The Zimapanners







Greenwich Hospital School

A Brief Social History  (1870-1873)

Origins and Aims

The origins of the Greenwich Hospital School can be found in a Royal Charter. King William III founded the
 Royal Hospital for Seamen, as it was then known, at Greenwich in 1694, in memory of his co-monarch and wife Queen Mary II. The aims of the School1
, which were derived from the Charter, were to: 

  • Make provision for the maintenance and education of orphaned children of Royal Navy seamen who had been "slain or disabled" while fighting for 'King and Country' 
  • Improve the Royal Navy's navigation skills  
  • Supply the Royal Navy with competent and able new seamen  
  • Provide "for the further relief and encouragement of seamen"  

Because the School was run as a charity, boys (and girls until 1841) in Victorian times enjoyed free education and training. Girls, however, were trained to be domestic servants!


Teaching Staff

The last page of the
 Enumeration Book of 2 April 18712
 was used to record those living in Greenwich at the time of the England Census of 1871. This schedule shows: 

  • 14 male instructors living-in at census time  
  • Their ages ranged between 23 and 49  
  • Two instructors were single, the rest married  
  • Most of these instructors had been born in port towns and cities such as Portsmouth, Chesham, Shoreham and Belfast:  
    • 1 sailmaker [GP] 
    • 1 carpenter [GP]  
    • 2 shipwrights  
    • 2 tailors  
    • 2 riggers  
    • 3 seaman instructors [one was a Greenwich Pensioner]  
    • 3 shoemakers [one GP]  

The 'Abstract of Totals4, part of the Enumeration Book used in the 1871 England Census, shows 750 members of staff and pupils present at the Hospital School & Infirmary in Romney Road, Greenwich: 

  • Total No. of Officers: 14  
    • Tailors: 2  
    • Shoemakers: 3  
    • Shipwrights & Riggers: 4  
    • Pensioners & Seamen: 5  
  • Other classes of persons (scholars): 736 

School Life in 1870

n arrival, the new boys—including Walter Parsons Thomas—would have been given a medical and assigned a number, a group (named after a famous admiral), and a nautical uniform. He would then have been given a bed and locker in one of the 50-bed dormitories.5

One of the 700-odd naval cadets at the Greenwich Hospital School, Walter Parsons Thomas
, was a boarding scholar at the during the census year of 1871, and studied there from about 1868 until as late as 1873, assuming he graduated into the 'Upper School' when he was 14. He opted to stay out of the navy and became a railway accountant instead, lived in north Wales and in 1921 moved to Cornwall where he purchased Zimapan in Tregullow, Scorrier, Cornwall.

School run with military precision
The Greenwich Hospital School was "run with military precision. School life 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 still testify to what it gave them, and to its esprit de corps".6

Queens's House
The Queen's House, which stands to the left of the NMM, was once used as sleeping quarters for the pupil teachers (instructors). In front of the Queen's House stood a sail-training ship called Fame, which boys would have to clamber up as part of their nautical training. This 'block ship' stood with "her rigging spread wide and her towering masts, blotting out the view of the Thames".7

Fame outside The Queen's House

A block model ship like in front of The Queen's House,
Greenwich Hospital School, London.
© National Maritime Museum (NMM), Greenwich, Kent.

Summer routine
In the summer of 1870, the school routine was scheduled as followS8

  • 05:00: Pupils were woken (reveille) and given 3 minutes to make their beds 
  • Swim in outdoor (unheated) swimming pool in the grounds 
  • 08:00: Breakfast: a jam jar of cocoa; bread and butter/dripping 
  • 9 am:  Lessons began. These included history, science, geography, arithmetic. The school also had its own observatory used as an aid to teaching navigation. 
  • 12:00: Company drill 
  • 12:45: Lunch - pupils would march to lunch, where a thousand or so crammed into the dining hall for a meal, invariably consisting of roast beef 
  • 14:00: Afternoons were spent in classes, or learning useful trades such as shoemaking, carpentry or laundry duties. Senior pupils were taught seamanship 
  • 17:00: Teatime: more cocoa and bread and butter 
  • 17:30: Free time until 19:00 
  • 19:00: Further classes 
  • 20:00: Bedtime 

Discipline was tightened up in Captain Burney's time (1870-1887) and there were public floggings.9
 In addition:

