LETTER: A historical perspective

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The Independent Online
From Dr Christine Stevenson

Sir: I am extremely unhappy at the idea that Greenwich Hospital should leave public ownership. It is the finest public building in Britain, and a perfect slice through almost two centuries of English architectural history, beginning with the Queen's House, through Webb's King Charles block, which is generally reckoned the first English Baroque building, the Hawks-moor work, which is some of his most imaginative, down to the Chapel which incorporates some of Athenian Stuart's favourite Greek Revival motifs.

Greenwich was never criticised for its cost, even at the height of English Palladianism, which tended to identify figurative carving with bad taste and financial waste. This was because Greenwich was, in one sense, conceived as the centre of British civilisation, which, in the 18th century, was defined as a commercial and increasingly imperial web that extended around the world.

It was a cliche in the 18th century to say that disease killed more sailors than the French ever did; turnover was high and keeping the ships manned with experienced and willing hands was the single most important problem for government ministries. Greenwich stood as a symbol of the promise to men who had signed on to fighting ships that they would be taken care of when they became disabled. Its establishment as a hospital accompanied other measures to encourage the recruitment of a professional navy. Only a very small percentage benefited directly from Greenwich, of course - many more men were pensioned out -and it is unlikely that many seamen pointed to it with joyful tears as they sailed by, as some of the elite fondly imagined. But it had a very active symbolic role to play in Britain's self-identification as the first international commercial empire.

With good wishes,

Christine Stevenson

Department of Art History

University of Reading