Royal Hibernian Military School Badge
The Royal Hibernian Military School (1765-1924)
Navigation links at the bottom of this page

Chapter 2
In the beginning (1770 - 1815)


The character of the Royal Hibernian Military School, begun in 1765 by the philanthropy of the Hibernian Society, changed from that of an orphanage to a decidedly military establishment once the Army took over its full management at the turn of the 19th century. That the military had exercised a strong influence from the very beginning is not in doubt. The officers of the 49th, 50th and 51st Regiments of Foot  (1) were major contributors to the Hibernian Society; they chose who should go into the Hospital; they supported the Petition for royal favour, providing the senior officials of the institution. It was inevitable that the Hospital should prove to be a rich source of boy soldier recruits into military units and helps explain why the intake of female children was limited to fifty and, eventually, discontinued (2). Even so, the reality was different. During its first ten years of its existence, the Institution provided only 66 boy soldier recruits out of a total (School) population of 336, less than 20 per cent, which leads one to a reasonable conclusion concerning military motives.

That the military leadership of the Irish establishment and the regimental officers of the regiments stationed in Ireland gave moral and financial support to the RHMS for altruistic and not self-serving reasons is obvious. The other ranks, whose children benefited from the charity, may have made a financial contribution, but the officers, their families, and influential citizens of Dublin and Cork created the Hibernian Society and financed the Institution for the first thirty-five years of its existence. During this time, military involvement in the Institution's affairs was private, generous and entirely philanthropic.

In 1776, Major Sirr had succeeded Captain Nesbitt as Inspector. Several resolutions in the minutes book to testify to Major Sirr's "extraordinary care, diligence and attention to the institution". A resolution in 1782 was accompanied by a gratuity of fifty guineas. Unfortunately, Major Sirr's service as the Inspector was cut short when, as a result of failing eyesight, he was compelled to resign his post and to hand over the reins to William Hudson, formerly an ensign in the 105th Regiment of Foot. (3)

Daily Routine in the 1780s

The children led Spartan lives, following a daily routine that was, to say the least, harsh and not overly unimaginative. They rose from their beds at six a.m. in the summer and seven a.m. during the winter months. They washed and dressed and said their morning prayers under the leadership of a senior boy who read the prayers aloud. Prayers were followed by lessons for an hour before they were allowed to have breakfast. Before taking this first meal of the day, however, a psalm was read and grace spoken, both before and after the meal.

Boys and girls were employed in their 'trades' and 'occupations' during the forenoon and the first hour of the afternoon. Dinner was at 1.00 p.m. and supper at 7.00. For a small annual gratuity, the Bandmaster of the Royal Irish Artillery taught singing. Lights out, with all children in bed following prayers, was at eight o'clock.

Financial difficulties

From the moment the Hospital settled into its Phoenix Park quarters the governors were beset by financial troubles, which were to recur intermittently for the next forty years. The early generosity of subscribers fell away so that, in July 1770, the Committee had to appeal to the Lord Lieutenant for another grant of the King's Bounty because it was unable to maintain 140 children, much less increase the number as it had planned and desired to do.

Four years later, Mrs Wolfe, mother of Major General Wolfe of Quebéc, bequeathed the Society £3,000 in bank-reduced annuities. In response to an appeal, the 40th Regt. of Foot (4) donated one day's pay for the regiment, whereupon the governors appealed to all regiments stationed in Ireland to follow its example and, as an inducement, the governors agreed to admit all boys between the ages of seven and ten years belonging to the seven regiments serving in Dublin, before the departure of each regiment from the garrison.

As this inducement failed to achieve the desired response and the Committee was desperately short of funds, the Governors address an appeal to the Lord Lieutenant and duly received £2,000, which was sufficient to maintain 200 children for a year.

During the decade following 1776 a few benefactors helped keep the Hospital going. An H. Waddle, Esq. of County Carlow made a bequest of land that brought in a small rent; Dr Downes, the Bishop of Waterford guaranteed an annual donation of £40 and a Major Hepburne made an unnamed benefit. (5) Other smaller sums were donated, but they were insufficient to sustain operations at any level above that of institutional poverty. At the end of the century the Governors found themselves responsible for managing on an income reduced from £1,000 to £100. Even the sum of one thousand pounds was only half of what was needed to keep 200 children for a year.

