Orders of the Day — Greenwich Hospital and Travers' Foundation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29th October 1965.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Commander Harry Pursey Commander Harry Pursey , Kingston upon Hull East 12:00 am, 29th October 1965

I shall give the examples. Patience is a virtue.

Moreover, because of the post-war entry of commissioned officers' sons, numerous ratings' sons, particularly orphans, are unable to secure entry into this school which was originally established for the sons of seamen, preferably orphans. The remarkable feature of this debate so far is the emphasis put by the Under-Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South on justifying what has happened and putting an entirely new construction on the Royal Charter quite different from what was accepted less than 20 years ago. I shall come to that in a moment.

What are the facts regarding Greenwich Hospital, the Chelsea Hospital of the Navy, which is now the Royal Naval College, Greenwich, and the Royal Hospital School, Holbrook, which for two centuries was on the opposite site where the National Maritime Museum now is? I was educated at this school, so I can speak with first-hand knowledge, with 20 years' experience in the House, and with much documentary evidence from earlier HANSARDS and numerous answers to my Questions over the years. The Greenwich Hospital Royal Charter of William and Mary, dated 1694, provided for three objects: one, the support of disabled seamen; two, the sustenance of widows. Incidentally, I challenge the Under-Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South, who both quoted from the charter. Why did they not quote that second object, the sustenance of widows? shall tell the House why—because Greenwich Hospital's attitude today is, "We are not looking for widows", in other words, "We are not looking for orphans".

The third object was the maintenance and education of the children of seamen happening to be slain or disabled in sea service. In other words, Greenwich Hospital was to deal specifically with destitute seamen, widows and orphans, both Royal Navy and Merchant Service. Obviously, the school was not intended for the sons of serving officers, and for it to be so used today is a serious misappropriation of charitable funds.

I come now to the argument about seamen and officers. There is no doubt at all but that at that time it was a matter of dealing with seamen, widows and orphans, that is, ratings' widows and orphans. But I take the point that at one period officers' sons were entered. What sort of officers' sons? Not the sons of serving officers. An officer, in order to get his son into the school, had to obtain from the clergyman of the parish, with supporting signatures, a certificate to say that the officer was an object of charity. Can either the Under-Secretary of State or the hon. Gentleman opposite argue that the present-day officer with £2,000 a year income is an object of charity? Of course not, yet the whole purpose of the school all along was for charitable objects and for people lacking income.

The regulations for the Greenwich school of 1,000 boys provided for seven classes of entry. The first four were the various categories of orphans: (1) both parents dead; (2) father killed on duty; (3) father dead, mother living; (4) mother dead, father living. There is no question but that the school was to be mainly an orphanage. What else could it be if the four main categories for preferential selection were orphans?

The school was transferred from Greenwich to Holbrook in 1933, but the number of boys has been cut down by one-third, from 1,000 to only 675. Although the site was a free gift from the wealthy New Zealand shipowner, Mr. G. S. Reade, and over £1 million was spent on buildings and equipment, two planned hostels were not built. Before the hostels were built, it was decided to build the church, so the school has the most expensive church and the most expensive organ of any school in the land. It has got the largest swimming bath. It has all the largest overheads. Why? The plans were for 1,120 boys, but the two missing hostels meant that the number was cut down, and it is still cut down. So we have these expensive, massive buildings taking only half the complement originally intended. Holbrook is known locally as the "million pound folly". The reason is that a village was built instead of a school, and now, due to this lavish and wasteful expenditure, widows have to pay fees. That is where the money was lost.

The regulations for the new Holbrook school were the same as those for the old Greenwich school, that is, it continued as a school for ratings' sons, preferably the four classes of orphans, for the first 16 years of its existence, from 1933 to 1949. Never mind the question of education at the moment. I am not dealing with that today because I do not want to take too long. There is no question whatever but that Holbrook school followed the Greenwich school with the same regulations, and, right up to 1949, those regulations were for the entry of orphans. This fact cannot be disputed. The regulations were published in the current Navy List, and there are copies in the Commons Library.

Unfortunately, during the last 16 years—and here I am on common ground because it has been stated earlier—there have been two serious breaches in the Royal Foundation Charter, and both of them have had disastrous results for the type of boys who were previously accepted. In fact, the school is now so posh that I, as the son of a poor Devon fisherman, and my classmates of those days would not be accepted, yet three of my contemporaries became admirals and one a rear-admiral.

So what was wrong with the school? There was not anything wrong with it. All this talk to denigrate the Greenwich school to build up Holbrook is nonsense. I am not saying that in the process of time education should not be improved; that, however, is outwith my argument A number of men obtained commissions, as I did, and a number gave creditable and distinguished service in peacetime and in war.

