The Royal Masonic Schools
A Power Point Address Presented by Bro Michael Lott, MM, SW
of Lodge Omarunui No 216 and a Member of the Hawke’s Bay Research Lodge No 305, to this Research Lodge on 7th November 2011
I should like to provide you with some background into the history of the Royal Masonic Schools, a concept that originated from a desire by certain brethren to “relieve the poverty and advance the education of the children of deceased and distressed fellow Freemasons”. I will then go on to tell you a little about the two schools in England with which I am most familiar, and end my account by outlining some of the information I have gleaned regarding similar establishments elsewhere. I do not claim to have made any great depth of research for this presentation. Instead, I have merely attempted to provide some background to what I consider to be an important aspect of Freemasonry.
In May 1788, Bartholomew Ruspini and nine fellow Freemasons met at the Freemasons’ Tavern in Great Queen Street in London, to discuss plans for establishing a charitable institution for the daughters of Masons who had fallen on hard times, or whose death had meant hardship for their families.
A house at Sommers Place, near where the British Library stands today, was rented at a cost of thirty-five pounds a year, to house fifteen children. Of particular interest is the original advertisement for the Matron which read as follows: “Wanted - a Matron to reside in the House and instruct the children in reading, writing, housewifery and every necessary use of the needle. She must be of the established Religion of the Church of England, middle aged, well educated and single.”
The children were allowed a ration of two and a half pounds of meat each week. Breakfast consisted routinely of either rice milk, water gruel or milk porridge; lunch of either roast beef, suet pudding, boiled mutton or rice pudding with vegetables, bread and beer; while supper would consist of bread and butter, cheese, broth and yet more beer. This institution did not become what we might these days call a school until the mid-nineteenth century. In its early stages it was more of an orphanage. However, at the end of their school life the girls were often either apprenticed or at least supported until they could establish themselves.
However, with an increase in numbers it was soon decided that a new building should be built. This second site was at St Georges Fields, which is now Westminster Bridge Road. Yet a third location was subsequently sought at St Johns Hill, Battersea Rise, which, in 1853 “possessed a wide open aspect and country air”, qualities that were however, soon to be lost. Eventually, in 1918 the junior girls moved to a new school in Weybridge in Surrey. By June 1926 the school was again ready to move, this time to its present day site in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire; henceforth referred to here as the Royal Masonic Girls School (RMGS).
A lot of thought was subsequently put into the design of a new school building that was intended to house up to four hundred girls. This would be complete with boarding houses for fifty, dormitories for sixteen, and classrooms suitable for up to thirty, plus a dining room to cater for all four hundred girls simultaneously, as well as a gymnasium, swimming bath and chapel. Although the specification was originally intended to accommodate only senior girls of age twelve and above, in 1973 it was decided to assimilate the junior girls from Weybridge. Today the RMGS accepts the children of both masons and non-masons, both day and boarding pupils.
In 1798 a similar Masonic Institution was established for boys. Yet while these two charities operated separately for nearly sixty years in their original form, they only succeeded in providing the necessary education by sending these children to schools close to their homes. However, in 1852, these two charities were amalgamated. Five years later a specific Masonic Boy’s School was established at Wood Green in North London. Finally, in 1903 a new and most impressive Boy’s School was opened at Bushey, near Watford in Hertfordshire. Queen Victoria’s son, the Duke of Connaught, laid the foundation stone of this set of buildings in 1900. It is this school, henceforth referred to here as the Royal Masonic Senior School (RMSS), which I shall shortly describe in more detail.
Meanwhile, in 1929 it was decided to build a school for younger boys. And so a very functional set of buildings, entirely lacking in any aesthetic appeal, was constructed just across the road from the RMSS. This I shall henceforth refer to as the Royal Masonic Junior School (RMJS). Unlike the RMSS, the RMJS was set out in strict uniformity, built of dark red brick and roofed with dark red tiles. Indeed, some years ago there was, I understand, some discussion regarding its conversion to a more secure government establishment.
By 1939 there were a total of eight hundred boys, aged between eight and eighteen, boarding at these two schools. By the late 1960’s though, numbers had declined to such an extent that, in 1970, the RMJS was closed. Shortly followed by the closure of the RMSS in 1977. These then were the two establishments that, for nine years, became my home away from home.
