The Painted Hall
In 2018, my family had the chance to get up close to the incredible ceiling of the Painted Hall in the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich during a major conservation project. Dubbed ‘Britain’s Sistine Chapel’, the hall features 40,000 square feet of paintings on the walls and ceiling. During its two-year restoration, a platform was installed just below the ceiling, and visitors could don hard hats and ascend the scaffolding to examine the paintings from just a few metres below.
The hall was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor in 1696, and was painted by Sir James Thornhill to honour King William III and Queen Mary II. It took Thornhill 19 years (1707-1726), during which time he was knighted. His vast murals celebrated Britain’s wealth, intellectual achievements and naval power, and are packed with detail and rich with symbolism — there are 200 figures, including kings and queens, scientists, Greek gods, and personifications of Britain’s major rivers. As we craned our necks, our guide pointed out ships, musical instruments, animals and much more. You can explore the paintings yourself with this high-res virtual tour.
This room made a grand statement, but it was created not for royalty or the political elite, but as the dining room for Greenwich Hospital’s hundreds of resident naval pensioners — ex-sailors. And 251 years ago, on 5 February 1772, my husband’s 5th great grandfather William Gunton Saword was appointed as the hospital’s Butler.
William, at least the third generation of his family to work for the Admiralty, had spent the previous eight years as Clerk of the Royal Yacht Augusta (within the Clerk of the Cheque). That job took him between land (offices at Greenwich Hospital), river (the busy Thames) and sea, and the Augusta’s passengers included many members of Europe’s intertwined royal families. You can read about William’s experiences as Clerk of the Augusta in Part 1.
When William took up the position as Butler of Greenwich Hospital, he was about 32 years old. It was, I believe, a prestigious appointment, even though he would now be helping to feed maimed ex-sailors, rather than escorting royalty across the channel. It may have been a change that he made for personal reasons: William had been married for more than a decade, but so far, he and his wife Frances had not had any surviving children. Perhaps they had agreed he should take a position that meant he would no longer be frequently travelling away from home. And indeed, the following year they welcomed a son, Edward William Saword. It’s possible that there was also a family connection to the hospital, as the assistant dispenser (pharmacist) there, William Wheatley, may have been William Saword’s uncle. Whatever the reasons for this ‘sea change’, as Butler of Greenwich Hospital William found his calling — it was a job that he would do for more than 34 years.
The founding of Greenwich Hospital
The ‘Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich’ was established in 1692 by Queen Mary II, who had been moved to action by seeing wounded sailors returning from battle.
Her Royal Charter gave instructions for: ‘The reliefe and support of seamen serving on board the shipps or vessells belonging to the Navy Royall who by reason of Age, Wounds or other disabilities shall be uncapable of further service at sea and being unable to maintain themselves. And for the Sustentation of the Widows and the Maintenance and Education of the Children of seamen happening to be slain or disabled. Also for the further reliefe and Encouragement of seamen and Improvement of Navigation.’
Just as Chelsea Hospital cared for army pensioners, now, the Greenwich Hospital would provide a home for naval pensioners. The first pensioners arrived in 1705. In 1712, a school was opened there for orphans of seamen, in 1742, a splendid chapel was completed, and in the 1760s, an infirmary was constructed, where the pensioners were cared for by trained medical practitioners. By the time William joined the staff there were about 2000 in-pensioners who lived on site, and the hospital also paid out–pensions to retired seamen who lived elsewhere.
Greenwich pensioners were not necessarily old by today’s standards, as most were invalided out of the Navy after sustaining life-changing, debilitating injuries at sea; the average entry age was 56, but it ranged from 12-99. All pensioners wore a dark grey uniform with a blue lining and brass buttons, and tricorne hats. In fact, they adopted a standard uniform long before the Navy. Their daily life was highly regimented. However, they were allowed to leave the hospital during their leisure hours, so could go to an alehouse or visit family (many pensioners’ wives and families lived nearby). Despite many pensioners missing limbs and eyes, the ‘Greenwich Geese’, as they were nicknamed by townspeople, were not a sedate bunch, and many locals witnessed them being rowdy and disorderly. Pensioners who broke the rules of the institution had to wear a conspicuous yellow coat known as the ‘canary’, and other forms of punishment included fines, confinement, menial chores or a bread and water diet. Learn more about the life of a Greenwich pensioner.
The Butler’s Role
William’s core job as Butler was to oversee the provision of food and drink to the in-pensioners. Their diet was bland and unvarying, but included protein every day: ‘The standard diet was bread accompanied by beef three days a week, mutton twice and pease soup and cheese on the other two days.’ Additionally, ‘Each pensioner had an allowance of four pints of ‘small’ (weak) beer a day, brewed on the Hospital premises – a much safer alternative to water which was often contaminated.’(1) The butler managed these provisions through two lists: The Butler’s List was for daily provisions, including beer, and the Chalk-Off List was for the weekly rations of beef, mutton and cheese — the Butler could mark certain tables with chalk, indicating that those men would receive money rather than meat. By 1806, the Butler was victualling six ‘classes’ of pensioners (1,352 of whom could dine in the Halls) as well as nurses, each with distinct schedules and rules for provisions.
