (the last person in the world anyone would have down as a lonely little old lady) had similar feelings. ‘My mother died and I was on my own from 1987. I had no family, no cousins. When I broke my hip (typically, she was bringing in a neighbour’s bin), I realised I had to think about who was going to look after me, eventually.’

Both knew only vaguely of what being a Chelsea Pensioner meant, but hearing that women were now eligible changed everything.

‘It was a huge decision,’ admits Marjorie. ‘It meant selling my home, getting rid of nearly everything, moving to London. But I knew what I was gaining would be worth it — I would be getting my Army family back.’

has it been worth it? The way her face lights up brings a lump to the throat. As does her account of the contrast of being an ordinary pensioner and being a Chelsea Pensioner in Britain today. What a gaping chasm there is between the two. ‘It is the best thing I have ever done,’

she says. ‘Not long after I got here, I had pneumonia. I had to have a scan. Out in the real world it would have taken weeks, months. Here, it was done in a few days.’

She ooohs and aahhs about the perks. There is a hydrothera­py pool, classes in everything from flower arranging to conversati­onal French. Tickets for Ascot, Wimbledon, the theatre are always on offer. Everyone wants to invite the Chelsea Pensioners to everything, to show them off.

‘And there is no worry about what dress to wear — you wear your uniform,’ says Marjorie.

AH THE uniform. So striking. So central to everything. Outside the hospital , (inside, it’s a regulation ‘ undress’ blue uniform) they are encouraged to wear the distinctiv­e scarlet frockcoats with brass buttons and royal blue facings to the cuffs and collar, and navy trousers with a scarlet stripe.

They can wear the medal ribbons and the insignia of the rank they reached while serving. It’s topped off with a tricorn hat for ceremonial and peaked hat for every day.

‘The minute you put on the Scarlet, everything changes,’ says Marjorie. ‘Suddenly, you aren’t invisible. You aren’t just an old lady. Taxi drivers stop for you. Sometimes they won’t even take payment! People come up to you and chat, and want to know about your medals.’

Theirs is the busiest retirement I’ve ever heard of. Marjorie works in the on-site chapel at the hospital, and gives guided tours to visitors. Charmaine says she gets told off for talking about her ‘duties’.

‘People say, you don’t have duties any more. You are retired. You have volunteere­d for these things. But I still see them as duties.’

The past and present swirl into one in their conversati­on, which is clearly the way they like it. Charmaine talks of her proudest military moment — being on duty on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral during the funeral of Winston Churchill.

When Margaret Thatcher died, her ashes were brought to the Royal Hospital. Marjorie got to carry them, ‘which was one of the proudest moments of my life’.

The ladies give me a tour of their quarters. It takes an age because they hoot and make the photograph­er blush with their jokes. Since the inclusion of women, the Royal Hospital has undergone a refurbishm­ent programme, to install quarters with en-suite facilities.

The 17th- century, oak-panelled corridors known as Long Wards are still in situ. But the old 9ft x 9ft rooms without windows and communal bathrooms have been replaced with larger, modern rooms with their own bathroom and study area.

Marjorie’s bed has teddy bears on it; Charmaine has a picture of an elephant on her wall. ‘It’s from when I went on an expedition with Sir John Blashford-Snell,’ she says. ‘I was on it when a lion attacked us. Now would you like to see my hats?’

They each have gleaming medals on their tunics, which catch the sunshine as they walk. At one point they skip — egged on by their male colleagues who crack jokes and fool around, too, even the ones in their wheelchair­s. How have the men adapted to having women in their midst? ‘Oh, well some didn’t like it at first,’ says Marjorie. ‘And I’m sure some still don’t. But most of them do seem to like having us around. I find that they like to talk to me about their wives.’

She is in no doubt about the importance of their presence here, and the message it sends out about equality.

‘Women deserve to be here, just as much as the men. Women gave their lives. Nurses were massacred on the job. You can’t forget that.’

YOU can’t escape the idea of death looming here, either. On average, one Chelsea Pensioner dies each week. On her bedroom wall, Marjorie has a picture of ‘ one of the boys’ who became a great friend. He died last month — ‘it was like losing a brother’.

‘It’s not a sad place, though,’ says the ever-chipper Charmaine. ‘Quite the opposite. I’ve never felt more alive — and I think it will keep us young here. They say it adds eight to ten years to your life.’

Most of the pensioners have TVs in their rooms, but you do wonder when they actually have time to watch them, so busy do their days seem.

One of the things Marjorie does watch (which makes Charmaine raise her eyes heavenward) is Made In Chelsea, which features the other kind of Chelsea lads and ladies so prevalent in these parts. What on earth does she make of them?

‘Well, mostly I think they could all do with getting a job,’ she says. ‘The best thing in the world is to have a purpose in life, don’t you think?’

 ?? S R E D N A S Y A R R U M e : u r t c P i ?? Ladies in red: Charmaine, left, and Marjorie. Inset, Charmaine in the Military Police in 1960, top, and Marjorie in her Army days
S R E D N A S Y A R R U M e : u r t c P i Ladies in red: Charmaine, left, and Marjorie. Inset, Charmaine in the Military Police in 1960, top, and Marjorie in her Army days

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