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April 1908. A Plea for the Duke of York’s School
(Report in The Times for April 18, 1908)

Editorial note:

By the time a resident of Chelsea wrote this letter to The Times, the die had been cast. The School was to be transferred to its new premises on the white cliffs of Dover the next year. Construction of the new school buildings had begun some time earlier. This meant that the decision of the board of commissioners acting on the advice of the Privy Council had set the wheels of change in motion probably in 1905. Some day, a check of the board minutes now available for scrutiny in the National Archives will confirm this assumption. For the record, then, here is what one correspondent wrote to The Times, published in the newspaper’s letters column 18 April 1908.

All residents in Chelsea, and many Londoners outside its boundaries, have learnt with regret that it has been decided to transfer the Duke of York’s Royal Military School to Dover, and to sell the existing building and the grounds in which it stands. For more than a century the boys of this noble institution have had their home beside the famous Chelsea Hospital which affords an asylum for many to many Army veterans in the evening of their days. During all this time the school has provided a sound education for generations of fatherless and motherless boys, the sons of men who have served their country in the Army. The record of the school is excellent; and one could not desire a more hopeful and inspiriting sight than that of those bright-eyed, scarlet-coated boys marching to the music of their band through the streets of the capital, the envy and the admiration of the less fortunate children of the slums and gutters. Their very presence is an object-lesson in the value of discipline and obedience – a lesson more than ever needed at the present time, when a new Army system is being introduced, and when the importance of inculcating patriotism to the rising generation is recognized by all who have the welfare of the country at heart. The relegation of the boys to Dover means that young London will be deprived of the influence of their bright example, while, by the demolition of their building, one more time-honoured testimony to the continuity of our national life will disappear. Fortunately, the change is not to take effect until the spring of next year; and it is hoped by many well-wishers of the school that in the meantime some way may be found to prevent the loss to the boys and to London which would result from the abandonment and sales of the existing institution.

The Duke of York’s school is a direct outcome of the Napoleonic wars, which occasioned such widespread distress to the orphaned children of our soldiers that, in response to a national demand, an asylum for their benefit was founded. It was named after the Duke of York, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, and erected, between 1801 and 1803, in its present site at Chelsea. The cost being defrayed out of money voted by Parliament for this purpose. The asylum with its land, was at first vested in the Commissioners of Woods, and later in the Commissioner of Works, who are still responsible for its efficiency and upkeep. At the out set, both boys and girls were admitted to its benefits, but at a later date the premises were given up wholly to boys. During the century of its existence the number of the inmates has fluctuated; but for the last 20 years the strength of the establishment has been 550 boys and 40 students, the latter being elder boys in training to be Army schoolmasters. The boys are thoroughly well ground in history, geography, arithmetic, and other subjects, and, tat the same time, are developed on the physical side by careful attention to drill, gymnastics, and open-air sports. By the time they leave to enter the Army, as the majority of them about to do ---- (passage undecipherable) ----- almost always, to serve in their fathers’ regiments, they are so proficient in their drill that it is no uncommon thing for them to be promoted to be non-commissioned officers. The religious instruction given in the school is remarkable for affording a complete solution of the problem which has proved so serious a subject of dispute among the warring sects outside. At the Duke of York’s School both Cowper-Temple and denominational teaching are given, the former by the regular teachers, the latter by the Anglican chaplain on the staff, and by a Roman-Catholic priest, a Presbyterian, and a Wesleyan minister, who provide for the spiritual needs of the children belonging to their respective communions, being assisted in this duty by several devoted ladies.

The destination of the boys on leaving the school may be gathered from the Commandant’s last report, which states that of 146 boys who had left during the year, 103 had gone to the Army, and seven more would have done so had they not failed to pass the medical examination. The percentage of boys joining the Army is about 87. On January 1, 1807, there were 1552 old boys serving in the Army, of whom 33 were officers, 65 warrant officers, 603 non-commissioned officers, 184 trumpeters, drummers and buglers, 214 bandsmen, 256 privates, and 195 boys. Of these their commanding officers report that the character of 329 is exemplary, 894 very good, of 241 good, of 42 fair, and of 13 indifferent, while only two are stated to be bad – a record which, it will be conceded, is eminently creditable. In the historical souvenir of the school, published in honour of its centenary in 1901, we read:-

The school roll of honour includes some interesting names – Lazarus, the eminent clarinetist, Sullivan, the father of the famous musician, Major-Generals McKay and Campbell, who enlisted as boys from the school, and climbed to the highest rung of the military ladder. Commissions in the Army have been gained by numerous former pupils – some thirty names are known and recorded – and every year that number is added to. The Royal Humane Society’s medal for saving life has been awarded on several occasions, and that much prized decoration, the Victoria Cross, has been bestowed on Corporal Shand, 71st Highland Light Infantry, during the South African War.

