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The original Chatham Chest, in the National Maritime Museum

The Chatham Chest was a fund set up in 1588 to pay pensions to disabled seamen from the Royal Navy. It was financed by regular deductions from seamen's pay, which were deposited in a chest held at Chatham Dockyard and disbursed upon proof of a sailor's disability. The fund ceased operation in 1803 when it was merged with an equivalent pension scheme run by Greenwich Hospital. The actual Chatham Chest has since been displayed at the National Maritime Museum in London and at the Mast House at Chatham Historic Dockyard.


Originally conceived as a charity, the Chatham Chest was established after seamen who had been disabled in the war against Spain petitioned Queen Elizabeth for relief and maintenance. Credit for its founding may belong to Charles Howard, the Lord High Admiral of England, who promoted the concept at court.

The chest itself was a strong iron box with five locks, located at Chatham Dockyard under the protection of the Chatham Division of the Royal Marines. Keys for the chest were held by five separate officials to reduce the risk of individual embezzlement.[1]

Payments and rates

Payments into the Chest were made as compulsory deductions from the pay of each Royal Navy seaman. From 1594 to 1649, deductions were set at 130 of a seaman's wages, equivalent in 1626 to a sixpence from the monthly pay of fifteen shillings.[1] In 1649 the standard seaman's wage was increased to nineteen shillings and a differential deduction introduced, of sixpence a month for ordinary seamen, eight pence for surgeons and ten pence for chaplains.[2]

Pensions were granted on a fixed scale, ranging 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. Until the late eighteenth century, and particularly before 1660, seamen's wages were often significantly less than the official rates while payments to the Chest remained fixed. As a consequence many seamen were required to contribute amounts exceeding 120 of their pay. Despite the mechanism of five separate officials being required to open the Chest, large quantities of funds went missing. Further, in the early 1620s King Charles I simply appropriated the Chest's contents for payment of unrelated debts.[1]

By 1660 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 two 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." Treasury funds were obtained and taken down the Thames by barge to Chatham, and the immediate crisis was staved off.

From about 1673 onwards it was 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 also experienced a substantial increase in the number of pensioners during the Napoleonic Wars, rising to 5,205 in 1802.


Chest at Chatham Act 1803
Act of Parliament
Long titleAn act for improving the Funds of the Chest at Chatham, and for transferring the Administration of the same to Greenwich Hospital; and for ameliorating the Condition of the Pensioners on the said Funds.
Citation43 Geo. 3. c. 119
Royal assent29 July 1803
Other legislation
Repealed byGreenwich Hospital Outpensions, etc. Act 1829
Status: Repealed
Royal Navy pensioners, Greenwich Hospital. Lithograph by John Burnet, 1855

Following an Act of Parliament in 1803 the functions of the Chest were merged with the welfare programmes of Greenwich Hospital.[3] The merger was completed in 1814, and the physical Chest was removed from use. It was subsequently displayed at London's National Maritime Museum, and at The Mast House in Chatham Historic Dockyard.


  1. ^ a b c Kemp 1970, pp.22-23
  2. ^ Kemp 1970, p. 27
  3. ^ Kemp 1970, p. 63


  • Sainsbury, Anthony (2001). The Royal Navy Day by Day. National Maritime Museum. ISBN 9780711021235.
  • Kemp, Peter (1970). The British Sailor: A Social History of the Lower Deck. JM Dent & Sons. ISBN 0460039571.
  • Lewin, C.G. (2003). Pensions and Insurance before 1800 - a social history. Tuckwell Press. ISBN 9781862322110.

External links

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

First Reading

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.

Second Reading

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.








  • Apr