Discipline at the RMJS was quite hard. As I recall we were frequently cold in winter, and not particularly well fed. We had to endure classes five and a half days each week, which were followed by two hours of “prep” each evening. Sporting activities were also compulsory six days a week, whatever the weather. Though not allowed to return home during term time, we were fortunate to have four weeks holiday at Christmas and Easter, with a further eight weeks in summer. Boys were accommodated in eight separate and identical houses, fifty in each house, with twenty-five boys to a dormitory.
The daily routine was typical of the times. Boys had always to be appropriately attired in school uniform, with hair tidily brushed and combed, could never loiter, or run within the school corridors, and punishment befell any boy caught with his hands in his pockets. Wearing school caps and raincoats, boys processed in typical crocodile formation by houses, escorted by their housemaster, on compulsory walks through the local village each Sunday afternoon. Morning prayers took place each morning in the vast Assembly Hall known as Big School, while attendance at Sunday services was also compulsory.
Compulsory sporting activities were organised on a daily basis utilising the vast acreage of sports fields available. Punishment of individuals for minor transgressions could be swift and sometimes a little harsh considering the ages of the boys. However, there was always plenty of entertainment to be enjoyed in membership of the many clubs and societies available, all of which created a spirit of camaraderie that, for many of us, would last a lifetime.
Eventually, at the age of thirteen, there followed the inevitable move across The Avenue to the RMSS, which opened up for us a completely new way of life and greater sense of freedom. Here again, each of the four hundred boys at the RMSS was a full-time boarder, the school being similarly established with fifty boys to a house and twenty-five to each dormitory; a total of eight houses in all.
Looking back, I do feel we were somewhat ahead of our time, being privileged to have a comparatively wide variety of academic subjects to study, with a large number of clubs and societies available to all; more like the schools of today. Again, classes extended through Saturday mornings, with compulsory sporting activities after class every afternoon in summer, or directly after lunch in winter before the afternoon class. In addition to those fields set aside for inter-school team matches, each House had access to at least two sports fields of its own. There were three terms each year, with class sizes limited to twenty-four. The school also possessed a well-equipped science laboratory, and a geography theatre that, with its attendant observatory, led many to take an interest in astronomy.
Music and Art also played a major part in our lives. The RMSS possessed several soundproofed music rooms, and many boys advanced, through membership of the school orchestra, to positions in the national orchestras. The school possessed its own quite remarkable Italianate style chapel, attendance at which was also compulsory; with non-denominational services being held twice on Sunday, and at various other times during the week. Art lessons too were popular, leading many to take up careers in commercial art, while the less academically inclined were encouraged to learn the now rather lost arts, of bookbinding and printing. Lessons in either woodwork or metalwork were also compulsory. Many boys took pride in building wooden canoes, which would then be transported to their respective homes by rail at the end of the summer term. Amateur Dramatics also played a big part in the school social life, while another popular institution was the school Debating Society.
Sport however, was the major pastime. Rugby, hockey and cricket were compulsory activities in their respective terms. While interschool fixtures with the many other Greater London public schools, took place most Saturdays. With a full–size indoor pool, swimming activities were compulsory, with competitive water polo matches a regular feature. Among the minor sports available were small bore rifle shooting and fives, as well as all the usual indoor games, such as table tennis, snooker and billiards. We were also very fortunate in having our own athletic track, complete with pavilion. In addition to the more usual track events we were also expected to indulge in hurdling, throwing the discus and the javelin. As a result of all this activity, a number of Old Boys were subsequently selected for Olympic Trials over the years, while many more played for their county teams.
One further aspect for which the RMSS was particularly well renowned was the Army Cadet Force. In 1859, gentlemen of the London Rifle Brigade Rangers began instructing Masonic School pupils in musketry, making the Royal Masonic School Cadet Corps the oldest cadet corps in the country. A Cadet Bugle Band was started as early as 1916, while the complete Band was eventually reformed with the correct balance of instruments in 1952. This Band frequently appeared at many metropolitan ceremonies. Indeed, when the Regular Corps Band were overseas, such was the esteem in which the Cadet Band was held, that the cadets would often be invited to substitute for the regular soldiers, on one occasion at least, at the Royal Tournament at Earls Court.
