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The passing of the company sergeant majors

From the earliest days of military organisation, sergeants were an important feature of the command structure. They were non-commissioned officers and commanded as many as 40 to 50 men. Times changed and sergeants had charge of fewer soldiers – to as little as a platoon strength of 10 to 12 soldiers. When the RMA opened its doors in 1803, sergeants commanded companies, which had separate ones for boys and girls. The girls were removed from Chelsea to the Southampton Branch in 1815 and there combined with the infant establishment that had existed on the Isle of Wight from some time in the late 1790s, therefore pre-dating the Asylum.

At the peak of the Institution's population, which was in excess of 1600 pupils, the main branch at Chelsea had 10 companies designated A through J. As times changed and the population fell, company sergeants became company sergeant majors (CSMs). Sergeants were not alone in promotion to a higher rank. For the first forty years of its existence, the adjutancy was in the capable hands of Lieut. Lugard who died in office and was replaced by Captain Siborne. Later, a major filled the office. Today, the job of the adjutant is done by a retired Lieut. Colonel, under the title of Bursar.
Fairly early in the history of the school other sergeant-majors were brought in to fill newly-created staff positions: gymnastics instructor, hospital supervision, stores and the band to assist the bandmaster. Regarding staff appointments, such was the position until the outbreak of the Second World War when the school was evacuated. A contingent of 120 boys under CSM Jim Halsey went to the Queen Victoria School, Dunblane; the remainder moved into temporary quarters in the Saunton Sands Hotel, North Devon.

The end of WWII brought about extraordinary changes in the life of the school, which came about as a result of the Miller Report 1955 (named after Lieut. General Sir Euan Miller who headed the inquiry). This inquiry dealt with the training of all underage soldiers in the British Army. Its purpose was to assess "...the Army's requirements for enlisted boys, bearing in mind that the object is to provide long service regular NCOs for the Army." It also reported "In addition, we have had the benefit of paying an interesting visit to the Duke of York's Royal Military School at Dover, where we were able to discuss with the Commandant and his staff many relevant and comparable problems." The import of this last statement was significant.
Sergeant-Major Matheison, a former boy of the RMA and the scourge of the Normal School with numerous entries in the punishment register booking student schoolmasters.
The previous year (1954), a fiercely-debated campaign was fought to bring about reforms in the military schools system as practiced at the Duke of York's and the Queen Victoria School. A considerable body of old boys were vocal in resisting the proposed changes. They found themselves up again a fellow ex-Dukie, General Sir Archibald Nye, former Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Nye was a member of the Board of Governors and a leading proponent of the campaign of reform.

Briefly stated, the board's intent was to replace the 'interior economy' of the institution, which had had a distinctly military character throughout its history. Nye was determined to bring school life into line with the leading English public schools [italics added] (private in North America) and to change its curriculum to conform to the education standards of the state. His point of view accepted, he took the matter up in public when the opposition refused to accept the board's decision as a fait accompli. In reply to an article on the subject published in the Royal United Service Institution Journal in July 1954, he wrote an uncompromising reply:

I have recently read an article in the [RUSI] Journal [May 1954] written by a Lieutenant-Colonel R. Evans of the Duke of York's Royal Military School from which it is evident that this officer, who purports to write with some authority, is unaware of the back ground of events in recent years . . . which affected a fundamental re-organization of the School.
I was at the School from 1905 to 1914 and it seems relevant to record my impressions of the School during that time because the action was which taken in recent years springs directly from my experiences.
The outstanding impression is that the School was organized on predominantly military lines. The people who really mattered were the Commandant, the Adjutant, the Regimental Sergeant-Major, the Bandmaster, the Drum-Major, the PT Instructor and the Company Sergeant-Majors of the various companies. Considerable time was devoted to drill, band and drum practice, physical training and such like military subjects, and the military atmosphere pervaded the School.
  He discussed the officers and NCOs of his day: a Colonel Norris, a short fat man with a fine fighting record in West Africa, foul-mouthed both to his staff and to his wife and utterly unsuited for the job; a Colonel Nugent of the Irish Guards with the 'severe limitations' typical of the guardsmen of the era; and subordinate staff drawn from the old regular army and having the good and bad qualities of those days. Numerous changes took place as a result of the pressures exerted by General Nye through the Board of Governors.
Regimental Sergeant-Major P. H. Jones on one of the last parades before battledress uniforms replaced WWI-style khaki uniforms
The CSMs had already been replaced as house masters by married commissioned officers; contemporary khaki uniforms with berets had replaced the WWI-style throat-choker coats with brass buttons; and the education curriculum was changed to meet the national standards of education. This last change meant that students who qualified could apply for entry into university.