  • Saturday afternoon leave was stopped and boys had to wash and scrub out dormitories, dining hall and classrooms 
  • Pupil teachers, who had previously slept in quarters in The Queen's House, were turned out and had to sleep on raised stands in the boys' dormitories, to monitor them 
  • Boys had to learn a trade one day a week e.g. tailoring, carpentry, sailmaking, shoemaking, kitchen and laundry work, instead of attending classes" 

The School Inquiry of 1870

In 1870, a Committee was appointed to inquire into the "cost, condition and utility" of Greenwich Hospital School (GHS). The resulting report10 found that the School was failing in its aim, which was to supply new blood to the Royal Navy. Only 20% of discharged boys had actually entered the Royal Navy between 1859 and 1866, just 310 recruits out of a total of 1558 cadets.

Admission criteria
The admission criteria were widened later, enabling the School to accept not only orphaned children, but also children of coastguardsmen and sons of other seafaring persons, especially fathers who had served lengthy commissions. As a result, however, the Committee found that the character of the School had "completely changed from that originally intended". Instead of admitting children of pensioners and poor seamen, it was attracting boys whose parents were from a "higher social standing".

Disenchantment with tough Navy life
Many boys were disenchanted by the idea of a life at sea, mainly because of the discipline and hardship encountered in their Naval preparation at the School, while others failed to gain admission when they were old enough to join, due to being too short or unfit. Furthermore, the medical examination and the lack of industrial training were criticised: 

  1. "The medical examination on entry into the school has not been rigidly enforced, and many have been found "physically unfit on their discharge from the school..."  
  2. "The disinclination to volunteer for the Royal Navy as boys, arises from the style of education, in which industrial training forms no element..."  

It is therefore not surprising that Walter Parsons Thomas was among the many GHS leavers who did not go on to join the Navy. So far, no records have been found which suggest that he joined the Navy or any other related organisation.


Treats for the Boys

Admiralty correspondence between 1870 and 1872, consulted by the author at the National Archive in Kew, clearly shows that the Greenwich Hospital School's superintendent at that time, Captain Burney, came up with the idea of improving the boys' diet by selling meat dripping, which revenue could then be used to fund treats for the boys.

Treats, he thought, could be used as a means of rewarding the boys for good conduct and improve school discipline.11 To achieve his goal, Captain Burney entered into detailed correspondence with the Admiralty, who were responsible for the School's operation, development and resourcing.


From: Greenwich Hospital School
To: The Secretary of the Admiralty [ed. V. Lushington], Greenwich Hospital Branch
Date: 9th November 1870
Ref: GH 692

With the object of varying and improving the Boys' diet I have introduced, as an experiment, the system of making the rations into Sea Pies12 on one day in the week for each [.....?], and for this purpose extra vegetables are required.
In order to meet this, I would propose, with their 'Lordships' approval, that the whole of the Dripping, Wash and Bones, which are in reality a part of the Boys' rations and belong to them, be sold and the proceeds kept upon a separate account in the hands of the Clerk in charge, to be expended under my direction for the Boys' benefit wither in procuring them extra Provisions or in providing a treat for them now and then.
I have the honour to be,
Your most obedient Servant,
Captain Burney















Admiralty's response to Burney's plan 
Subsequent correspondence shows that the Admiralty accepted Burney's suggestion of the treats for the boys, but rejected his plan to use the proceeds of the sale of dripping for purchasing "extra Provisions" for the boys. Consequently, Burney decided to ask the Admiralty to fund the scheme themselves.


From:  Greenwich Hospital School
To: The Secretary of the Admiralty [ed. V. Lushington], Greenwich Hospital Branch
Date: 2nd March 1871
Ref: GH 1018