The interest of the Royal Family in the school has always been great. The Prince whose name it bears, Frederick Duke of York, son of George III, constantly visited it, and was a regular attendant at Divine service in the chapel. His Royal brother, George IV., bestowed upon its colours similar to those of the infantry regiments, which, after being borne by the boys for 72 years, were placed in the school chapel in 1897, the year of the Diamond Jubilee, when new colours were presented by the Duke of Cornwall and York, now Prince of Wales, on behalf of Queen Victoria. Ten years later, namely, in July of last year, the Duke of Connaught, addressing the boys on the occasion of the annual inspection declared, :When I was a Commanding Officer I always tried to get a Duke of York’s School boy, because I knew he would set a good example, would not give any trouble, and would be a credit to himself.” King Edward is known to attach great importance to the welfare of the institution, which his Majesty is expected to visit in May; and if further proof of the Royal favour be needed, it is to be found in the fact that the Prince of Wales is president of the school, which he personally visited, accompanied by the Princess, and carefully examined in March of the present year.

Such, in brief, is the Duke of York’s School, which has done such excellent work at Chelsea, and which is highly esteemed in that locality of its practical beneficence and for its moral influence. A few years ago it was decided by the last Unionist Administration, to effect economies by selling the buildings and site. The school at Dover has been built at a cost of £192,000, and if steps are not at once taken to prevent such a misfortune, the one at Chelsea will soon disappear for ever. It is propose, moreover, to curtail the usefulness of the justification by reducing the number of boys admitted to it. At Chelsea, as I have said, the number of boys is 550, and of students 40. At Dover there will be only 480 boys and 40 students. Inasmuch as all the pupils of the school are orphans, it will be apparent at once how great will be the loss to the Army due to this reduction. It is not only boys whose fathers are dead who are received into the school. Its benefits are also accorded to the sons of widowed soldiers. The education of many a boy whose mother is dead, and whose father is compelled to move from place to place at the call of military duty, has been well cared for at the school, when, but for this boon, it would have been neglected or carried on in very difficult circumstances. Even now, so highly are its privileges esteemed that there are seven to eight applicants for every vacancy occurring in the school. The reduction in the number of places will therefore be a real misfortune to the Army. It was stated on March 2, in the House of Commons, by Mr. Haldane that “the reduction has been made because of the establishment of the Queen Victoria School at Edinburgh, which fulfills a similar purpose to the Duke of York’s School.” It is, however, to be observed, first, that the cost of erecting this Scottish home is not a public charge, but has been contributed by the Scottish people in memory of Queen Victoria; secondly, that its benefits are not to be enjoyed by the Army alone, but by Navy and Army alike; and, thirdly, that none but Scottish boys will be eligible for admission to it. Thus the opportunities for the education of the sons of English soldiers are to be diminished at a time when those of the sons of Scottish soldiers and sailors are being increased.

The suggestion has been made, and it seems eminently worthy of consideration, that, instead of recouping themselves for the cost of the Dover school by the sale of the Chelsea site, the Treasury should write off the sum expended and retain the existing school at Chelsea as a secondary and trade school for the Army. Such a school is needed now. It is likely to be very much more urgently needed in a few years’ time, when, if this site be sold, a new one will have to be purchased at a great outlay of money, probably in a much less desirable locality, seeing that, at present, the Duke of York’s school is in close proximity to South Kensington, the principal centre to England for high and technical teaching of the requisite kind. The retention of the old school would make it possible to utilize the new buildings at Dover for the education of the younger boys, who could be received there when seven years old and retained there until 12 or 13, afterwards being passed on to the secondary or technical school at Chelsea, there to remain until any age to which it might be deemed expedient to keep them. Even with the extra accommodation thus afforded the Army would be very much less well provided with educational establishments for its boys than the Navy, although the personnel of the Navy is numerically much small than that of the Army.

The money laid out as indication on Dover and Chelsea would not only be spent on a most useful charity, but would return to the station, because so many of the boys join the Army as ready-made soldiers. The retention of the Chelsea site and buildings would permit of four branches of education being carried on in the school concurrently. Some of the boys might be trained as practical tradesmen – smiths, saddlers, bootmakers, and tailors – some to be Army schoolmasters, some to be non-commissioned officers; and select few could be retained until they were 18 years of age, and fitted, by receiving a broad, general education, to get commissions from the ranks. A scheme such as this might be carried into effect by simply withholding the of the destroyer, and utilizing the present school at Chelsea. Surely, to dispose of it would not be true economy, although it seems difficult to bring the Treasury to see the matter in this light. It had been urged that the costs of the Dover school might be defrayed by public subscription or private munificence, and that, in token of appreciation of the indebtedness of the country to the reigning Sovereign, the school should be named King Edward the Seventh’s School. No money could be better spent, for there could not be a stronger inducement to men to join the army than the knowledge that the country will support the sons of its soldiers as the need for doing so arises.

Is it too much to hope that there exists some public spirited man or woman who will step forward with the necessary funds and save the school? Or will not the City, whose example in raising the C. I. V. at a time of emergency was of such immense benefit to the nation, espouse the cause of soldiers’ sons, and thereby add one more to its claims on public gratitude? There are those who think that the Lord Mayor could not signalize his year of office better than by placing himself at the head of a national movement to promote the good of England’s Army by preserving and adding to the usefulness of its historic school.


A. W. Cockerill
1 February 2004

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