It is clear from the record of inadequate financing that action by the national government was required. At the turn of the century, the Chancellor of the Exchequer called for a report of the financial position of the School and the results of the boys' training. Of a total of 2,274 boys who had been admitted to the school since its foundation in 1765, only 200 had joined the army. This fact, when combined with the deplorable state of the School's finances, makes the future course of events and character of the Royal Hibernian Military School, as it was to become known from this time on, more understandable.

Source of boy soldiers
In 1792, excluding Ireland, there were about 32,000 men in the British Isles. By 1796, this number had increased to 164,000 excluding 49,000 in the militia (6). To this considerable military expansion to meet the threat from Revolutionary France was added the need to replace the continuing severe loss of men from tropical fevers in the West Indian stations.

Boy soldiers were as much a feature of the military establishments of European armies (7) as they were in navies of the period. The need for boy soldier recruits to replace those who went on to man service or who died on service was urgent. Consequently, in October 1795 the Adjutant General issued the first of a series of court circulars (8) dealing with the recruitment of boys.

In 1801, Frederick, Duke of York, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, laid the groundwork for the establishment of the Royal Military Asylum, Chelsea, to provide shelter for the impoverished children of soldiers in the rest of the British Isles, outside Ireland. The time therefore was ripe for the authorities to make use of the Hibernian School as source of boy soldier recruits.

It therefore comes as no surprise that a petition to the Irish Parliament for an annual grant of £3,960 was sanctioned, with conditions attached. It was ordered that on reaching the age of 15 years boys 'who were willing to enlist in regiments that applied for them' were to be encouraged to do so. In 1808, with the Peninsular campaign begun, the annual grant from the parliament was increased to £5,000. It is to be noted that, since 1782, the Protestant Irish Parliament had operated independently of Westminster, in close co-operation with the English Parliament.

Military takeover

By December 1805 there were 400 children in the Hibernian School, increasing to 450 in December 1808. The numbers fluctuated according to the state of the institution's finances and the number of applications for entry received. A move was underfoot, however, to provide a more stable foundation for the existence of the Institution, for a letter dated 3 January 1809 signed by Major-General Sir Arthur Wellesley, M.P. and Chief Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, intimated that the Hibernian School would in the future be entirely maintained by Parliament. (9)

The Institution of the Hibernian Society was designated the Hibernian School in 1789, by which time it was a well-established institution in Dublin. By that year ex-service men were employed as instructors, the sergeant-major and his assistant sergeants being named Head and Ushers respectively. To assist them in their duties - and probably in an attempt to improve the quality of the instruction given - twelve of the most advanced boys were appointed 'assistant ushers'. For this work, the assistant ushers received a small weekly payment and were distinguished from the other boys by a blue worsted epaulette worn on the left shoulder. The only subject in which the boys' knowledge was tested was the scriptures. Examinations were held by the Association for the Promotion of Virtue and Religion, the results being reported to the Chaplain and the highest ranked best boy and girl in the School wearing a silver medal; boys who broke the rules were made to wear their coats turned inside out, aping the practice common to some units of the army of the period, from which the word turncoat originates. (10)

In August 1789 the gunners at the Magazine Fort damaged the churchyard wall from misplaced shots fired at targets in the butt midway between the Hospital and the Fort. Dean Swift had directed his satirical wit when he wrote of the Magazine Fort:

Behold the proof of Irish sense,
Here Irish wit is seen,
When nothing's left that's worth defence
We built a magazine

In 1800 the governors began regular visits to the Hospital: this probably had a lot to do with the change in funding soon to be guaranteed by the government, which would exercise closer control of the Institution. For more than 40 years the Chaplain, the Reverend H. O'Neill, supervised the education of the children, resigning his chaplaincy in June 1803 to be appointed Rector of Chapelizod. The Governors granted him an annuity of 50 pounds in recognition of the zealous and faithful performance of his duties and services during his twenty-three years stay at the RHMS and recorded the following unusual resolution:

