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  • Writer's pictureDaisy Holder

The Chatham Chest (not someone's nickname)

Updated: Feb 11, 2022

This post is a little earlier than usual, it didn't require as much digging as usual! I might try and add something else in before the end of the month so keep your eyes peeled!

I was drawn to the subject of one of the world's first pensions by how amusing the name was (because I'm like that) but it is really interesting in itself! This brand new form of support, and brought about because of the campaigning by the sick and disabled seamen themselves.


It may or may not be a surprise to learn that back in the 16th century, retiring wasn’t really a thing. With a much shorter life expectancy it was (arguably) unreasonable that families would be able to save enough to support them in their later years. However, the government was in a quandary about those men who had become disabled and ill through their work defending their country in the armed forces.

John Hawkins (a naval commander and slave trader) was shocked by the poor treatment of people who had served the country. When they returned to shore, sick or wounded, they were often left to die on the streets, and for those with survivable injuries, beg.

Navy Commander Lord Howard of Effingham wrote about the situation after a long voyage in Margate (which was particularly bad) “I am driven myself, of force, to come on land to see them bestowed in some lodging but the best I can get is only barns and outhouses and the relief is small that I can provide for them here. It would grieve any man’s heart so to see them that have served so valiantly to die so miserably.”

So in 1590, the Chatham Chest was set up as a charity after the seamen who had been disabled in the war against Spain spent a lot of time and energy petitioning Elizabeth I for relief and maintenance funds. It was primarily financed by taking a small amount of seamen’s pay at the end of each voyage which was put into a physical chest at Chatham Dockyard. Once a year, the recipient seamen would have to turn up and Chatham to prove they still needed the pension.

The government had had a similar epiphany regarding taking care of their servicemen, and set up their own system via an Act of Parliament in 1593 whereby every parish was ordered to pay towards the upkeep of injured and disabled soldiers. There were three Acts in total to try to further explain and simplify this system of collecting essentially a tax from the parishes, but as it turns out bunging it in a box was much less complicated.

The credit for the founding of the Chatham Chest is given to Charles Howard (the Lord High Admiral of England at that time) who promoted the idea in the Royal Court, but also to Sir Francis Drake (bowler) and John Hawkins (who also set up the Greenwich Hospital). Payments into the chest were compulsory and from 1594-1649 were set at 1/30th of a seaman’s wages (in 1626 that was equivalent to a sixpence from the monthly pay of 15 shillings) but often the wages were lower than official rates and so seamen ended up paying closer to 1/20th of their wage.

A group of seamen, some with walking sticks some with crutches and some with wooden legs surround a man standing on a chair reading from a newspaper. Caption text reads: "Greenwich Park: Veterans of the British Navy rejoice at the drowning of the Russian fleet in the precense of the wooden walls of old England. A just retribution for the massacre at Sinope"
A lithograph of Navy veterans by John Burnet 1855 (Wellcome Collection)

A number of properties were also bestowed upon the chest so that the rent could be collected to supplement the income collected from the sailors and shipwrights. These bits of land were all close to Chatham (naturally) and included farms and whole villages that were donated between 1632 and 1660. One of the first in 1632 was when St Mary’s Hoo was given to the Chatham Chest, which I think is a highly amusing sentence.

Extra documented sources of income for the Chest included extra deductions from sailors pay for surgeons and chaplains, and when these sums went unclaimed (ie when there wasn’t one on their boat for that voyage) they went straight to the chest.

In the first year of James II reign (1685) he wanted to promote British ship building, and so charged foreign bottomed (heh) boats to be used in British waters, with the money split between the Chest and the Trinity House of Deptford Strond. This was a great income stream, but only temporarily as unfortunately his plan worked very well and everyone started using British boats.

As well as that, any fines given to sailors for bad behaviour at sea would also be given to the Chatham Chest, as it is written: “all fines, amercements and pecuniary mulets laid or from hence forward to be laid upon any commander or other officer, seaman or other person whatsoever serving his Majesty in any capacity at sea… shall be paid and applied to and for ye sole use of ye chest at Chatham.”

There are indications that not only was the money from the Chest used for the pensions, but to pay for educational opportunities for the children of the pensioners.

It’s easy to see how all these sources of income could make people think that there was plenty around for the taking, and the Chatham Chest was susceptible to corruption, and there were plenty of accusations of that in its time.

