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The way we were then

The year 1879 was not a propitious one for British arms because in that year Lord Chelmsford, born Frederic Augustus Thesiger 31 May 1827, joined a long line of incompetent British Generals by blundering into Zululand, carelessly deploying his force and suffering the crushing defeat that became known as the Battle of Isandhlwana. In the carnage that followed, 1,700 British troops lost their lives. The Zulu Impi, arriving in overwhelming numbers, outnumbered the invaders by 20 to 1, and destroyed them in
their classic form of attack, two enveloping horns and an irresistible head butt. Chelmsford was out-maneuvered, out-generaled and defeated by a vastly superior force of inferior-armed warriors. News of the defeat, which no generous issue of Victoria's Crosses could allay, had a depressing effect on the national psyche.

The events of 1979 had some bearing on an uplifting of the public mood the following year when the Royal Academy exhibited a major work, Sons of the Brave by Philip R. Morris. The canvas, more than two years in the making, was a resounding success. Crowds flocked to the Royal Academy to see this first-ever portrait of a full military band. The painting, feted, celebrated and subsequently acquired by Leeds City Art Gallery, has been on loan to the Duke of York's School since 1927. The (London) Graphic published a wood engraving of the Morris painting and, with accompanying copy, helped spread the word, which attracted more visitors to the exhibition than might otherwise have known of it.

The existence of the Royal Military Asylum was by 1888 firmly established in the public mind. That year, The Graphic published a major feature on the famous institution. The RMA, known locally as the Duke of York's school, was officially renamed the Duke of York's Royal Military School in 1892. It was relocated to new premises next to the village of Guston, near Dover, in 1909.

The Graphic article on the RMA records that the week previous to its date of issue, the school held a bazaar to raise funds for the chapel, also to improve the chancel. The Board of Commissioners, all senior members of the Army and Established Church, had close connections with the Royal Family, which meant attendance at any festival, function or fete was as good as guaranteed. On the occasion of the bazaar, Princess Louise, fourth daughter and the sixth child of Queen Victoria attended. Princess Louise's marriage to Douglas Campbell, Marquis of Lorne and heir to the dukedom of Argyll, caused a stir in 1871. The Royal Family were annoyed and opposed to the marriage, but Victoria pulled rank and said if she thought it an acceptable match who else could object? Hence Louise could carry out her duties with poise and dignity, which was just as well. The point of this is that the royal princess, best-looking of the royal children, was of an independent mind who cared little for royal protocol, which made her popular with the people and a good choice therefore to attend the bazaar. It was a guarantee that a that a large crowd would attend.

The chapel was a plain and ugly building quite out of keeping with the classical architecture of the main portico, which was flanked by those flying wings and gateways that gave on to the gravel playgrounds and buildings in the rear. The chapel was clearly in need of a sprucing up. This required money. There is no record of how much money the bazaar raised or for that matter whether anything was done to improve this hideous building, but it made for interesting reading.

A row of small field guns stood on the gravel road before the main entrance. These were a source of immense fun and entertainment for the boys, who formed themselves into teams of eight to compete in running the guns into position, unlimbering and preparing them for action. This pastime, probably supervised by the sergeant majors, was in keeping with the institution's strong military ethos in sharp contrast with its contemporary values that emphasize scholasticism, Christian values and personal development. As the stress here is on RMA life in the late 1880s one may expect to find considerable differences from the life and style of today's school. This is as may be, but gun drills were still a feature of school life in the 1920s, long after the school relocated to its present premises.

Gun running was not the only recreational activity, of course. The vast expanse of lawn in front of the main building provided ample space for cricket, which the boys played with enthusiasm. A broad gravel walk nearest the roadway was reserved for the last batch of pupil teachers still in residence and under instruction for eventual graduation as schoolmaster sergeants.

Perhaps the most striking difference of children admitted in the late 19th Century and today's population lies in the age of those accepted for admission. According the original regulations, children were admitted at "the earliest age for nurture, and into the Asylum from four years till twelve years, they being discharged at fourteen years. Those who entered after eleven had to pass an examination in arithmetic and dictation. It is well known that admission was limited to boys only from 1840, a situation not to be redressed until 1994.

