Anger as Old Royal Naval College bosses consider renaming historic site

The Ministry of Defence moved out of the Old Royal Naval College 20 years ago (photo: Mark Ramsay used under Creative Commons)

853 exclusive: The Old Royal Naval College could be getting a new name under controversial plans being considered by the charity which runs the world-famous focal point of Greenwich’s World Heritage Site.

Since the Ministry of Defence pulled out of the complex 20 years ago, the buildings have been run by The Greenwich Foundation for the Old Royal Naval College, which is coming to the end of a lengthy programme to restore its Painted Hall.

The foundation has confirmed it is considering changing the name of the complex, which houses the University of Greenwich and Trinity Laban music college. 853 understands names under consideration include Greenwich Palace or Greenwich Royal Hospital.

The proposals have long been rumoured inside heritage circles, but have only now surfaced in public after they drew withering criticism from the Greenwich Society, which has urged its members to contact the foundation to object to the plans.

The society’s former chairman Tim Barnes and Yvonne Horsfall Turner, a donor to the foundation, have written to the chair of the foundation’s trustees, Tony Hales, to express its “strong disquiet” about the proposals.

“To suggest that local opinion has been consulted before the decision to change the name was taken, would be a travesty. Such opinion as was taken was broadly against the change and having now made it our business to find out the true nature of local opinion it appears to be uniformly hostile,” Barnes and Horsfall Turner say in the letter, written earlier this month.

Neither the society, local councillors nor local MP Matt Pennycook were consulted on the plan, they say, adding the University of Greenwich, Trinity Laban and Royal Museums Greenwich also object.

“The abolition of the link between the Royal Navy and the College is not acceptable,” they add. “The navy’s connection with Greenwich has been integral to its history for centuries.”

Painted Hall
The Painted Hall has been undergoing extensive renovation work

‘Historically and factually misleading’

Greenwich Palace would recall the birthplace of Tudor monarchs Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, which fell into disrepair during the English Civil War and was demolished in 1660.

The current buildings, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, opened as Greenwich Hospital in the early 18th century, and were built as a naval counterpart for the army’s Chelsea Hospital. This closed in 1869, although the foundation that ran the hospital still exists and owns the freehold to Greenwich Market.

The Royal Naval College opened in 1874. It moved to Dartmouth, south Devon in 1998, and since then the Greenwich Foundation has opened up the previously off-limits grounds of the college to the public.

Maritime Greenwich was declared a World Heritage Site in 1997, with the college as its centrepiece.

Barnes and Horsfall Turner say a change of name would be “unsustainable in historic terms”. “The College contains no above-ground vestige of the former Palace of Greenwich and has not for just over 300 years. To rename it as a royal palace, or imply that what can now be seen ever was, is historically and factually misleading , and will certainly present significant practical problems for the clear and coherent public interpretation of the World Heritage Site as a whole.

“The buildings have never served as a royal residence. There is nothing to connect the buildings or their contents with the Tudor or Stuart period.”

Old Royal Naval College
The college is home to the University of Greenwich and Trinity Laban’s music students (photo: Flicksmores via Creative Commons)

‘Attract new audiences’

In a lengthy statement to 853, the Greenwich Foundation for the Old Royal Naval College confirmed it was looking at the site’s “name and identity” but was “not yet in a position to announce any new name for the site”.

A spokesperson said: “The Greenwich Foundation’s ambition is to become an extraordinary cultural destination that is a relevant and sustainable place for local, national and international visitors for generations to come. We passionately believe that our site sets the context for the story of Greenwich and our goal is to attract new audiences, open up new opportunities for interpretation and story-telling of the rich royal and naval stories that give this site its distinctiveness and special qualities.

“If we are successful, we will attract new partnerships, profile and investment, in turn safeguarding the future of the site and as a key component of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site for the next 150 years.

“We want to continue to work closely with the local community, all our partners and all interested parties in the coming months and years to make this possible.

“We are currently working on a range of projects as we develop a new approach to interpreting the site and sharing much more of its rich history whilst capitalising on the once in a lifetime opportunity that comes with the reopening of the Painted Hall in the spring of 2019. In imagining our future for the site, we have re-doubled our commitment to telling more and better the distinct royal and naval histories of Greenwich. This rich history is at the heart of our work, interpretation and telling the story of the Tudor Palace, the Royal Hospital for Seamen and the Royal Naval College – all of which have existed on this magnificent site.

“As part of this work we are looking at our name and identity. We have been listening to and seeking the views of our many partners, staff and stakeholders over the last 6 months, as part of this work. We have also commissioned new audience research to understand better what visitors expect and want from our site and the experiences we offer.’

The spokesperson said the foundation was “actively engaged” with the Greenwich Society and would be meeting the group “in a couple of weeks to share more on our future plans for the site and for the re-opening of the Painted Hall”.

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