Despite its foolproof cult-like method requiring 5 separate people to all be there at the same time with separate keys in order to open the chest, massive amounts of money still seemed to keep going missing. The 5 different people holding the keys for the chest were all of specific ranks: a principal officer of the navy, a master attendant, a master shipwright, boatswain, and a purser of the royal navy. After a year the key would be passed onto another 5 people of the same rank.

Especially after the death of Hawkins in 1595, the chest got itself a reputation for corruption, with almost all of the people who were in charge of managing its affairs using it as an alternative source of personal income.

The prize for being particularly corrupt goes to Sir Robert Mansel (well done) who, once appointed as treasurer to the Navy by King James I, constantly took money out of the chest but failed to make sure that any money was being paid in.

There was an inquiry in 1608 which concluded that the chest’s money “is lent by those who have no authority and borrowed by those who have no need”. However they did absolutely nothing about it, so they had another inquiry in 1617 which said practically the same thing: “Great sums have been collected which should have been out into the chest… and notwithstanding that a great part hath been charitably and orderly bestowed, yet many other sums of not small moment… have been lent out an still remain”

In the 1620s during King Charles I reign he supposedly decided that he’d be much better off using the chest to pay off his debts.

A large black metal rectangular chest, with large handles on either side and lots of detailing
The actual Chatham Chest. National Maritime Museum

Inevitably, they were struggling to pay all the men who were owed money, partly because of all the thieving, but also because the number of pensioners had vastly increased during the first Dutch war and the war against Spain. They offered to commute some of the men’s pensions, but the chest still found it difficult to pay out. (I love how they talk as if the chest itself is making these decisions)

Samuel Pepys (yes that one) was the Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board and so wrote about the Chatham Chest in his diary. He reported on the 18th June 1667 that there wasn’t enough money to pay the pensioners “at their public pay the 14th of this month, which will make us a scorn to the world”. They ended up managing to blag some directly from the treasury, and it became an unspoken agreement that the government would always prop up the shortfall in the chest, although they would often pay late which delayed the pensions. In 1690 some pensions were 3 years late.

There were other issues of corruption, but this time not from the people in charge (novel right?). It was caused by the problem of the rigidity of the method by which the ex-seamen were forced to make their claims. No matter how badly injured or unwell they were, they had to regularly report to the commissioners of the chest to prove their wounds were either uncured or incurable (is this sounding familiar to my fellow disabled people?). As a result, seamen that were very unwell and seriously injured had to travel, often a very long way, to collect a pension that was rightfully theirs. Inevitably, a number of frauds were associated with these long journeys, with seriously ill and injured men falling into the hands of innkeepers with lax morals who would notice a pensioner returning from Chatham with their money and keep them in a state of drunkenness and keep the money for themselves.

This led eventually to another inquiry in 1802 which found that out of 5205 pensioners that were paid out, only 309 were paid to claimants in person, all the others were seized by these fraudsters that the seamen referred to as “land sharks”.

After this inquiry, some changes were FINALLY made. Instead of being forced to go to Chatham, the claimants were able to be paid at the closest Customs and Excise office. As well as this, the Chest fund was moved to the Naval Hospital at Greenwich where it was used as part of a more general fund. The chest itself was also moved there, and was still used to store actual money until the idea was abandoned entirely. (One of the articles I read described the chest as “falling into the hands of the National Maritime Museum” which seems quite harsh on the museum?).

The Chest is still stored at the National Maritime Museum, but is currently not on display. The Chatham Chest is, from what we can find, one of the earliest forms of organised disability support, and pensions in general.



- The Chatham Chest- The Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle for 1846. A Journal of - Papers on Subjects Connected with Maritime Affairs (Volume 15)

- Secret Chatham- Phillip MacDougall. Amberley Publishing, 2016

- Statutes At Large Anno Vicesimo George III Regis Being the Sixth Session of the Fourteenth Parliament of Great Britain by Dany Pickering of Grey’s Inn Esq. 1780 (Statutes at Large ...: (43 v.) ... From Magna charta to 1800)

- The Chest at Chatham- Shirley Burgoyne Black. Archaeologia Cantiana,1993

- Funding the Chatham Chest- The Actuary Magazine, 2003

- National Maritime Museum Collection, Royal Greenwich Museums, object ID AAA3310

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