'That the thanks of the Governors be given to the Chaplain, the Reverend H. O'Neill, who, by his extraordinary attention to the education of Mr Henry Fletcher, one of the boys of the School admitted a gentleman cadet of the Royal Military College.' (11)

Henry Fletcher, admitted to the RMC as Gentleman Cadet 45 in A Company on 19th November 1802, aged 15 on admission, height 5' 4", was struck off the rolls 'Dead' on 4 July 1803. The cause of death is not known. The significance of the case of Henry Fletcher - his acceptance as a cadet at the RMC being so unusual - was that his father had been a commissioned officer (12). It is evident that the children of commissioned officers were not entirely excluded from admission into the RHMS, despite the aim of the Institution being to serve the welfare of the children of soldiers in the 'other ranks'.

In 1801, Frederick, Duke of York, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, showed the same concern for the welfare of the common soldiers' families by founding the Royal Military Asylum. With his influence at court and in the ruling circles of government, the Duke of York founded the Asylum next door to the Chelsea Pensioners Hospital, which Charles II had created in the 17th century. The Asylum, or RMA as it became known, opened its doors to the needy children of soldiers in 1803, its organisation being based on the RHMS model.

Military operating costs

Under the command and control of the Commander-in-Chief and his staff, the RHMS was now organised along more military lines than in the past. Captain Hugh Colville from the 54th Foot  (13) was appointed the School's first Commandant. Mr Hudson, the Inspector, stayed on as the Adjutant until 1815, when he retired on a pension of two hundred and thirty pounds. Under the new organisation the Commandant, Adjutant, Chaplain and Inspector-Master were resident in the School. The Surgeon, Treasurer and Secretary were non-resident officers.

Operating under a board of governors appointed mostly from among military personnel, the operating estimates submitted in 1815 included:

Dining hall and connecting corridor £4,159.08
Hospital £1,764.09
Enlarging church £2,000.0
Officers' quarters Not stated
Gate Sergeant's lodge Not stated
Total £7,923.17

The Chief Secretary for Ireland at this time was Major General Sir Arthur Wellesley through whose office it was the practice to funnel all military business in Ireland. This practice continued until 1822. The affairs of the School were in a transitory and, consequently, critical state. It was therefore fortunate that Wellington could appreciate the importance of the School from the military point of view and was strong enough to give effect to his policy. He was of the opinion that there should be an establishment in Ireland of six or seven hundred children for the purpose of providing a steady stream of boy soldier recruits. He had strong views about the need for religion in education, which may be judged from his comment on being shown plans for the expanded School: 'Take care what you are about; unless you base all this on religion, you will only produce clever devils.'

Lord Wellington directed that the new construction be carried out immediately. The work was entrusted to Francis Johnson of Eccles Street, Dublin, a well-known architect who had erected some of the most striking public buildings in the City. By the end of 1811, some thirty-four thousand, seven hundred and thirty pounds had been expended on news works and alterations, a far cry from the eight thousand pounds ear-marked for the expansion.

The Commandant, Adjutant and Chaplain occupied the officers' quarters in November 1809. The new dining hall was not ready for use until the following year. All these expenditures resulted in an increased enrolment of Hibernian boys into the army, as was planned and expected. An analysis of the children in the school for given periods, those entering directly into the army from the school, and expressed as a percentage results in the following table (14).