Other, far-reaching alterations in school life were brought about under the Nye's influence. Not the least of these was the admission of the sons of commissioned officers as well as rank and file soldiers. Later still, places in the school were opened to the children of all three branches of the armed services. In the mid-nineties, daughters were once more admitted with equal opportunities afforded sons of soldiers and serving personnel.
In short, the changes that took place were momentous and major. As far as is known, the last sergeant-major was CSM Bill Fry of the Devonshire Regiment, known as Jam Fry to generations of boys of G Company (Kitchener House). He retired to live in Dover. When his wife died, this much-loved soldier, who was regarded more as father than a sergeant-major by his young charges, spent his last days a Chelsea Pensioner in the Royal Chelsea Hospital.

The last fifty years have seen so many changes in the life and character of the School one is led to speculate what the future holds in store for its continued existence. The original charter was specific. It was intended that the Asylum would continue in perpetuity. That is, the RMA, now the Duke of York's Royal Military School, was intended to be haven to the children of rank and file soldiers in need. To effect the changes that have occurred since 1950, the Board of Governors had to amend the Royal Charter that gave the original RMA existence.
CSM W. (Jam) Fry seen left rear at junior band practice, one of the best-loved of all sergeant-majors to have served on staff at the School
Considering the political, economic and social changes that have occurred to British national society since these changes took place, one does not have to be a soothsayer or clairvoyant to foretell the most likely outcome. Anyone familiar with the history of Royal Hibernian Military School (1765-1924), amalgamated with the Duke of York's in 1924, is aware of the fate that overtook that institution. What is not so well known is the knife-edge debate that went on to close the School and relocate it in Northern Ireland. The movement to relocate the school was strong. Political expediency, however, overruled the military hierarchy and decreed that the Royal Hibernian Military School be closed.

To anyone familiar with the present climate of thriftiness in the national treasury, a similar fate awaits both the Duke of York's and the Queen Victoria School. For all practical purposes, the Catering, Education and Medical corps are mere skeletons of what they were; various other support corps have gone the same way. The army has been downsized and continues to be reduced as the government withdraws troops from overseas stations. It has outsourced its catering, education and medical services. The pressure to reduce military costs is unrelenting. Those who would diminish the army to a token force are in the ascendant as they have been at various periods in the nation's history.

The staff of the Duke of York's school is virtually an all-civilian team. Only the RSM and Bursar (formerly the Adjutant) have military connections. Catering services are subcontracted, the school hospital has been converted to accommodate females students. What is more, the military schools are no longer the havens for the military families in need they once were. Indeed, the entire character of the institution has changed and one is left with the inescapable impression that the two remaining military schools have been transformed into elite institutions of education for the children of the armed services. In this respect they are no different from any public school whether it be Harrow, Eton, Merchant Taylors, and hundreds of boarding schools for those who can pay. It is to be noted that fifty years ago some ninety per cent of boys leaving the school entered the services. Today less than ten per cent choose a military career.

There are those both in and out of government who will reason that the military schools have indeed become elitist institutions of privilege in an egalitarian society and therefore have no compelling reason for a continued existence. Children of service men and women can be as easily educated in state schools and share the same health and welfare services provided for the population at large. Many voices will argue otherwise, but in the long run they will have no more influence than those in the military hierarchy of the day who opposed the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829.

Evidence of the prevailing thriftiness - like the Sword of Damocles hanging over the school - is the sale of MOD properties throughout the realm. Disposal of the old RMA property at Chelsea is a good example. Another is the recent closing of Connaught Barracks, Dover, the premises of which abut the grounds of the School. Planning permission to convert Connaught Barracks to a open prison was turned down by the planning committee.

One reason for that decision could have been the close proximity of the barracks land to the school acreage. One can imagine some far-sighted mandarin of the Treasury contemplating a combined parcel of land (Connaught Barracks and the school property) as an attractive proposition available for commercial development; a quite feasible scheme if you think about it.

The conclusion is a dismal one, yet in the circumstances it is not without reason and, if the deduction can be reached by one it can be arrived at by many.

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