March 24, 2004
The Grand Old Duke of York's Asylum

The other day I was out photographing, and not long after taking this picture, I chanced upon these statues:

statues1.jpg    statues2.jpg

Here's what it says on the plinth that the girl is sitting on, somewhat photoshopped, to make it easier to read:


Royal Military Asylum? What's that? Well, it turns out it's this.


The armed conflict between Britain and its allies with Revolutionary France (1793 to 1815), ending with the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815, was known as 'the Great War'. During the more than twenty years of almost continuous warfare, one million men and boys from the British Isles bore arms in the armed forces, the Army or Royal Navy. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the population of the British Isles was about 14 million. This meant that over seven per cent of the population had served in the conflict. By the time the war ended over 315,000 of those who took part had been killed.

Which meant a lot of orphans, to be looked after, or else just abandoned.

And it was the Duke of York, he whose military incompetence is immortalised in the nursery rhyme "The Grand Old Duke of York", who took it upon himself to do something to look after these children.

… The Institution was modelled on the Royal Hibernian Military School (1765 - 1924), Dublin, that had been founded and funded by The Hibernian Society for the destitute families of rank and file soldiers of the Irish Establishment.

So how did this "Asylum" operate?

From its inception, the Asylum provided the country with the first large scale system of education of working class children. For this purpose, the monitorial system of education was used, first introduced by Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838), a Quaker. It involved one or more teachers who gave lessons to monitors who, in turn, taught up to 20 of their fellow students. The Asylum children were taught reading, writing and the four rules of arithmetic. Within a few years, Lancaster's system was replaced by the almost identical 'Madras' system developed by Dr. Andrew Bell, an Anglican minister at an orphanage in Madras, India. Bell so impressed the Duke of York that his system of monitorial instruction was introduced not only at the RMA but throughout all regimental schools of the British Army. It is, however, fairly certain that Dr. Bell and the RMA Commissioners being of the Established Church strongly influenced the outcome of the battle for dominance of the Madras System.

Within a short time, boy monitors of 13 and 14 years of age from the Asylum were sent to India, the West Indies, the Iberian Peninsula, Canada and distant stations of the empire to introduce the monitorial system of education to regimental schools. The passages of two boys shipped to Canada became the subject of a dispute as to who would bear the £5 cost of the return passage.

One of the most remarkable features of the Army's co-educational RMA on so large a scale was, for the time, an exceptional development. Considering the Army's total lack of experience in caring for children, the attention given to soldier's daughters as well as sons was unprecedented. An all-female staff supervised the girls. The most interesting and indeed sad occurrence in the short life of the 'Female Establishment' was its demise and the eventual denial of entry to girls. Interestingly, the decision to deny entry to the daughters of soldiers came about at the instigation of, and on fallacious evidence provided by the aging matron Even so, in retrospect, the exclusion of female students was a deplorable and ungracious decision by the Commissioners.

For the girls, however, there was an eventual happy ending.

In 1892, the RMA was renamed The Duke of York's Royal Military School and, in 1909, moved to new premises constructed on the Downs of Dover, Kent. In the late 1980s, the daughters of soldiers were again accepted for entry to the School in equal numbers to boys.

I recommend the whole thing. This "monitorial" system sounds like a very good principle to me. One of the most obvious things that some children ought to be able to contribute to society is to teach other children.

I knew nothing about any of this until today.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:44 PM
Category: History