Period Boys in School Enlisted Per cent (%)
1765 - 1767 336 66 20
1767 - 1800 2274 200 11(9)
1800 - 1810 350 23 7(6)
1835 - 1850 250 23 7(9)
1850 - 1897 3500 1750 50
1898 410 328 80
Table 1 Boys enlisted in the Army

On 6 February 1808, a new charter was issued that authorised the Governors to 'place in the Regular Army as private soldiers, in such Corps as from time to time His Majesty shall be pleased to appoint, but with their own free consent, the orphans and children of soldiers in Ireland, for ever.' The charter also secured the appointment of members of the Corporation by the King or Lord Lieutenant; and the President and Vice-President, hitherto elected by the Society, were to be always the Lord Lieutenant and the Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in Ireland. The admissions and disposition record for the 9 year period 1801 to 1809 is given as:

Table 2 - Admissions and departures for the period 1801-1809
The Napoleonic Wars

Throughout the period of the Napoleonic Wars, the objective of the Governors was to get as many boys as possible to enlist. Despite the new charter, however, the move was not highly successful. The original charter made no mention of military enlistment, yet more boys entered the Army during the early years of the School than during the Peninsular War with France. Parents, predominantly mothers (although the children of some families whose mothers had died were admitted) preferred their children to be apprenticed, presumably in the occupations they had been taught whilst in the Institution.

The appointment of ushers from among ex-soldiers was criticised unless the greatest care was taken in their selection. This aspect was put forward by some critics as a likely deterrent to boys joining the Army. In January 1810 the Governors petitioned Parliament for an increase in the army vote (15) to enable them to raise the number of children taken into the Institution from 450 to 600, because of the greatly increased number of applicants - these obviously stemmed from the high battle casualties in the Peninsular War. The number of children cared for reached 600 in January 1816. This was a watershed and a steady decline in the intake took place from 1816 until 1922, when steps were taken to remove the School from the Army vote and to remove those remaining to the Duke of York's Royal Military School [successor to the Royal Military Asylum].

Sleeping arrangements

The main block of the RHMS housed the boys. Their dormitories, each 133 ft long by 20 ft wide by 13 ft high, were on the second and third floors. The beds were packed in so closely together they touched, which not only made cleaning difficult but was unhealthy. An assistant slept in each dormitory to keep order. The dormitory windows faced north, which meant that no sun entered the rooms. The girls' dormitories were in the west wing of the building, the beds packed as closely together as in the boys' dormitories. The boys and girls ate together in the dining hall situated at the back of the building. The boys had a small hospital in the main wing. When a girl fell sick she was confined to her own bed; again, not a healthy situation at times of infection and contagion. The new dining room, with its connecting corridor built at the rear of the main building was 100 ft long by 40 ft wide by 32 ft high. The east wing of the main building housed the Commandant's, Adjutant's and Chaplain's quarters.

When a larger dining room was built, the old dining room with its 4 ft. high wainscot in the main building became a schoolroom, with a raised podium at one end from which the Chaplain supervised instruction. Teaching up to 200 children in a single class must have been a daunting experience. Nevertheless it was done, probably along the lines of the 'monitorial system', which will be discussed in detail later. Adjoining the main schoolroom or hall was a smaller room to which the Chaplain could - probably with relief - withdraw to give special instruction.

Further work was undertaken about this time in the form of two large excavations south of the main block to build at a lower level an enclosed farmyard building, sunk into the ground so as not to block the view of the Wicklow Mountains. Nineteen acres of park land were enclosed to make a farm, which gave employment to some boys. [It is not known if girls were employed on the farm.] The 396 ft by 186 ft parade ground on which the children played and the boys carried out their military drill was built at the same time as the farm. By this time the boys had discarded their distinctive blue coats and were issued red ones to conform with the uniform of the Chelsea Pensioners and the Hibernian sister institution, also in Chelsea, the Royal Military Asylum.

In 1814, the Rev. Thomas Philip Le Fann was appointed Chaplain and held the post for twelve years, after which time the Lord Lieutenant appointed him Dean of Emby. Le Fann was the father of John Sheridan Le Fann, the writer and poet. Other appointments at this time included Captain Marlin Irving of the 61st Foot (16) to the post of Adjutant; John Hudson became Secretary; and Sergeant-Major J. Charles succeeded Sergeant-Major Warren.


A school report for the first quarter of the 19th century gives some idea of the education system developed over the years for the Hibernian children. It is to be noted that public education among the general population did not begin until the 1840s with the Public Education Act.

