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The Charity Boys and the Establishment of the Royal Hospital School


Tue 7 Apr 20

This article was contributed by Old Royal Naval College volunteer, Jacky Robinson.

It is two years now since I first trained as a volunteer guide for the Old Royal Naval College. My work on the Pensioners Project has reignited my fascination with history and genealogy, so imagine my thrill to discover that my impoverished Portsmouth family had sent my great grandfather and several of his great uncles to the Greenwich Hospital Schools for their education and maintenance.

I have been reading books by HD Turner – The Royal Hospital School (Phillimore, 1980) and The Cradle of the Navy (William Sessions Ltd, 1990) -and much of the information set out here is gleaned from his research.

I look forward to the day when the National Archives at Kew reopens but there is material online – particularly at the Wellcome Collection, which holds many images, various editions of the history written by the Chaplains Cooke and Maule, Bye-laws and reports of the Hospital. See:

Establishment for admitting, maintaining and educating poor boys … and for binding them out apprentices to the sea-service. Established at a General Court. [1732]

Bye-laws, rules, orders and directions, for the better government of His Majesty’s Royal Hospital for Seamen at Greenwich, made and confirmed … Dec. 1775 and … Feb. 1776. [1776]

This brief summary sets out some of the key stages of the very early development of the Hospital’s work with children.

The Royal Charter of 1694 set out the charitable objectives dear to Queen Mary and King William for the support of seamen who had been involved in wars or sea service. They specify that the Hospital be:

“… for the Sustentation of the Widows and the Maintenance and Education of the Children of Seamen happening to be slain or disabled in such Sea Service and Also for the further reliefe and Encouragement of Seamen and Improvement of Navigation.”

The first 42 seamen arrived at Greenwich in January 1705. By 1712, it was decided that funds were sufficient to house a number of boys and educate them for service at sea.

They were housed in the block then known as the King’s House and wore uniforms similar to the pensioners. Sir James Thornhill wrote in his Explanation of the Painting in the Royal Hospital at Greenwich that the tables of benefactors featured also ‘two Charity-Boys, as if carved in white Marble, sitting on great Corbels pointing up to the Figure of Charity in a Niche, intimating that what money is given there is for THEIR SUPPORT.’ By 1715, ten of them were attending the school run by Thomas Weston.

Thomas Weston by John Faber Jr, after Michael Dahl, mezzotint, 1723. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

John Flamsteed supplemented his ‘meagre stipend’ as the King’s ‘astronomical observator’ by taking pupils, including some from the Royal Mathematical School at Christ’s Hospital. Thomas Weston started as one of these pupils and stayed on as Flamsteed’s assistant.

Notably, James Thornhill portrays them together on the ceiling of the Painted Hall. The Weston Academy, which Thomas opened in the early 1700s, attracted the sons of local gentry and stood on the eastern side of King William Street near the park entrance.

By 1719, the Instructions for Greenwich Hospital and Charity Boys required that the boys “be put out as Apprentices to Masters of Ships and Substantial Commanders, for better improvement of their talents, and becoming Able Seamen and good Artists.”

Boys aged 11–13 were admitted and the local school chosen for them was the Weston Academy. The quality of teaching was high and the advertisement for the school in 1727/8 boasted that it “Taught Writing, Arithmetick, Merchants Accomps, or the Italian methods of Book-Keeping, Foreign Exchanges, Mathematick in English, Latin or French, Shorthand, Drawing, Fencing, Music and Dancing. The Languages Taught there are English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, High Dutch and Spanish. There are thirteen Masters employed, five who constantly reside in the House.”

Weston saw to it that boys from the Hospital were up to a certain standard. In one instance he wrote to the Board and recommended that four of their boys be bound to watermen or “some of those Mean Trades” as they would not make enough improvement to justify the cost of further education.

In 1728, 30 boys were housed in the north east ward on the ground floor Queen Anne’s ‘Lesser Building’, increasing to 40 by 1730. By 1731, funds allowed an increase to 60 boys, and the regulations directed that the 24 Directors, in rotation, could nominate boys for admission.

Wearing a uniform and all eating a specified diet, the boys messed together at the same table in the Dining Hall. A Guardian was appointed at £10 per annum and one nurse for every 30 boys.

Nurses were instructed to use ‘small Tooth’d Combs’ to keep the boys free of vermin. They were also to ensure that boys washed their hands and face daily, and their feet on Saturday night before the weekly issue of clean socks for Sunday. Nurses were also to report ‘Lying, Cursing or Swearing or any other Prophaneness, Immorality or Ill Behaviour’ in order that boys may be ‘properly corrected for the same’ (details not specified).

Boys were expected to sing at Chapel, having been taught ‘psalmody’. The senior boy led prayers at both night and morning, and the Guardian ensured bible reading. Boys were not allowed out of the Hospital unaccompanied except to go to school and staff and pensioners were forbidden to use them to run errands.

The boys were to be prepared to go to sea, bound as apprentices, with a knowledge of mathematics and navigation set out in the ‘Instructions’. In addition to the books and instruments from their school days, they each left the Hospital with a chest, new clothes, three silk handkerchiefs, and bedding, total worth up to £7.

Weston died in 1729 and, under his son John, the school moved to another site further down the road. Hospital boys continued to be educated alongside private pupils until 1735, when a separate building was created for them.

In 1744, numbers reached 100 and the Surveyor was instructed to ‘to fit up the Ward designed for the boys in the South part of the Roof in Queen Mary’s Court.’ By 1755, with well over 100 Hospital boys as students, Headmaster Rev Swindon had his school room for them extended.

1759 saw the Hospital Boys move to their very own new school in a building, presumably somewhere between the burial ground and the park. They still took meals in the rooms under the Painted Hall but this marked the end of 35 years of attending the Weston Academy as day pupils.

In 1764, the ‘Chalk Groins’ were fitted up for the Hospital Boys to dine in and in 1779, 150 boys had ‘a new eating place under the West Colonnade – which is too small and too much intermixed with the Pensioners.’

By 1779, Thomas Furbor (pensioned in 1800) and his assistant Thomas Lancy were running the school with a curriculum clearly focussed on navigation.

It was in 1783 that the boys finally moved out of the Hospital entirely to a new building designed by Stuart; you can still see it behind the Devonport House Hotel.

This building was 146ft x 42ft, with a Tuscan Colonnade 180ft x 20ft as shelter and play space. A school room for 200 boys with dormitories above fitted with hammocks, accommodation for staff and a house for the school master.

This remained the self-contained Greenwich Hospital School until 1821 when the 200 boys moved to new buildings and it became the Upper School of the Royal Hospital Schools.