Being affiliated to the Greenjackets, drill was carried out at the cracking pace of one hundred and forty paces a minute, with .303 rifles carried at the trail. The sight of three hundred and fifty khaki clad boys, marching behind the fifty strong Cadet Band in their bottle green uniforms, was really quite impressive.
Corps activities, as they were called, took place each Friday. The day would begin with the duty bugler playing “Reveille!” once at each corner of the school quadrangle. Boys would then attend morning classes wearing, either their khaki uniform or denim overalls, according to the anticipated programme, often a combination of field craft activities or assault course training. The cadets were organised into eight platoons, one per House, and these in turn comprised four companies, complete with their allotted number of NCO’s, a CSM and Cadet Under Officer. There was also a small Cadre for prospective NCO’s. Term activities culminated in summer camps either on Salisbury Plain, or in Germany with the British Army of the Rhine.
The RMSS had an impressive academic record. Prior to its closure in 1977, one hundred and seventeen old boys had subsequently graduated from Cambridge University and sixty-six from Oxford, with many more graduating from other universities, as well as from the three military academies.
While many Old Boys have excelled in sports, others have also had distinguished careers in medicine and in foreign affairs, with at least one reaching ambassadorial rank. We also have several Air Marshals and Generals among our alumni. In 1990, one Old Boy was elevated to the House of Lords asBaron Holme of Cheltenham, becoming Chairman of the National Committee for Electoral Reform, Deputy Chairman of Independent Television, and Chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Council.
Notable among my own contemporaries, give or take a few years, are the actor Anthony Andrews of “Brideshead Revisited” fame, more recently seen playing the part of Stanley Baldwin in the film “The King’s Speech”. Also Sir Richard Evans, former Chairman of British Aerospace, the late Dr Harvey Postlethwaite, one time Formula One racing car engineer, and journalist Brent Sadler, CNN ‘s Middle East Bureau Chief and BAFTA award winner.
As an aside, two airmen of note are Percy Jack Clayson, MC, DFC, former Royal Naval Air Service pilot, who was credited with twenty-nine victories in the First World War, and Flying Officer Thomas Kingsland Higgs who, being killed in action at 1300 hours on 10 July 1940, can reasonably be considered as the “First of the Few”.
In 1886 some Old Boys at the Wood Green venue met to make a presentation to their school matron, the lady having recently married an assistant master. It was while presenting the silver coffee and tea service to this popular lady, that one Old Boy suggested that an Old Boy’s club should be formed. A meeting was subsequently held in Freemasons’ Hall, and so was established the Old Masonian’s Association (OMA). Although, since the school’s closure in 1977, our numbers have inevitably been shrinking, the OMA continues to receive wide support from its now aging members, and publishes an impressive annual booklet that is distributed worldwide.
The stated object of the OMA is to “keep alive the memory of the Royal Masonic School and to encourage interest in the education of persons educated by the Royal Masonic Institution for Boys or its successor, and to encourage friendly contact between old boys of the aforementioned school and between all members of the Association”. The Association currently has nine branches in the UK, with other branches in Australia, South Africa and Canada.
I referred earlier to the aesthetic appeal of the RMSS buildings, and would now like to show how much they have been generally appreciated over recent years. Before it closed, the RMSS had been a popular setting for many murder mysteries and thrillers, including the cult 1960’s TV show “The Avengers”. Since then though, it has featured in a multitude of productions, such as: “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, the Harry Potter movies, Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life”, and has even as served as a law court in the TV series “Eastenders”. Other films, which frequently show much of the RMSS, include such productions as “Midsomer Murders”, “Judge John Deed”, and the “Miss Marple” and “Agatha Christie” series. Some earlier films made there were: “Goodbye Mr Chips”, “Lucky Jim”, and “It’s Great to be Young”, the latter featuring the late Sir John Mills. Until very recently there have been on average each year some twenty films in which at least some of the school buildings have been depicted. The film “Band of Brothers” featured the now deconsecrated chapel as a French nunnery. The RMGS at Rickmansworth has also frequently been a filming location, providing the backdrop to the films: “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, “Supergirl”, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, as well as the BBC TV series: “Inspector Morse” and “Eastenders”
Unfortunately, the RMSS was sold a little while after its closure in 1977. For a time, the property was the "University of America (Europe) Limited" and became an academic institution again. However, this venture did not apparently meet with much success, and after a few years, the property was sold again. An attempt was then made to use the School as a conference centre, and subsequently as a country hotel complex. This also seems to have met with little success because, for many years, no really positive use was made of the facilities - except by the film and television industry! Sadly, ever since the School closed, the fabric of the property had fallen into a more and more noticeable state of disrepair.