Fifty of the younger children (17) were under the supervision of a schoolmistress (18). The remainder were divided into four divisions, each under a schoolmaster. Each division was subdivided into classes under a monitor who assisted the division schoolmaster. The chief master was the Sergeant-Major of Instruction and there were a number of assistant Sergeants of Instruction, the whole education structure being under the overall supervision of the Chaplain, with whom lay the final responsibility for the children's education. A matron, with the assistance of three schoolmistresses, supervised the education of the girls.

The curriculum included instruction in spelling, reading, writing, arithmetic and the Protestant Catechism. The Chaplain gave instruction in the scriptures directly and examined the children in all other subjects. Instruction of the children alternated between the classroom and trades training. The boys were taught tailoring, shoemaking and farming all of which was run for profit to produce a source of operating revenue. Sixty boys at a time followed their trades and had one and a half hours a day in school work. The apprentice tailors produced all the school uniforms. The shoemakers, however, spent their time repairing footwear, not making new shoes. The girls were given instruction in needlework and repairs. The older children, both boys and girls, were much sought after as apprentices.

The children's diet was reported by ex-Hibernian boys to be 'judicious and quantity abundant, but not profuse'. The children reported to be healthy, active, cheerful and free from complaints. The annual expense per children for food and clothing is given as:

The cost of clothing a boy was £2.16.1
The cost of clothing a girl was £2.19.1
The cost of feeding each child was £7.4.7

The school report in question ends with a reference to a type of examination (to which, apparently, schools in Dublin were free to submit) held by the "Society for Discountenancing Vice and Promoting the Knowledge and Practice of Christian Religion." The Hibernian School did not choose to submit any report of 'catechistical examination', which appears to have been of a competitive nature. The report writer continues, "We trust that as respectable an Institution as the Hibernian School will not, by declining such a trial, leave room for suspicion of conscious infirmity."

Staff salaries at the period were:

Commandant £300.00.00
Adjutant and steward £182.10.00
Chaplain £150.00.00
The Sergeant-Major of Instruction; six assistant sergeants; a matron with three schoolmistresses; a Sergeant Master Taylor; and a Sergeant Master gardener comprised the instructional staff. As written in the report, "In decency of manners and regulation of conduct, the children of the Hibernian School are not inferior to any in our public institutions; while in appearance, health and vigour they seem to possess decided supremacy" (19)
A visitor's opinion

In a letter dated 18 November 1814, Miss Harriet Le Fann, who had visited her brother, the Chaplain in the autumn of 1814 wrote to her friend Mrs Landbeater of Balletone, Kildane. Landbeater, a Quaker writer, was a friend and correspondent of Edmund Burke.

'I have just returned from spending some days at the Park,' she wrote, where I left them all in perfect health and very happy. Their situation is the most desirable possible, whether the employment be considered imparting to the youthful mind the Knowledge of religion and virtue or the place which combines all the advantages of town and country, the unevenness of the ground, the winding of the river, and the views of the mountains upon one side, and of the city upon the other, make it beautiful, even at this season when most of the trees are stripped of their foliage. You who take an interest in public charities would be greatly gratified with the Hibernian School. It is like a little world, differing chiefly in this, that all the officers and members of the staff seem to perform their respective duties accurately. The children plant their own vegetable and make almost everything they wear; the shoemaker and tailor having their separate shop and the boys their regular allotted days for attendance upon them and their school. Twenty boys are generally at work in the garden, thus uniting outdoor and indoor employment, which, together with excellent food and great cleanliness, contribute to render them the most healthy and cheerful-looking children of the kind I have ever seen. The number of boys is nearly four hundred - of girls, not quite two hundred. They eat mat three times in the week, and wash their feet and change their linen twice. They also drink fresh milk. The infirmary, which is not contiguous to, but near the main buildings, is a pattern of cleanliness, neatness and order. It seldom happens, however, that above five children are sick at a time. At present, there are two in for scarlet fever and a few confined by kibes (chilblains) in their feet. The Lord and Lady Lieutenant constantly attend the chapel.

Thine affectionately, H.L.F.


