A Brief Social
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
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
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!
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:
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,
Total No. of
- Shipwrights & Riggers:
- Pensioners & Seamen:
- Other classes of persons
School Life in 1870
On 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
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
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
A block model ship like in front of The Queen's
Greenwich Hospital School, London.
© National Maritime Museum (NMM), Greenwich, Kent.
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
- 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
- 12:45: Lunch - pupils would march to
lunch, where a thousand or so crammed into the dining hall for a meal, invariably consisting of
- 14:00: Afternoons were spent in classes,
or learning useful trades such as shoemaking, carpentry or laundry duties. Senior pupils were
- 17:00: Teatime: more cocoa and bread and
- 17:30: Free time until
- 19:00: Further
- 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
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.
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
"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..."
"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
From: Greenwich Hospital
Secretary of the Admiralty [ed. V. Lushington],
Greenwich Hospital Branch
Date: 9th November
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,
Admiralty's response to Burney's
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.
Greenwich Hospital School
Secretary of the Admiralty [ed. V. Lushington],
Greenwich Hospital Branch
Date: 2nd March
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:
- Chess, Draughts, and other Games for the
Boys, in Pupil Teachers Reading Rooms
- Cricket bats, Balls, Stumps, and Foot Balls
- For the expense of attending the annual Sports at Midsummer, and
Theatrical representations by the Boys and
- 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,
Matter referred to Lord
From whom: Superintendent, Greenwich Hospital
Referred to: Lord
Former: GH 692
Date: 2nd March 1871
Subject: Games, Treats, etc, for School
Suggesting appropriation of £100 a year for this
purpose - being the estimated amount realized by the sale of
Internal Admiralty Memoranda and Minute: GH
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".
Date: 28 March
£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.
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:
To see how the money was spent on treats, click
Captain Burney's Annual Account (see
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,
6. Military precision:The Royal Hospital for
Seamen, Greenwich: 'A Refuge for All', PortCities,
7. Block ship: The Royal Hospital School Greenwich, H.D.T. Turner, Phillimore,
8. Summer routine, 1870: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, 2009,
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,
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
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,
16. Greenwich Hospital School, 1872. Captain Burney's Annual Accounts of
Treats (former ref. GH 2106), TNA, Kew, Surrey.