With reference to your letter of the 14th November last. A.G. 16. G.H. 692, informing one that their 'Lordships' are ready to consider suggestions for the application of a sum of money, not exceeding the amount annually realized by the sale of dripping etc. for the Boys' benefit - I beg to suggest that this sum be fixed at £100 per annum, and that it be expended in the following manner, at my discretion: - viz.
In providing:-
- Chess, Draughts, and other Games for the Boys, in Pupil Teachers Reading Rooms
- Cricket bats, Balls, Stumps, and Foot Balls etc
- For the expense of attending the annual Sports at Midsummer, and Theatrical representations by the Boys and Pupil Teachers
- For expenses attending occasional Treats to the Boys, such as excursions to the Crystal Palace etc, - more especially for the Boys whose Friends cannot afford to have them at home at the Vacations
- For the hire of Conjurers, Jugglers, and other Exhibitors for the occasional amusement of the Boys during the Winter months
Should their Lordships be pleased to approve of these suggestions, I would take care to make the Boys understand that the indulgences provided for them would depend upon the general good conduct of the School, and the proper and careful use of the articles provided for their games and instruction; and I believe that this would afford a means of promoting a proper spirit in the School.
I would also suggest that their Establishment be included in the List of places to which the Magic Lanterns and Slides, circulated monthly amongst the Training Ships and Marine Barracks, are sent.
I have the honour to be,
Your most obedient Servant,
Captain Burney























Matter referred to Lord Camperdown 


From whom: Superintendent, Greenwich Hospital School
Referred to: Lord Camperdown13
Former: GH 692
Date: 2nd March 1871

Subject: Games, Treats, etc, for School Boys
Suggesting appropriation of £100 a year for this purpose - being the estimated amount realized by the sale of Dripping, etc.

Internal Admiralty Memoranda and Minute: GH 1018
Date: 11 March 1871

I have no objection to offer to this proposal. But I think the money granted sh[ould] be expended on things wh[ich] the boys cannot provide for themselves — (not on chess & draughts) — & that an annual detail account sh[ould] be rendered. Ititialled "VZ".













Committee's approval
Date: 28 March 1871 

£100 to be granted for above purpose - an annual detailed account to be rendered. Initialled "C" [Lord Camperdown] .14 The scheme was given the final seal of approval on 1 April 1871.

Pantomime 1872

Seven hundred schoolboys from the Greenwich Hospital School enjoyed a further treat in February 1872: a trip to a famous London theatre to see a pantomime. Although the name of the pantomime is not shown in Captain Burney's accounts (see next section), the Victoria & Albert Museum have searched their collection of theatre playbills, and are confident that the pantomime in question would have been Tom Thumb at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in February 1872.15


Accounting for Treats

On 6 June 1872, Captain Burney submitted the GHS's accounts to the Admiralty.16 These reveal that the seven hundred-odd boys enjoyed many treats between 1 April 1871 and 31 March 1872.

These treats included: 

  • Materials for the School theatre  
  • Trip to a zoo  
  • Pantomime at a London theatre  
  • Visit to Crystal Palace  

To see how the money was spent on treats, click Captain Burney's Annual Account (see TIP).

1. Referred to in the Report by the Committee on the Greenwich Hospital School, 5, July 1870, ADM 169/25, The National Archive, Kew, Surrey.
2. 18 August 1871.
3. A Greenwich Pensioner.
4. Abstract of Totals, Enumeration Book, 1871 England Census, TNA, Kew, Surrey.
5. Arrival of new boys: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, 2009, (adapted).
6. Military precision:The Royal Hospital for Seamen, Greenwich: 'A Refuge for All', PortCities, London.
7. Block ship: The Royal Hospital School Greenwich, H.D.T. Turner, Phillimore, 1980.
8. Summer routine, 1870: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, 2009, (adapted).
9. Floggings: see f/n7.
10. Admission and discharge of boys into the Navy, Report of the Committee on the Greenwich Hospital School, 1870, ADM 169/25, TNA, Kew, Surrey.
11. Greenwich Hospital School, 1872. Boys-Discipline and Welfare (former ref. 604). RHS— boy's welfare, treats, etc. ADM 169/19, TNA, Kew, Surrey.
12. "A seaman's dish composed of fish or meat and vegetables in layers between crusts" [ed. of pastry], the number of layers of pastry determining whether the pie was a double-decker' or a 'triple-decker'. From:
13. The 3rd Lord Camperdown (1841-1918) was Lord of the Admiralty between 1870-74. His real name was Robert Adams Philips Haldane-Duncan, 3rd Earl of Camperdown of Lundie.
14. The initial "C" at the bottom of this document is assumed to be Lord Camperdown's initial of approval.
15. The Victoria & Albert Museum, South Kensington, London, 2009.
16. Greenwich Hospital School, 1872. Captain Burney's Annual Accounts of Treats (former ref. GH 2106), TNA, Kew, Surrey.