The first serious breach of the Royal Foundation Charter was made as recently as 1949, when the Admiralty decided to break faith with their own ex-ratings, widows and orphans, for whom the school was founded, and accept the sons of serving officers, probably for the first time, who certainly were not objects of charity, at the expense of ratings' sons and orphans. One of the reasons given by the Admiralty for the entry of commissioned officers' sons at that time was a shortage of applications from ratings' sons. For years this has been nonsense, as I will show by figures. There is no lack of applications even from boys of the required unnecessarily high standard. I want to get on record the fact that the entry examination is higher than for any comparable school in its category in this country, the object being to take the "cream" and not to take the poor boys for whom the school was founded. In fact, the current Greenwich Hospital letter of refusal to ratings' sons states: An altogether exceptional number of applicants, far in excess of the vacancies available, were received for the entries for May and September, 1965, and January, 1966. In the circumstances, it has been unavoidably necessary to reject not only a few boys who did not reach the required educational standard, but also a number who did quite well at the examination. That is the official statement. I underline a number who did quite well at the examination because this official statement of a surfeit of ratings' applications makes nonsense of the Admiralty argument of a shortage of applications from ratings' sons when such boys are being kept out to enable officers' sons to be entered.

What has been the result of the entry of commissioned officers' sons. In these second 16 years of the new school, 463 officers' sons have been entered, to the exclusion of a similar number of ratings' sons, because, obviously, every officer's son who is entered prevents a rating's son from getting a place. What is worse is that ratings' orphans are refused entry to the Navy's orphanage because of officers' sons entering.

The result is that today there are only 48 orphans out of 675 boys, or only one in 14. The number of ratings' sons unable to gain admission during the last school year was 81—and here, I think, I have the same figures as the hon. Member for Buckinghamshire. South, so we are batting on the same wicket. If this were an average year, it means that in the 16 years since commissioned officers' sons have entered nearly 1,300 ratings' sons have been denied entry. Of the 36 boys entered at the beginning of the 1964–65 year three were sons of officers and 33 were sons of ratings. Why enter three officers' sons when there is such a large number of applications from ratings' sons? Why not have a full entry of ratings' sons? For the May entry this year, 46 out of 82 applicants—or over 50 per cent.—were not admitted. No applicant failed on medical or interview grounds, so the failures were all educational. I have, however, stated that in the current quarter it is admitted that those who have passed the educational standard are not being admitted.

I will give three examples of ratings' sons being refused admission from one naval port area—Portsmouth—although the same argument applies to Devonport, Chatham and elsewhere. In the first case, the father is a leading seaman who has re-engaged to complete time for pension and to make the Navy his career. This is just the type of father whose son should be admitted, instead of an officer's son. The boy passed his medical examination. His headmaster gave him a good report and was most surprised that he was rejected and wrote to Greenwich Hospital emphasising his opinion that the boy should have been accepted. There is a second boy at the same school who has been rejected, but I need not give details as they are largely a repetition of the other two cases.

In my third case, the father is a petty officer who had served for 26 years. The boy had a perfect report in his medicai examination. His school stated that he did very well indeed in his educational examination. Last term, he was third in his class and his report stated that he had worked hard and done well, was keenly interested in cricket, football, swimming and dramatic work and his conduct was excellent. Yet he was rejected. Why? This youth might well have become a good leader of men.

What more does the Admiralty want? Does my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State, now that he is chairman of the Board of Governors, want a boy of 11 to be a senior wrangler with a rugby blue and to be the son of a "brass-hat" before he can be accepted for this posh school, which is becoming posher and posher? The present position is that one-third of the boys—namely, 214 out of 675—are officers' sons. The board of governors and all the fathers concerned should hang their heads in shame at the thought of 214 ratings' sons being kept out of the school at Holbrook because of these entries of officers' sons.

I turn now to the question of fees. The second serious breach in the Royal Foundation Charter was made only eight years ago, as recently as 1957. Greenwich Hospital, in spite of its millions of capital but because of bad administration—because the assets are worth far more and the income should be far more—then had another financial crisis, as it has done previously down the centuries. At previous crises, however, the Admiralty has taken over payment of some of the Greenwich Hospital charity pensions in order that entries into the school should remain. Someone, however, should ask: why pay these pensions at all today?

At one time, Greenwich Hospital pensions were the only pensions there were. Today, we have pensions under the National Insurance Scheme. Serving officers and ratings who complete their time are paid naval pensions, all naval officers' widows get naval pensions and some ratings' widows get pensions. What is the justification, in this age of social welfare services, for paying selected Greenwich Hospital pensions to a few people of whom we know nothing? Formerly, when these pensions were paid to serving officers, that fact appeared in the Navy List—now it seems to be done by black magic.

In the previous crisis the Admiralty took over the payment so that entry should be free. That was not the case this time. If the pensions are justified they should be naval pensions and not charitable pensions at the expense of the school. To the horror of everyone who knows the history of the orphanage it was decided to charge an annual fee of £100 for all new entrants, including orphans. The then Under-Secretary had been a governor for seven years and the hon. and gallant Member for Horncastle (Sir J. Maitland) for longer, so they were two of the board responsible for this reprehensible decision. The Admiralty argument rested on rising costs at the orphanage. What is to happen with further rising costs? Are we to have higher and higher fees, more and more officers' children and fewer and fewer ratings' sons and ratings' orphans?

The hon. Member for Buckinghamshire, South gave some large figures of moneys available to officers to educate their children anywhere in the country, but a rating cannot get that kind of pension—