Holidays and entertainment
The Royal Military Asylum was like any other orphanage when it opened its doors in 1803 to receive its first intake of children from General George Hewett's military orphanage on the Isle of Wight; that is, apart from being a military orphanage. From the admission records we know that the first contingent was half boys and half girls. The youngest child was six years of age.
That first intake eased the pressure on General Hewett’s orphanage, which had a continuing existence as a thriving, privately-funded institute under its superintendent, Mrs Bold. It also continued receiving military orphans into its care as young as six months of age.
Like all sanctuaries of the kind in which inmates ate the bread of charity, the experience of holidays in the RMA was unknown. Children and staff followed a set routine from one year’s end to the next, which varied between summer and winter only as to the hour of rising.
The same regimen of work, school, and parades followed without interruption throughout the years of the Great War with France. Life for the children might have been unvarying, but it was certainly different from the pattern of other charitable institutions. The military authorities looked after their own. Members of staff worked the hours required of them and, when off duty, were free to leave the premises as they wished, but not the children.
We again know from the records that children who had a parent, or even both, still living and resident in London were given passes at the weekends to visit family or friends. This is stated in a report dated March 1821 over the signature of Mrs Margaret Robertson, the matron. In this, of the girls, she wrote:
‘…they are dispersed all over London and Westminster and with their mistaken relatives frequent places highly improper and injurious to their morals - this evil is greatly increased by their spending whole nights amongst their friends - during that time they become familiarized to every species of vice (instances of which I could if necessary bring forward)…’
The inference of Matron Robertson’s message is unmistakable. She, the wife of a deceased officer, had no qualms writing disparagingly of the Asylum’s nurses who ‘…being soldiers (sic) wives … accustomed by their mode of life’ mislead the girls under their care.
This malicious and rather unpleasant report was written without a shred of evidence being offered. It has little to do with school holidays other than to show that the RMA children were allowed day and weekend passes. As the majority of the girls of the RMA had been removed to a newly-opened branch of the Asylum in Southampton, in the one-time cavalry barracks, she could only have been referring to those girls kept at Chelsea to help run the institution. They did the cleaning, washing, sewing, made clothes and helped prepare meals. Those girls, between the ages of 13 and 15, were those to whom Mrs Robertson aimed her barbs.
In the passing years more children with one of both parents living were deemed ‘in need of the Army’s charity’ and admitted to the Asylum. When rail travel became generally available the practice became common of allowing children whose parents could afford the expense of rail travel to spend the summer holidays and Christmas at home.
When holidays became a regular feature of school life is not known. Speculation is that they were well-established by the mid-19th century. These breaks from school life were certainly well recognized by the turn of the 20th century. By this time the majority of children had one or both parents living and were able to spend time at home although the Anglo-Boer War would have brought a fresh crop of orphans into the School.
If the Anglo-Boer War was awful for children in need of charity from fathers killed in battle, the First World War was infinitely worse and appalling are the instances of families deprived of their sole bread earner. The account of the Kirwan family whose father, RSM Kirwan of the Rifle Brigade, was among the first casualties of the war. His death immediately deprived his large family of all means of income. Any income Mrs. Kirwan did receive was a totally inadequate pittance.
The Kirwan boys admitted to the School were among a large intake of partial orphans who spent their summer and Christmas breaks at School. It is however true that enterprising member of staff had developed forms of entertainment over the years. Stage productions such as those discussed elsewhere on this site had become a common feature of the school’s entertainment programme.
With the coming of the Second World War a different type of boy stayed at School during the summer and Christmas breaks. Although not large in number, there were nevertheless boys from broken homes with nowhere to go. They suffered the privations of orphans and those whose parents were too poor to afford the pay for rail fares. Among those in the ‘broken family’ category is the following pensive account of one Dukie, who writes:
My parents separated in 1939 and both remarried by 1943. I, with an older brother and sister were put into care with the Holly brook Homes in Bournemouth for 3 years and then to join my mother in Bristol in 1943 from where I went to the Dukies in 1945.
