Page last updated at 14:44 GMT, Thursday, 12 March 2009

Women welcomed to Chelsea Pensioners

By Dan Bell
BBC News

First female Chelsea Pensioners
The hospital has been home to war veterans for more than 300 years

Each generation likes to think it is more open-minded than the last, but as any grandparent will tell you, there is nothing quite so na´ve as youth.

This was a point brought neatly home earlier as a 300-year military tradition was broken by the addition of women to the ranks of the Chelsea Pensioners.

As journalists eagerly asked the two new female members, and several of the current male residents, how they felt about a feminine vanguard breaking three-centuries of male tradition, the general consensus was a cheerful shrug.

Mrs Dorothy Hughes, 85, who served as a gunner during the Blitz, said she has had no qualms at all about moving in to the home with 300 men.

'I like men'

"It's very much like being back in the Army," she said. "When you're soldiers, you're not male or female you are a member of a team.

"I enjoy the discipline of soldiering and although I haven't been soldiering for 60-odd years, I still remember it."

And for Winifred Phillips, 82, a former Auxiliary Territorial Service member, the men are very much part of the attraction.

"I like men," she said with a grin, "and I wanted to be looked after in my old age."

One of the first female Chelsea Pensioners
Their entry here is seen to be absolutely as of right, rather than because someone thinks it's a good idea
Lord Walker

Ms Phillips, who served in the Army for 22 years, said she raised the question of why women were not allowed to become members a decade ago.

Now she has seen her wish come true.

"When I was living in Shropshire 10 years ago I read a magazine called The Legion and it said they wanted more men, so I wrote and asked, 'Why not women?'" she said.

"Then they wrote back to me later saying they agreed, but it's taken me 10 years to get here.

"It's been fabulous. It's just like the Army all over again but you don't have so much to do."

Sgt Prangle, 89, who had a band of medals on his chest from his service in Africa, said the women are a very welcome addition to the home.

"I'm very happy to have the ladies with us, very happy indeed. They served their time in the Army and this is due to them.

"There's been one or two exceptions to the rule, but generally 99.9 percent are very happy to have them here."

Official handbag

The decision to open up membership of the Chelsea pensioners reflects the growing number of women who have joined the army since the 1950s.

It was taken in 2007 after consultation with residents, but had been delayed as the home raised funds to adapt the accommodation to make it suitable for women to move in.

Specifically, rooms known as the Long Wards have been modernised to make them en-suite.

The women will wear the famous scarlet coats when out and blue tunics on site and the uniform has been adapted to suit the female figure.

We hope they will be the first of many
Gen Lord Walker

There has even been talk of designing an official handbag.

Like the male veterans, the women must also meet the criteria of being over 65, free of a dependent spouse and receiving a pension.

The Sir Christopher Wren-designed hospital currently houses more than 300 male In-Pensioners, as the veterans are officially known.

Royal Hospital Chelsea Governor, Gen Lord Walker said: "The entry of our first lady Chelsea pensioners is an historic moment to which we have all been looking forward.

"We have seen very clearly the role which women play in our armed forces today and it has been this way for most of the last century.

"Their entry here after service to their country is, and is recognised to be, absolutely as a right.

"We hope they will be the first of many."

The Royal Hospital is partly government-funded, but also relies on donations for major projects.

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In pictures: Chelsea welcomes women
12 Mar 09 |  In Pictures

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