- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

LONDON (AP) - They’ve been men-only for three centuries.

But the Chelsea Pensioners _ a group of elderly Army veterans who live at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, likely Britain’s most stately retirement home _ welcomed the first women into their ranks on Thursday.

They promised little would change. Except, perhaps, for one thing.

“There will be different kinds of conversations on the mess table. We’ve got to moderate our language,” said 89-year-old pensioner Lewis Prangle. “I think it’s good to have the ladies in.”

Winifred Phillips, 82, and Dorothy Hughes, 85, became the first women to don the historic scarlet coat at the Royal Hospital Chelsea home this week. They moved in Monday.

“It’s been fabulous,” said Phillips. “It’s just like the Army all over again, but you don’t have so much to do.”

To become a resident of the hospital, a pensioner must be a former soldier in the British Army who is older than 65 and has no dependents. The residents surrender their pensions and in return gets a “berth” _ a small bedroom _ full board, and medical care for the rest of their lives. The women will live in separate quarters from the men in the hospital, which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who was also the architect behind London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.

It opened in 1692, and was established by King Charles II to provide “succor and relief of veterans broken by age and war.”

Hughes served with the Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery during World War II, and was discharged in 1946 with the rank of sergeant. Phillips retired in 1971 as a Warrant Officer Class 2 after 22 years with the Women’s Royal Army Corps.

The pensioners’ scarlet coats and tricorne hats make it seem as if they’ve marched straight out of the 17th century. They are an institution, with a uniform as distinctive as the bearskin hats worn by the soldiers outside Buckingham Palace and as British as a proper cup of tea.

Gen. Lord Walker, the governor of the hospital, called it a “historic moment to which we have all been looking forward.

“We have seen very clearly the role which women play in our armed forces today and it has been this way for most of the last century,” he said. “Their entry here after service to their country is, and is recognized to be, absolutely as a right.”

The pensioners are often seen around Chelsea, a tony neighborhood in west London. They wear blue uniforms most days, saving their scarlet coats for special occasions, such as marching in national parades.

Hughes said it was unlikely she’d find romance in the ranks of her new housemates.

“I’ve been 18 years a widow, and no way would I go into a relationship. It’s my own life now and I’m living it,” Hughes said. “It’s a new beginning for me … and I’m going to love every minute of it.”

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