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

The foundation of the Hospital
Funding and building
The Pensioners
The decline of the Hospital
The Greenwich Hospital collection
Cradle of the Navy: the Hospital School then and now
The invisible Hospital
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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 Greenwich Royal Naval School Boys.
    View full size image'The Greenwich Royal Naval School Boys'. © NMM
    From 1720 about 15 boys were boarded in the Hospital, under separate care from the pensioners.
  • By 1731, with wider naval entry than just pensioners' sons, there were 60 boys.
  • In 1748 a new ward was fitted for the boys in the Queen Mary Court.
  • In 1756 a children’s uniform of 'sailor's dress' with distinctive leather caps was adopted, instead of the uniform based on what the pensioners wore.

The first Hospital school

  • In 1758 the first Hospital school building was built on the pensioners' burying ground, north of Weston's Academy on modern King William Walk. This school was still run by the Academy.
  • In 1779 the Hospital insisted that the staff that it paid taught only Hospital pupils.
  • In 1782-84 a new school was built on the same site, with living accommodation for up to 200 boys, though there were then only 150 ready to move in. Half this building still exists as a rear wing of the 1929 Devonport Nurses' Home (now Devonport House, a conference centre and student accommodation).

The Royal Naval Asylum

  • Greenwich Hospital & Royal Naval Asylum.
    View full size imageGreenwich Hospital & Royal Naval Asylum. © NMM
    In 1798 the Royal Naval Asylum started in Paddington for the orphaned children - both boys and girls - of naval seamen, with entry fixed at between 5 and 12 years. It had powerful royal and naval backing and a £40,000 endowment from Lloyd's.
  • View of Royal Naval College and the Royal Hospital School from the air.
    View full size imageView of Royal Naval College and the Royal Hospital School from the air. © NMM
    In 1806 George III granted the Asylum use of the Queen's House and gardens at Greenwich: 56 children moved in that December. Over a period of 15 years, Parliament supported expansion, with £350,000 of aid.
  • In 1807 the colonnades and flanking wings were begun. The upper floors of the new wings were dormitories, with teaching, dining and other space below.
  • By 1815 there were 800 children in the Asylum.

The Royal Hospital School

  • Royal Hospital School and Royal Naval College.
    View full size imageRoyal Hospital School and Royal Naval College. © NMM
    In January 1821 the Hospital school was amalgamated, under the Greenwich Hospital Directors, with the larger Asylum to become 'the Upper and Lower Schools of the Royal Hospital'. The 1780s Hospital School building became the children's infirmary.
  • In 1892 the Greenwich Hospital Schools were formally renamed 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

  • Entrance to the Royal Hospital School, Greenwich.
    View full size imageEntrance to the Royal Hospital School, Greenwich. © NMM
    In 1841 the more elementary and segregated girls' schooling ended on grounds of 'evil communications'.
  • 1841 also saw a mass protest of window-smashing by boys against a regime that, except for the brightest, was uninspired, tedious and forcefully disciplined.
    Boys of Greenwich Royal Hospital School.
    View full size imageBoys of Greenwich Royal Hospital School. © NMM
    Reforms included innovations in industrial, nautical and physical training, led by the new Lieutenant-Superintendent John Rouse.
  • In 1851 an inspector reported that the Upper School was 'far beyond any other known to me in scientific attainment'.
  • In the 1880s better physical care and more nautically directed 'trades' training, made pupils an asset to all branches of the Navy. More than 10,000 boys from Greenwich joined from 1874 to 1930. Of these, five became admirals.

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.

To find out more visit:

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