|Grass trodden by Thor!|
I promised myself never to take the sight of Christopher Wren's distinctive Old Royal Naval College for granted, no matter how often I see it in my time at Greenwich. It's an easy promise to keep. Every time it comes into view, from river bus, footpath or big red bus, I marvel anew at its symmetry of design, its grandeur and the centuries of cultural change it communicates.
And I'm repeatedly awestruck that these elegant buildings were completed and opened some 76 years before Lieutenant Cook landed at Botany Bay. We white Australians have such a short story.
|Inside the Painted Hall|
Some of the internal spaces are equally stunning. Thornhill’s Painted Hall is an exquisite storybook of characters from history and myth, and the chapel never fails to make me think of fine Wedgewood china.
But, let's face it, it's also pretty gosh-darn impossible not to be gobsmacked that, almost daily, I'm standing where the mighty Thor battled Malekith, evil leader of the Dark Elves —— right there between the domes in beautiful downtown Greenwich. Truly. Awesome.
|Inside the chapel|
But these impressive buildings were created not just to inspire awe and celebrate the glories of Britain. As the Royal Hospital for Seamen, they housed thousands of pensioned seafarers, plus the widows and children of such men. Some of the inhabitants were highly distinguished, some were scoundrels. Many were quite unremarkable.
But life is a narrative.
Everyone, no matter how seemingly ordinary, has a story.
And so it was that a small group of enthusiastic amateur-historian volunteers became the Lives of Pensioners Research Project. Our objective: to transcribe some 250 wills of people who lived at the Hospital in the 18th and 19th centuries and, using them as a starting point, to flesh out their narratives — to put the people back in the buildings.
Just reading the handwriting, dealing with variant spellings and navigating the lack of punctuation in historical wills posed problems to we novices. So, a core group of seven met over Tuesday morning coffee to compare notes, check each other’s transcriptions and compile lists of names, places, words and dates that needed further investigation.
I lack the formidable knowledge of British history and naval traditions in general, and of Greenwich in particular, that the others have. I didn't know the typical names of the era and common place names were a mystery to me. I couldn't even have told you what county Greenwich was in. Boatswain, testatrix, the Chalk Groins — all strangers to me.
Bumpkin from the Antipodes.
Pop kulcha loving hick from the New World.
That is me.
|Our summer picnic in the grounds with archive staff.|
Intelligent AND witty AND willing to tolerate me.
Proves how great they are — right?
They are the only people I've met in my three years in London who have included me in anything.
I owe them more than they can possibly imagine.
But I digress.
Back to the wills
|...and on this excursion day, we froze!|
We Pensioner Researchers set out on a fun journey through genealogical data, naval records, court and parish documents, rate books, letters, diaries, newspapers and journals.
We explored the treasures of the National Archives at Kew, Caird Library of the National Maritime Museum, Wellcome Library, and Greenwich Heritage Centre. We even visited cemeteries and Chatham Historic Dockyard. It's definitely been what Pooh would call a grand adventure.
Many of the wills offer little to work with, but others give rise to fascinating questions or have quirky details to inform our investigations:
· pensioner Edmund Grenan stipulates that he be buried at the very specific cost of £1 11s 6d. How much DID the average funeral cost?
· porter John Woolley bequeaths each person who supports his pall a hatband and gloves. Gloves seem reasonable, but why a hatband?
· Elizabeth Latham, a nurse 1707–1727, bequeaths valuable fabric and silverware to her granddaughter, but leaves just one shilling to her son, John. What did John do to piss her off?
We have been stirring up ghosts and helping them tell their stories.
I'm pretty sure Stan Lee would approve.