The Butler was supported by two ‘Butler’s Mates’, though one of them primarily worked as a clerk, helping the Butler only when required. William was assisted by just four different mates over three decades.
It’s difficult to know where in the Hospital William spent most time. Although the Painted Hall had been originally built as the pensioners’ dining room, it was not used for that purpose after being painted. One of two halls that were used instead was located underneath the Painted Hall; it has recently been renovated and reopened as the Undercroft Café.
There’s some evidence that William’s responsibilities weren’t confined to feeding pensioners: In a 1786 letter by Sir Richard Bickerton, a previous commander of the Augusta, Bickerton stated that he had ordered ‘a Mr Seaward’ (a common variant of Saword) to help prepare his new ship Jupiter, on which he would take up the position of Commander-in-Chief at the Leewards Islands.
The Court & City Register — a who’s who guide to London — reported in 1776 that William Saword, Butler at Greenwich Hospital, earned £25 per year. This was a decent wage at the time, though the hospital’s organist was making £60 a year! By reviewing annual listings in the Royal Kalendar (the 1774 edition is shown here) I learned that although the Butler’s Mates’ salaries increased from £5/year to £15/year, William’s salary did not increase at all in 30 years!
However, the Butler’s salary was only a small piece of his income; some classes of pensioners had the option to accept money instead of provisions, and because the amount they were offered was less than the cost of the provisions, this saved the hospital a substantial amount of money. The Butler was entitled to a 1/12 portion of the savings, and in 1805, he received £572.9.5. (about £40k today), though he shared a portion of this with his Mates. It is also probable that for some of his tenure, William and his family received free accommodation at the hospital — which would explain why William and Frances’s daughter Ann was baptised in the hospital’s chapel in 1776. And Frances also brought wealth to the family, when, in 1777, she inherited a share of her father’s estate, along with several valuable items, including a coat of arms, books and silver.
Accusations of Corruption
During William’s career, Greenwich Hospital’s practices came under scrutiny in two major enquiries. The records of these investigations give fascinating insights into William’s responsibilities and challenges.
The first of these enquiries was opened in response to a scandal in 1778, when the lieutenant-governor of the hospital, a naval officer called Thomas Baillie, published accusations of corruption in the management of the hospital. The title, though not very catchy, summarised his chief complaints:
The Case of the Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, containing a comprehensive view of the internal government, in which are stated the several abuses that have been introduced into that great national establishment, wherein landsmen have been appointed to offices contrary to charter; the ample revenues wasted in useless works, and money obtained by petition to parliament to make good deficiencies; the wards torn down and converted into elegant apartments for clerks and their deputies; the pensioners fed with bull-beef and sour small-beer mixed with water, and the contractors, after having been convicted of the most enormous frauds, suffered to compound their penalties and renew their contract.
Worse was to come: In January 1779, a major fire destroyed the interior of the chapel of Greenwich Hospital and caused extensive damage. Five hundred pensioners had to be temporarily rehoused. (this must have been a frightening experience for William and his young family).
In response to these problems, the House of Lords convened a hearing. They summarised Baillie’s key allegations, including claims that there were abuses in the clothing and laundry, and that directors were paying themselves £1000 to clean the paintings in the Painted Hall! The institution’s charter had also been violated with the appointment of men who were not sea-faring (or women who were not the wives or widows of seamen); some had been promoted to officer positions ‘to govern seamen, of whose disposition, temper, and manners, they were wholly ignorant.’ These men were also being given apartments in the hospital at the expense of pensioners. Added to these complaints was the concern that the fire had been caused by neglect and lack of regulation.
However, the grievances most pertinent to the Butler were:
- That money, instead of provisions, is given by the directors to above 1,000 pensioners, which encourages drunkenness and disorder in the Hospital. [and that, moreover, they were not being given the full value of the provisions, and the savings were being passed on to civil officers]
- That the provisions have been frequently presented by the Council to the board of directors to be bad …
- That the beer in particular has been found so bad, as to oblige the council at one time to start 4,000 gallons, as unfit for use, to prevent its being served to the men, without any punishment being inflicted on the brewer, or any of the civil officers, whose duty it was to superintend the brewery.
In the ensuing enquiry, the sailing experience of individual staff was examined. Although one butler’s mate had no experience and the other very little, William was said to be an experienced seaman:
Go on to the next? —They are the butlers; the present one is William Saward [sic], who has been at sea.
When was he appointed?—On the 25th of February, 1772.