During the previous year (1887) the Normal School for training Army schoolmasters and located in the west wing of the building was moved. The move is thought to have been made to Wilton Park, Beaconsfield, where it eventually became the Royal Army Education Corps. At the beginning of 1888, there were 484 boys registered at the school. The freed-up accommodation from the removal of the Normal School meant the number admitted could be increased to 550 boys. This was a far cry from the 1,000 boys and girls lodged in the same building at the beginning when two, and as many as three, children shared the same bed. The decrease in numbers was no doubt dictated by improved and more stringent sanitary regulations that came towards the end of the century.

Life at the Asylum was conducted along strict military lines. The boys were divided into six companies with grades and ranks: boys, lance-corporals, corporals and colour-corporals. For a time, in the 1870s, boys were were called privates, but that designation was dropped. Colour-corporal was not a standard rank in the army. In the RMA, it corresponded to the rank of sergeant. Above the colour-corporals came the monitors, who were over the age of 14, kept on to assist the student teachers and teachers. Monitor was a word inherited from the pre-1840 system of monitorial teaching and adopted during the teacher training programme of the Normal School.

The government allowance for feeding the boys was sixpence and a half penny per boy per day. This would be the equivalent of 3P under in the present currency. It was enough to provide a typical day's fare of bread and butter and a mug of cocoa (chocolate) for breakfast; dinner (eaten at midday) a substantial meal of roast leg of mutton, potatoes, bread, and current-pudding; or it could be cold mutton, potatoes, pickles, bread and cheese. The evening meal consisted of tea with bread and butter.

The food varied, of course. Fish meals were not popular. Bread and cheese was a staple in the diet. Boys might have rice pudding one day, apple pudding the next and, very occasionally, plum duff. On special occasions, which included the Queen's birthday or Prince of Wales's birthday, they had extras treats such as, for example, oranges, buns, or pound cake. Eggs were frequently served. A change occurred during the winter season when they were fed soup along with the inevitable bread and cheese. The food lacked wide variety admittedly, but the relative Spartan lives they led kept them fit and free from outbreaks of disease suffered by the civilian population from unhygienic living.

In the month of May 1888, six boys from a population of 484 were in hospital, all with chicken-pox. Since the introduction of compulsory vaccination not a single case of small-pox had occurred. According to the medical records, small-pox was a frequent affliction among the boys before vaccination was introduced.

On weekdays, including Saturday mornings, work at trades or school began soon after breakfast. Those scheduled to attend the gymnasium began their day with instruction in 'single-stick' drill, performed to the sound of a bugle. The bugler was stationed in one corner of the large gymnasium. Boys taking in stick drill wore black trousers, shirts and their Glengarries. They stood to attention, evenly spaced along the length of the gym with their sticks laid on the floor before them. At a signal from the sergeant-major's baton, the bugler began his call and a kind of musical drill followed. Stooping to take up their sticks, the boys kept in time with the bugle signals as they went through all the cuts and guards they had been taught, their thick-soled boots beating rhythmically on the floor with a volleying accompaniment.

At a signal from the sergeant-major's baton

In another part of the building were workshops where boys were taught their trades. In the tailor's shop, for example, from forty to fifty boys would be hard at work making their own uniforms. All of the clothes boys wore was made on the premises. In the tailors shop, boys sat cross-legged on a low platform that extended the length of the room, their close-cropped heads bent with attention over their work. Some worked with  needle and thread and others ironed seams while yet others worked industriously at sewing machines.
Boys at work in the tailors shop making uniforms
In the shirt and stocking room were the woollen machines for making stockings where up to twenty boys were employed cutting, sewing and making their own shirts. In yet another room boys were hard at work making boots.

