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The Royal Hospital for Seamen, Greenwich: 'A Refuge for All'

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Cradle of the Navy: the Hospital School then and now


Early educational responsibilities

The Greenwich Pensioner.
View full size imageThe Greenwich Pensioner and boy. © NMM

The 1694 Hospital charter had spoken of 'the maintenance and education of the Children of Seamen happening to be slain or disabled'.

From about 1712 Governor Aylmer began to fund such education from entry charges to the Painted Hall, Pensioners' fines and proceeds from the sale of stores. This money supported the first 10 sons of poor pensioners at Thomas Weston's Academy in Greenwich.

Weston appears in his earlier Greenwich role of assistant to the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed, in the Painted Hall ceiling. His teaching included mathematics, and fitted Greenwich boys for a sea career.

Hospital boys

The first Hospital school

The Royal Naval Asylum

The Royal Hospital School

Staff and students outside the Royal Hospital School.
View full size imageStaff and students outside the Royal Hospital School. © NMM
At Greenwich, the school fell under the 'general superintendence' of a Captain of the Hospital, with a headmaster in charge of the teaching side. This division of responsibility only ended with the retirement of the last Captain-Superintendent in 1945.

Numbers rose to 1000. Although the name 'Asylum' was dropped and the sons of impoverished officers were allowed to join, the sons of warrant ranks were more common. All boys were committed to enter sea service, specifically in the Navy, after 1848 or, later, the Royal Marines, as an alternative.

Improvements in the School

The Boreman Foundation

The last Boreman boy, George Frederick Berry.
View full size imageThe last Boreman boy, George Frederick Berry. © NMM

In 1886 the school also absorbed that of the Boreman Foundation. The Foundation had begun in Greenwich in the 17th century for the sons of local seamen, fishermen and watermen. 'Boreman boys', up to 100 at a time, became part of the Upper School.

Boreman boys wore distinctive badges and, unlike the others, they were day pupils and not obliged to join the Navy, although many did. The last, George Berry, left to join as an apprentice engineer in 1931. After his apprenticeship on HMS Fishguard George Berry served on several other ships, one of which was HMS Sheffield 1940-3. He was transferred to the New Zealand Navy in 1944. George Berry died in New Zealand in 1972.

School life

Dining Hall of the Royal Hospital School.
View full size imageDining Hall of the Royal Hospital School. © NMM

School life at Greenwich remained spartan, regimented, and conducted 'at the double'. It was almost entirely cloistered inside the grounds and self-sufficient.

The boys did the cleaning, laundry, baking, tailoring and so on as 'trades' training, though this modified over time. For many it was still an improvement on the hardship they had known. Old boys of the 1920s, who entered by 11 and left at 14 or 15, still testify to what it gave them, and to its 'esprit de corps'.  

Greenwich to Holbrook

Boys from the Royal Hospital School exercising by the training ship Fame.
View full size imageBoys from the Royal Hospital School exercising by the training ship Fame. © NMM

From 1862 to 1876 the buildings reached the full extent of what is now the National Maritime Museum. The first of three drill or 'block' ships, all called Fame, was built in front of the Queen's House in 1843. The senior boys practised their seafaring skills on these vessels.

The last Fame, with many other ancillary buildings, was demolished when the school left for its new home in Holbrook, Suffolk in 1933. The current school is now again fully co-educational and a very successful independent full-boarding school, maintaining close links with the Navy and many of its Greenwich traditions.

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