Had he been at sea before his appointment, or afterwards?—Before his appointment, he was clerk of one of the yachts, and had been many voyages, I believe.
In 1779, a rebuttal to Baillie was published: the ‘State of Facts Relative to Greenwich Hospital’. This acknowledged the criticisms of weakened beer but affirmed that the butler did NOT do it! Apparently, beer was designed to flow through subterraneous pipes from the hospital’s brewhouse to the dining hall, but for a while the flow was frequently interrupted and the beer watered down. ‘The Butler sent his Assistant to the brewhouse, to know the Cause of their sending Water instead of Beer’ and the foreman answered ‘with an ‘insolent sneer’, “Don’t you know?” “No.” “Then you never shall.” The best explanation he and his servants could later come up with was ‘a strange improbable tale of a leakage in a water pipe that was sometimes used to cleanse the beer pipes’. Presumably, after this discovery, the foreman lost his job.
Clearly, with this delivery system, William had his work cut out to maintain quality control. (But, I do like the idea of installing beer pipes from my husband’s brewing shed directly to the house!)
When it came to the claim that pensioners were receiving money instead of food, which they would spend on alcohol, the State of Facts argued that although in earlier decades the poor quality of food and desire to drink had led to inmates choosing money instead, the institution now ensured, via the Butler, that a suitable portion of each man’s allowance would always go towards food, not drinking money. William’s role was evidently pivotal to maintaining the good health of the pensioners and the good reputation of the Hospital.
Just a few months after the ‘Baillie case’, Frances Saword, ‘the wife of William Saword, Butler of Greenwich Hospital’ died. She was about 42 years old. Their children Edward and Ann would have only been about six and three. Somehow, William managed as a single parent for more than four years (perhaps with help from the hospital’s nurses), until he married Ann Hall in 1783. William and Ann had no children of their own, but were married for 20 years.
With his experience as clerk of the Augusta, which was moored at the hospital, he would no doubt have kept an interest in the royal yachts … and their prestigious passengers’ comings and goings. In 1778, King George III came to Greenwich Hospital on at least two occasions to board the Princess Augusta (as she had been named since 1773), which took him, and on one journey Queen Charlotte, to inspect the fleet at the Nore on the Medway and at Spithead. In 1781, the King and the Prince of Wales were received at Greenwich Hospital by the Earl of Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, the Governor, and principal officers of the hospital. (Did William provide the group with a welcome drink and bite to eat?) King George then immediately boarded a barge, which was accompanied by the Princess Augusta.
An infamous visit took place on 5 April 1795, when Princess Caroline of Brunswick (future Queen Consort) travelled on the Princess Augusta to Greenwich Hospital on her way to marry her cousin, the future King George IV. ‘Met by massed ranks of Greenwich Pensioners it was on this occasion that she was overheard to remark (in French), “Are all Englishmen missing an arm or a leg?”’(2)
And in 1797, King George III, along with his Generals, Admirals, and the Controller of the Navy, arrived at Greenwich Hospital ready to embark on the Royal Yacht Charlotte, ‘which, with the Augusta and Mary yachts, were moored off the hospital for their reception …The admiralty flag was displayed on the Princess Augusta yacht. … His majesty never looked better, or appeared in better spirits. A profusion of strong beer was ordered for the Pensioners at Greenwich on the occasion.’
There were numerous other notable visitors to Greenwich Hospital, many of whom came to see the fabulous art and architecture. One guest was Phillis Wheatley, a ‘negro’ poet and former enslaved woman from Boston, who had been received by eminent members of London society. Intriguingly, Phillis had been the ‘servant’ of prominent Bostonian John Wheatley (1703-1778), who may (based on name and dates) have been William Saword’s uncle (a thread I hope to investigate in the future).
Like father, like son
William’s son, Edward William, known as William, followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming one of two Steward’s Clerks at Greenwich Hospital. The Royal Kalendar of 1801 shows that William Jr., who was about 27 years old, was earning £50/year — twice as much (on paper) as his father!
When William’s second wife, Ann, died in November 1803, she left South Sea Annuities to her step-children in her will, further boosting William Jr’s fortunes and enabling Ann to live independently.
Nelson’s Lying In State
On Christmas Eve, 1805, the body of Lord Nelson, hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, was brought to Greenwich Hospital by yacht, surrounded by a mass of ships. His body, in a lead coffin and wooden sarcophagus, rested in what’s now known as the Nelson Room for 11 days, and then lay in state in the Painted Hall from 5-7 January 1806, before the state funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral. Following a private visit by the royal family, thousands of mourners came to pay their respects at the lying-in, and to watch the funeral procession as Nelson’s body was conveyed along the Thames by barge.