Back at Dover, neither of my parents, for reasons I do not know, felt able to have me home for the Christmas holidays. The school managed to put me with a family in Dover for two weeks to cover Christmas and the new year, then back to the school for the remaining holiday. One thing I remember in particular was that we were given a ticket with which we could go to any cinema in Dover without charge. In 1947, again for some reason, neither of my parents felt able to have me home for holidays.
In the summer holidays I was very lucky as I was part of the school party to go to Bayeux in Normandy. We sailed from Dover in what I believe was a Trawler to land in Dieppe. We were then taken by lorry to a former Army Nissan hut camp about 3 miles outside Bayeux. During our stay we visited the Normandy beaches, the Mulberry Harbour and Caen which had literally been flattened to the ground.
We were also entertained to lunch by the Mayor of Calais. Again I was not invited to either of my parents for the Christmas holidays. This time one of the schoolmasters, an AEC (not yet the RAEC) Sergeant Lowndes, took me home to Wolverhampton where he had a brother of my age. With them I enjoyed seeing a Boxing Day derby and my first professional Soccer match, of Wolves v Aston Villa - the brilliant Billy Wright was the Wolves Captain.
Of this particular summer outing, another on the same excursion, wrote:
He was probably one of the Buglers in a party of about 30 to 40 boys who visited the British Cemeteries in Normandy for 14 days. I was in the same group. We travelled in an RASC LCT (Tank Landing Craft), disembarked at Arrogances and stayed in Nissan huts run by War Graves Commission. A good teacher gave me pride in my French and I 'fell in love' with lovely Nicole, one of those who looked after the billets there .
We played a Last Post at every site we visited, went to Lemieux and like places on our days off. There was a memorable trip to Bayeux Cathedral. We drank 'cider du bois' and Calvados in a bistro. Smoking Galois’s 'bleu' 'jaunt' et 'vet' were among the many exploits of the more senior boys who had to repay the fines exacted by the Verger. At 1150 we had rung the Clock-tower bells, causing consternation among those below.
Dormmobile on fishing trip in France (L to R: Malcolm Donaldson (on the roof), Ground from Left to Right: English teachers Luke Conry, Chris Kearns, "Ding Dong" Bell, Peter Cozens, Keith Scutt Mike Hoare, Alan Vickers, Bob Austen, and biology teacher Peter Jolley who later became Headmaster of Atlantic College and was an initiator of canoeing trips abroad.
As both my parents were in the forces during the war we sometimes had to stay at Saunton during the holidays. The staff were very good to us and I remember that they arranged for us to do work on local farms so that we could earn a penny or two. We were not allowed to spend it, but had to put the money into a Post Office Savings book, which I have to this day. I spent hours pulling up bulbs in Braun ton’s famous Ten Acre field and scrimped in apple Farmer Milken’s orchard. He had a lovely tree in the middle of the orchard and left a slate at the base of the tree with the message, ‘Please boys, do not take these as they are for the Harvest Festival on Sunday.’ After we’d helped ourselves, Peter Cartwright turned the slate over and wrote ‘All are safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin’!
The best of the stay put holidays was in the Easter of 1946 when those who were still at Saunton helped to strip the hotel and return stores to the depot at Flemington on the other side of the bay. We timed trips to lunch at Flemington where we were fed in the NAAFI canteen! Being a prefect, when we returned to Dover me and a companion prefect were able to take the two best rooms in the Prefects’ House before others arrived.
‘Whacker’ Jones (the RSM), I might also mention, was ecstatic about his return to Dover and kept on about the superiority of Dover over Devon - even to the mud on the playing fields!
As with so many aspects of School life, the post-WWII period brought about striking changes in clothing, the education system, the long overdue re-admission of girls, quality and variety of food, and the public school system of management and entertainment. Commenting on this more recent period of school history, a correspondent wrote:
I can't remember a single orphan at the Duke of York’s during my time. There was the odd one with single parent, and I've a vague memory of one or two with overseas parents spending some holiday time in school because air passes were only for one or two holidays each year.