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The Chatham Chest was a fund set up around 1590 to pay pensions to disabled seamen. It was financed by members' contributions which were deducted from their pay, and has therefore been described as the world's first occupational pension scheme. The assets of the scheme were held in an actual chest which is also called the Chatham Chest. The Chest was previously located in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, London., and is now on display within The Mast House, at Chatham Historic Dockyard.


Originally conceived as a charity, the Chest was established after many seamen who had been disabled in the war against Spain petitioned Queen Elizabeth for relief and maintenance. Although the Chest was financed at first entirely by members' contributions of sixpence per month, the Government had to give a pay rise first. The main credit for founding it probably belongs to Charles Howard, Lord Howard of Effingham (1536–1624), the Lord High Admiral of England. Pensions were granted on a fixed scale, the amounts of which ranged from £6.13s.4d per annum for the loss of a limb to £15 per annum for the loss of both arms. In addition each pensioner was granted an immediate lump sum, generally equal to one year's pension, called "smart money".


During its long life the Chest experienced many difficulties. In the early days income exceeded expenditure and the balance was invested in property. However, it was not always easy to ensure that the contributions deducted from seamen's pay at the end of voyages actually reached the Chest. By 1660 the Chest had serious financial problems, because the number of pensioners had increased during the First Dutch War and the war against Spain, but when peace returned and the ships were paid off, the Chest's income dramatically decreased. The first expedient adopted was to offer pensioners voluntary commutation of their pensions, based on 2 years' purchase, but still the Chest found it difficult to pay the remaining pensions. Samuel Pepys, Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board, took a great interest in the affairs of the Chest and reported in his diary (18 June 1667) that there was no money to pay the pensioners 'at their public pay the 14th of this month, which will make us a scorn to the world'. However, the money was found and taken down the Thames by barge to Chatham, and the immediate crisis was staved off. From about 1673 onwards it became tacitly accepted that the Government would meet the excess of expenditure over income each year on a "pay as you go" basis. This principle remained in force, though sometimes the Government was late in paying and pensions fell into arrears. In 1690 some pensions were as much as three years outstanding. The Chest experienced a substantial increase in the number of pensioners during the Napoleonic Wars, rising to 5,205 in 1802.


Following an Act of Parliament in 1803 the Chest was merged with Greenwich Hospital. The merger was completed in 1814, by which time the Chest had existed for 224 years and had been an undoubted success, helping to meet the needs of poor people whose physical handicap made the struggle for survival even harder than usual.


  • Lewin, C.G. Pensions and Insurance before 1800 - a social history, Tuckwell Press, 2003, 216-243.

1893 text

Pepys gives some particulars about the Chest on November 13th, 1662. “The Chest at Chatham was originally planned by Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins in 1588, after the defeat of the Armada; the seamen voluntarily agreed to have ‘defalked’ out of their wages certain sums to form a fund for relief. The property became considerable, as well as the abuses, and in 1802 the Chest was removed to Greenwich. In 1817, the stock amounted to 300,000_l._ Consols.” — Hist. of Rochester, p. 346. — B.

This text comes from a footnote on a diary entry in the 1893 edition edited by Henry B. Wheatley.

8 Annotations

Pauline  •  Link

from L&M Companion
A fund established in 1590 for the relief and support of disabled seamen, its income derived mainly from compulsory contributions. It was managed by a board wgich was supposed to meet monthly and which consisted of five officers of the Chatham yard (its clerk being usually the Clerk of the Survey), under the presidency of a Principal Officer. It had no medical adviser, and beneficiaries were required to travel to Chatham where the chest intself (now in the National Maritime Museum) was kept. Its administration was lax despite occasional attempts at reform, and its income often used for other pruposes. Payments, not surprisingly, were intermittent throughout the 17th century. Nothing seems to have come of an order for an investigation issued by the Admiral in Oct. 1660. But a commission of enquiry was set up in Nov. 1662, and of the 19 members Pepys proved the most active. Their letter book shows that after a slow start they pursued their enquiries with vigour in the spring of 1664, fastening their criticisms particularly on Batten (who was Master) and Commissioner Pett. The chest's functions were largely transferred in wartime to the Commissioners of the Sick and Wounded. Pepys had a plan in the '80s for bringing merchant seamen into the scheme, but it was never effected and the Chest remained a byword for inefficiency and corruption until its absorption into Greenwich Hospital in 1803.

Glyn  •  Link

One of the first naval charities: it lasted for over 200 years from about 1590, and paid pensions to wounded and disabled seamen and those injured in the naval dockyards. During the period of the Diary the scale varied from £6 13 shillings and 4 pence (i.e. six and two/thirds pounds) and the same amount each year thereafter for the loss of one leg, or twice that for both; 15 pounds a year for the loss of both arms, 5 pounds a year for a disabled arm, 4 pounds a year for the loss of an eye and so on).

The Chest was inefficient, and Pepys and his colleagues on the Navy Board set up a similar body, The Sick and Wounded Commission, in 1664 which also cared for Dutch prisoners of war and which campaigned for a purpose-built naval hospital (which was eventually built many years later at Greenwich).

In 1666 another Commission was established to distribute funds to the widows of those killed in action, on a scale ranging from £200 to the widow of a captain on a First Rate warship, down to £5 for the widow of an ordinary seaman on a Sixth Rate. This Commission was absorbed into the Navy Board in 1674.

Bill  •  Link

THE office, called the Chest at Chatham, was established in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, about the year 1588, when many seamen, being hurt and maimed in the service against the Spaniards, petitioned her Majesty for relief, who directed the Lord High Admiral to take their petition into consideration; in consequence of which, with the advice of the four principal officers of the navy, and by the consent of the inferior officers and seamen, it was agreed that a deduction of 6d. per month should be made out of their pay for this charitable institution: upon which basis it has stood ever since, without any considerable variation. ---The Naval Chronicle, Volume 1. 1799.

Bill  •  Link

The Chest at Chatham was originally planned by Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins in 1588, after the defeat of the Armada; the seamen voluntarily agreed to have "defalked" out their wages certain sums to form a fund for relief. The property became considerable, as well as the abuses, and in 1802 the Chest was removed to Greenwich. In 1817, the stock amounted to 300,000£. Consols.—Hist. of Rochester, p. 346.
---Diary and correspondence of Samuel Pepys, the diary deciphered by J. Smith. 1854.

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.







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