‘Of all the pageantry that Greenwich has witnessed since it became a town,’ writes Charles Mackay, in his Thames and its Tributaries, ‘this was, if not the most magnificent, the most grand and impressive. The body, after lying in state for three days in the hospital, during which it was visited by immense multitudes, was conveyed, on the 8th of January, 1806, up the river to Whitehall, followed in procession by the City Companies in their state barges. The flags of all the vessels in the river were lowered half-mast high, in token of mourning, and solemn minute guns were fired during the whole time of the procession. The body lay all that night at the Admiralty, and on the following morning was removed on a magnificent car, surmounted by plumes of feathers and decorated with heraldic insignia, to its final resting-place in St. Paul’s Cathedral. From the Admiralty to St. Paul’s the streets were all lined with the military. The procession was headed by detachments of the Dragoon Guards, the Scots Greys, and the 92nd Highlanders, with the Duke of York and his staff, the band playing that sublime funeral strain, the ‘Dead March in Saul.’ Then followed the pensioners of Greenwich Hospital and the seamen of Lord Nelson’s ship, the Victory, a deputation from the Common Council of London, and a long train of mourning coaches, including those of the royal family, the chief officers of state, and all the principal nobility of the kingdom.’
William’s participation in this historic event is unknown, but I feel certain he would have paid his respects to Nelson’s remains, and perhaps he also marched alongside the pensioners in the funeral procession.
By 1806, William had been the Butler at Greenwich Hospital for more than three decades when he was called to give evidence once again about the issuing of provisions at the Hospital. This time he was interviewed in detail, under oath, by the Commissioners of Naval Inquiry. The dialogue was published over three pages in The Fourteenth Report of the Commissioners of Naval Enquiry. Royal Hospital at Greenwich. Most excitingly this time, we hear William’s own words …
William seems to have answered the questions frankly and honestly. He explained in detail the different types of provisions that were offered. When asked if the men liked to receive money rather than provisions, William answered “Very much so.” He admitted that he relied on the Steward and Clerk of the Cheque to track much of the money exchanged through provisions. William was also asked if he received any provisions, or had any income outside of his salary and allowances. He answered (with pride? indignace? resentment?) “Never a farthing in my life-time.”
The committee was very concerned that the Butler was leaving himself ‘exposed to the effects of fraud as well as error’. They didn’t feel they could put a stop to the practise of allowing pensioners to choose money instead of provisions, as it was so entrenched. But they made numerous recommendations to improve accountability and prevent irregularities.
Read a detailed report about the enquiry, including descriptions of all six victualling classes, in the London Chronicle, 28 August 1806. (public domain).
Remarriage and Retirement
In 1806, four years after Ann’s death, ‘William Gunton Saword, Esquire, of Greenwich’ married for the third time, to Jane Hodgkin, daughter of the Rector of Elmswell in Suffolk, where the couple were married by licence. William was 63, and Jane was about 40. Elmswell was about 90 miles from Greenwich, but I believe that art may have brought the couple together. Jane was a miniaturist, and as ‘Mrs Saword’ she exhibited a ‘Portrait of a Lady’ at the Royal Academy Annual Exhibition in 1811 and showed a miniature of Shakespeare at the British Institute. Could Jane have travelled to Greenwich Hospital to see the famous Painted Hall and art collection, and fallen in love with the Butler? Sadly, Jane’s own artwork has vanished into the mists of time.
At first, William and Jane lived at 8 Cold Bath Row in Greenwich, about a mile from the Hospital. However, after William finally retired from his job as Butler and began to enjoy his superannuated naval pension, he and Jane moved to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk.
William Saword died on 10 April 1812. He was buried at St John’s, Elmswell. In his last will and testament he left several hundred pounds, as well as bank stock, to his widow Jane, son (his executor), unmarried daughter and other relatives. Jane remarried less than a year later.
William Saword’s legacy
William worked at Greenwich Hospital for more than 40 years, first as a clerk and then as the Butler. He played an essential role in the running of this important institution, and was a fly on the wall at numerous historic events in British and European history.
William’s only son was at least the fourth generation of the Saword family to work for the Admiralty, but he eventually left his position at Greenwich Hospital to become a merchant. Edward William Saword died suddenly in 1815, just three years after his father, when his only child was just four years old. He was buried at the Devon coast, far from home, and may have died at sea. Despite his commercial work, when the death of his widow Sarah was registered 57 years later, the certificate stated that she was the ‘Widow of Edward Saword Clerk in Greenwich Hosp.’ Clearly, the family remained very proud of their history with Greenwich Hospital. Yet, over time, this history was forgotten. It’s been wonderful to rediscover the story and bring it back to life.
Image of The Painted Hall in section one by Robin Sones (Creative Commons)
Main blog image: The Greenwich Pensioner, Robert Sayer, 22 March 1791; Wellcome Collection 31286i (public domain)
(1) Life as a Greenwich Pensioner, ORNC.org
One thought on “William Gunton Saword: Part 2 — Butler of Greenwich Hospital”