Saturday, February 05, 2022

Revolt at the Royal Hospital School, Greenwich 1840

The buildings that today house the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich Park previously housed a school to train boys for the Navy, as well as at times girls for domestic service. The Royal Hospital School had its origins in the early 18th century and from the beginning of the 19th century the Queens House in Greenwich was converted for boarding school use, with other buildings being added later. It continued there until 1933, with the buildings being transferred to the new museum trust in the following year.

In a remarkable episode in 1840 pupils at the school absconded en masse and fought with police trying to recapture them, seemingly in protest against harsh conditions there.

'Revolt in the Royal Naval School, Greenwich Asylum'

  (Kentish Gazette, 22 September 1840)

'For several days past a spirit of insubordination has manifested itself amongst the boys of this Institution, and although there has not been any decided outbreak on the part of the boys in the Upper School they evidently sympathise with those of the Lower School, in which there are four hundred sons of British tars clothed, fed, and educated.

On Friday last four of these youngsters scaled the wall into the Park and had proceeded on
their way to Portsmouth as far as Kingston-upon-Thames, where they were apprehended by the police and brought back in a chaise to Greenwich on Saturday morning, and arrived in the Asylum yard at the time the boys were returning from breakfast. The policeman had no sooner delivered them over to the mate when they made their escape into the midst of their comrades and were soon lost sight of.

The boys, generally, commenced pelting the officer with a volley of stones, and the four refractory urchins again made there escape over the walls. Several others, in the course of the day, followed their example, and deserted the Asylum. On two of them being taken in by a police constable, he was severely pelted, and considerably hurt in consequence.

Walker, another experienced and powerful constable, apprehended two of the runaways, and on delivering them at the school, where he conceived that he should be received with all due deference, the boys began to pelt him with stones, at the  same time using the most gross and improper language. He said there were some stonemasons at work in the grounds, who were obliged to beat a retreat under the incessant volleys directed against them [...] for some time he did not know what to do - he being surrounded as it were by hive of bees. At length be determined to take off his waist-strap and run in amongst them, but they were so nimble he could not secure them, as they retreated in all directions and again renewed the attack. Walker said he had witnessed many desperate rows in St. Giles', where mischief was intended, but he never saw such cool determination exhibited before.

On Sunday morning, immediately after breakfast, upwards of forty scaled the walls and made their way for Shooters Hill where a number of them provided themselves with bread, milk, and apples, expressing a determination to proceed to Chatham, and go on board ship rather than remain in the Asylum and be ill used as they said they had recently been.

Within the three days upwards of seventy have deserted the Asylum and at sunset on Sunday
evening there were upwards of forty absentees. Those who have been recaptured are placed in charge of the main-guard of the Royal Hospital, until an investigation of the circumstances takes place. The mutineers generally complain that they have not a sufficient quantity of food, that which they do get being of a bad quality; that they are severely punished for the slightest offences; and that the drills and gymnastic exercises have recently been more strict than usual: and, further, that instead of allowed to go out once a fortnight, they have only permission out  twice in three months, and their friends have only leave to visit them for about two hours on the first Wednesday in the month [...]

There are 400 boys in the Upper School, sons of Naval officers, who so far sympathised with the revolters as to assist in pelting of some of the police-constables while they were in the act of apprehending some of the delinquents in the Park. A strict investigation into the cause of the general disaffection will immediately take place, as it is of the first importance that youths who are destined for the public service should be kept in proper discipline and subordination, or there is no knowing what consequences may be the result when employed in her Majesty's service. [...]

In addition to the number of boys who deserted the school, 17 others scaled the walls on Monday
morning. On making inquiry we found that, in addition to the alleged ill-usage and indifferent food, the boys complain of the intention there exists of making them soldiers, as one of the reasons which has induced them to desert and although it is well known that the sailors had a great antipathy to a marine during the last war, that feeling has greatly diminished; nevertheless the sons of the old tars have e great aversion to be made soldiers of.

Twenty of those which have been recaptured have been severely flogged, and 27 are now in charge of the main-guard of the Royal Hospital, and there are 43 absentees. Although the apprehension of being made soldiers of has materially increased in consequence of the severe drills they have heen subjected to, a degree of harshness towards them in that particular, and also in their gymnnastic exercises, together with the confinement they now endure as compared with former regulations, has materially contributed to bring about the serious disaffection which at present exists... Ten of the mutineers were drummed out of school on Friday the band playing the Rogues March during the ceremony'.

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