Dormitories on the second floor were filled with iron bedsteads lined alongside the walls with blankets and mattresses folded and stacked with military precision during the day. Sleeping on the second floor of the building required the provision of fire escapes. Fixed to the floor on each side of every window was an iron staple or ring to which a canvas fire escape could be attached and down which boys would shoot themselves to reach the ground. The school authorities conducted regular fire drills, which must have been a welcome change in the routine. For fire fighting purposes, two stand pipes were located outside each dormitory. In case a fire alarm went, each boy knew his place. During practice fire drills, four minutes was enough for each boy to be at his station, for the hoses to be fastened and unrolled and for those boys designated to be ready to do battle with the flames.

The dining hall was the finest and most impressive room in the entire building. It served not only as dining room, but for assemblies and the entertainment frequently provided. In the accompanying sketch by M. Renouard, a regular sketch artist for The (London) Graphic magazine, two life-size pikemen of Cromwell's New Model Army are depicted. The walls of the dining room were said to be adorned with trophies of arms and ornaments made of bayonets, swords and pistols. The entertainment being enjoyed by the assembly depicted in the sketch is a performance of bell ringers and not, as appears at first sight to be, a free for all. The decor of the dining was sufficiently military in character to do without public demonstrations of fisticuffs.

Boys enjoying entertainment in the main dining room

Sergeant Major D. Mathison, one of the many ex-Dukies who served on the staff of the institution. He served at the RMA, Chelsea, from 1872 to 1896

Orderlies, under the supervision of a monitor, washing up after dinner

The one institution of which the RMA and its successor, the Duke of York's School, can take just pride was and is the school band (see Sons of the Brave by Philip R. Morris). In 1888, the band numbered 80 musicians although, as today, there was also a junior band of budding musicians in training. In 1888, it was under the direction of Bandmaster A. McEleney, a clarinetist and woodwind musician who held his position from 1880 until 1888 when he was replaced by Captain B. S. Green, the first military bandmaster to direct the School band. Given his commissioned rank, he had served in a guards regiment before assuming his duties at the RMA. The school valued its talented boy musicians. The best among them were invited to remain in residence beyond the normal leaving age of fourteen to help teach the younger musicians. Henry Lazarus and Alfred J. Phasey (see 1865 Professor of Music) were two of the many who remained at the RMA until well into their late teens.
The band practicing under the tutorship of Bandmaster A McEleney (1880-1888) Boy drummers practicing on wooden blocks covered with leather
In the council room in which the Board of Commissioners met monthly there hung a list of boys from the Asylum who had distinguished themselves in the Army or civilian life. Among them were listed Lazarus and Phasey who had done so much to start the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall. Another accomplished musician listed was Mr. Cadwallader Thomas, the Bandmaster of the Grenadier Guards Band who persuaded Lazarus, Phasey and a host of other accomplished musicians to join the Guards Band. Thomas, the infant son of Sergeant William Thomas of the 12th Foot, was admitted at age 6 and enlisted in the Coldstream Guards at age 12, which was an exceptionally young age for RMA boys to enlist.

The life of the RMA in 1888 was unquestionably geared to what might be termed today a 'military mindset'. Drill under their sergeant instructors was a daily event. The boys were proficient in all battalion movements and order of drill, including the attack. Nor was sight of them lost by the School authorities once they left the institution. Commanding officers were required to report on the career progress of each RMA boy who enlisted in their units. The reports were continued throughout the soldier's career. It was not until he finally left the Army that he was lost sight of by the school authorities. (In fact, the same reporting arrangement prevailed for boys enlisting from the Royal Hibernian Military School, Dublin.) As far as one has been able to check on this reporting arrangement, the school received reports until well after the Second World War. The practice might yet prevail although it is doubtful given the changed nature of the school.  

No one can doubt the efficacy and value of the education, trades training, musical instruction and discipline inculcated in the boys of the 1888 RMA. One must hope that in its wisdom the Board of Commissioners provides the same qualities of instructions to the youths, both boys and girls, who are in its care today. That the conditions are entirely different today from what they were in 1888 are without question. The nature and specifics of those differences are, however, a matter for further investigation and discussion.

Editing note: The illustrations in this article were the work of M. Renouard, a sketch artist employed by The Graphic magazine.

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