Hunkering down on the south bank of the Thames, the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich is yet another Wren masterpiece and the centrepiece of the UNESCO-listed Greenwich Maritime World Heritage Site.
What is now known as the college was originally designed as a ‘hospital’ or retirement home for old or infirm sailors. Established by Royal Charter in 1694, it was King William III who pushed the project into fruition as per the wishes of his then late wife Queen Mary II.
Wren was selected to design the building and along with the diarist John Evelyn, who had been appointed treasurer, laid the foundation stone on 30th June, 1696.
Wren’s initial design – for a three side courtyard facing the river – was rejected by Queen Mary who insisted the view from the existing Queen’s House to the river be maintained. So, instead, the hospital was built as a series of four pavilions, each with its own court, with the Queen’s House standing as it’s centrepiece when viewed from the river.
Wren himself never lived to see the building’s completion – it was in the end completed by a number of other famous architects including Sir John Vanbrugh, Thomas Ripley, and Wren’s pupil Nicholas Hawksmoor. Fortunately Wren had laid out all the foundations which ensured the basic design conformed to his plans.
The first 42 pensioners moved in in 1706 and the numbers grew as buildings were completed to a peak of 2,710 in 1814. However, declining numbers of pensioners by the mid 1800s – thanks to a period of peace on the seas and the success of a program which saw more pensioners living with their families, eventually led to the hospital’s closure in 1860.
In 1873, the Royal Naval College took over the premises, assuming the role of both the former Naval College at Portsmouth and the School or Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering which had been based in South Kensington. The Naval Staff College opened on the site in 1919 and further navy departments including the Department of Nuclear Science and Technology moved there in later years. The Royal Navy left the college in 1998.
Now in the care of the Greenwich Foundation, the college is now used by the University of Greenwich and the Trinity College of Music as well as for public events. The public can also visit certain parts of the former college including the grounds, the spectacular Painted Hall and the Chapel.
The domed Painted Hall, which features a series of classically themed paintings with King William III and Queen Mary II at its heart, was originally planned by Wren to be the hospital’s dining hall but due to the length of time it took for Sir James Thornhill to complete – 19 years – his paintings it was never used as such. Instead it stood empty until the body of Admiral Lord Nelson was brought there to lie in state in January 1806. In 1824 it became the National Gallery of Naval Art but in the 1930s became a dining room again with the gallery’s contents transferred to the National Maritime Museum.
The Chapel of St Peter and St Paul, meanwhile was completed in 1751 to the design of Sir Thomas Ripley but was gutted by fire only 28 years later. It was then rebuilt, largely to the designs of James “Athenian” Stuart with some of the detailing designed by his Clerk of Works William Newton, and was reopened in 1789. Restored in the 1950s, it is said to look “almost as it was” when it opened in 1789. The chapel is still in use for services.
WHERE: Located adjacent to Greenwich Pier with entry from Cutty Sark Gardens, College Approach, Romney Road Gate, Royal Gate or Park Row, Greenwich (nearest DLR station is Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich); WHEN: The Painted Hall and Chapel are open daily from 10am to 5pm (chapel used for worship on Sunday mornings, open for sightseeing from 12.30pm); COST: Free (Booked guided tours are available for £5 an adult/children under 16 free); WEBSITE: www.oldroyalnavalcollege.org