1. In 1800, The Hertsfordshire, West Kent, and Yorkshire West Riding regiments respectively. Back to 1
2. The outlook for the care of female dependents of soldiers is not as bleak as it might appear. Over the years other arrangements for girls were made such as, for example, the Royal Soldiers Daughters Home. The arrangement for care of female dependents, however, is not within the scope of this historical memoir. Back to 2
3. Recorded for the second half of the 18th century as The Queen's Royal Regiment of Highlanders. Back to 3
4. The South Lancashire Regiment. Back to 4
5. Many years later, in 1815, when finances were on a firmer footing because the national government (of Ireland) had taken them over, Mrs Ray, a benefactress, donated a sum of £400 to the specific benefit of the girls of the Institution. Back to 5
6. Fuller, J. F. C., writing in British Light Infantry in the Nineteenth Century, 1925. Back to 6
7. Cockerill, A. W., in Sons of the Brave, 1983. Back to 7
8. PRO Doc. 3/18 Back to 8
9. The following April, Sir Arthur Wellesley took command of the British forces at Lisbon following the abrogation of the Convention of Cintra. Back to 9
10. The practice was by no means universal in the British Army of the day whereas use of the lash or cat of nine tails was. Back to 10
11. Admission to the RMC of a student from the RHMS was a remarkable occurrence at the time, not to be repeated until the last of the long list of Hibernians were leaving the DYRMS in 1928 and two Chief School Prefects, E. J. Martin and H. G. Conroy, were admitted in December 1928 and January 1930 respectively. Both were gazetted into the Indian Army. Back to 11
12. Henry Fletcher's mother, Mrs Bourns of 7 Crown Street, Westminster, had been the widow of Captain Alexander Fletcher of the 84th Foot. Captain Fletcher was commissioned Ensign of the 84th Foot on 16 July 1776. He was promoted to Lieutenant on 10 May 1780, appointed Captain on 30 October 1781 and went on half pay when the 84th Foot [The Royal Highlander Regt.] was disbanded. He remained on half pay until his death on 9 September 1793, on the Isle of St. John in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Letters of admission were granted to Henry Fletcher's mother, Elizabeth Fletcher, widow. She re-married. Fletcher was five years of age at the time of his father's death. Back to 12
13. The Dorsetshire Regiment. Back to 13
14. This table is as given in the original ms. The per cent figures in parenthesis in the last column are correct. Back to 14
15. This term refers to the annual funds voted by parliament to maintain the military establishment. Back to 15
16. The South Gloucestershire Regiment. Back to 16
17. Repeated reference to the Hibernian children as 'boys' occurs in the original ms when in fact there was a substantial population of girls in the Institution from the beginning. Back to 17
18. Children were admitted to the School from the age of seven years. Back to 18
19. Warburton writing in History of Dublin, 1818, pub: Whitelaw and Walsh. Back to 19

Table of Contents - Royal Hibernian Military School
1769 Petition
1806 Pay and Allowances
1806 Weekly Governor's Report
1806 Time Table
1819 Charter
1819 Diet
1819 Staff Duties
1819 General Regulations
1844 Return of Religions
1849 S.S. Pemberton Orphans
1856 School Inspector Gleig
1857 China
1873 Religion
1900 Review at Phoenix Park
1918 Lost Boys
1919 Roll of Honour
1919 Recollections
1919 Lives of the Hibernians
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
1922 Last cricket match
1924 A soldier's orphan's story
1924 Last roll call
1924 Laying up the colours
1924 The final era
1937 A military misfit NEW
1969 The bicentenary reunion
1994 Capt. Harry Bloomer MBE
2001 IGS No.25 History
2004 Newsletter
2005 The last known Hibernian
2007 Sources of Hibernian documents

Delta Tech Systems Inc
  Duke of York's Royal Military School
Royal Hibernian Military School
Reminiscences of a Queen's Army  Schoolmistress
World War I letters and Reports
Books and Militaria
Wellington on Waterloo
Related Links

© A. W. Cockerill 2005

Site Map     Contact me