Could you really once be hanged for impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner?

In the 18th century, you could get strung up for all sorts of things…

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Technically, yes. During the 18th century, the number of offences carrying the death penalty increased enormously. In about 1660 there were roughly 60 capital offences but by 1815 the number had risen to nearly 300. A series of laws, later known as ‘the Bloody Code,’ meant that you could be hanged for a bewildering variety of crimes.

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But the death sentence was rarely handed out, petitions for mercy were often accepted and the number of hangings actually decreased during the period. Crimes punishable by hanging included stealing goods worth five shillings, damaging Westminster Bridge, cutting down a young tree – and impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner.

But this wasn’t about preventing ne’er do wells from donning scarlet coats and tricorn hats and sneaking into the Royal Hospital in Chelsea. It was about money. From 1695 until 1955 all army pensions were paid from Chelsea, so anyone in receipt of one was called a Chelsea Pensioner. The few who gave up their army pensions and lived in the Royal Hospital were (and still are) known as ‘In-Pensioners’ while those who drew their pensions and lived elsewhere were ‘Out-Pensioners’.

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So, impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner actually meant drawing a pension you weren’t entitled to.