Today, however, the site is owned by a Development Group that specialises in the sympathetic and imaginative conversion of historic buildings. The site has now been redeveloped for residential use under the name "Royal Connaught Park". Happily, all the characteristics of the buildings have been preserved - though not as a school, but thankfully all the main buildings do now have a secure future. Of interest, as at February 2007, the date of the last brochure I obtained, apartments then ranged in price from £300,000 to £3,000,000.
Following the closure of the Boy’s schools, the Royal Masonic Institution for Boys and the Royal Masonic Institution for Girls were merged to become the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys. This Trust still gives assistance to the children of distressed Freemasons, but now has the overall aim of “relieving poverty and advancing the education of children of all ages” and, when resources permit, will give relief to children outside the Craft. At the time of the amalgamation, the Trust had seven hundred and forty-nine beneficiaries on its books, and by 2005 was supporting over two thousand boys and girls at various schools, colleges and universities.
Although I have spoken at length about those British Institutions with which I am most familiar, there have of course been similar institutions established elsewhere. There was an orphanage for about a hundred young girls established by Freemasons in Dublin in 1790, but I have been unable to discover more about this venture.
Between 1841 and 1861 some eighty-eight public schools were established in the states of Pennsylvania, New York, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee. As far as I can judge, Freemasons were the driving force behind these moves. Many of these schools would have been established with the overall aim of: “relieving poverty and advancing the education of children of distressed Freemasons”. However, it has been hard to establish which, if any, of these schools have retained their specific purpose.
One I did trace though, is the Thomas Ranken Patton Masonic School for Boys in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, which opened in 1925 but closed in 1978. Meanwhile in Australia, the William Thompson School, at Baulkham Hills, New South Wales, also functioned until the 1970s, but it again closed in 1977.
Here are a few details about William Thompson, the school benefactor. I understand that he was born in 1862, and then became an architect and quantity surveyor in New South Wales. It seems he was elected to Parliament in 1913, and retired in 1920. Initiated into Freemasonry in 1893, by 1914 he was Grand Master of New South Wales. Having lost a son in the Great War, and being well aware of the plight of widows and orphans caused, not only by the war but also by the influenza epidemic of 1919, he put forward in 1920 a detailed proposal to Grand Lodge for the purchase of “not less than 60 acres in some healthy, elevated locality, convenient to the city”. The site chosen consisted of one hundred and sixty-eight acres at Baulkham Hills about four miles from Parramatta. This school opened on Armistice Day 1922, with twenty-one girls and twenty-four boys.
Initially, all male members of the staff had to be Freemasons, and the female members of staff, academic or domestic, had also to be the wife, widow or daughter of a Freemason. The school seems to have reached a peak enrolment of three hundred and eighty boys and girls in 1929. Though boys over the age of twelve were apparently not admitted until 1925, when Grand Lodge decided to erect a senior boy’s hostel on sixty acres of adjoining land. Apparently this school was then temporarily closed during the Second World War and the buildings occupied by the Army. However, due to the state of disrepair following the use by the Army, the school did not reopen until November 1947.
Thereafter, it appears, numbers gradually decreased, until by 1972 there were just fifty-six pupils. From then on, boys in the fifth and sixth form would no longer reside at the school, but would receive assistance to finish their education at home. By 1975, with only thirty-eight children still resident, eighteen were returned to their homes; while the remainder were maintained in three specially built family group homes. However, by 1988 only one family group was required, and house parents were then running this most effectively.
It would appear therefore, that by the late 1970s, after an average life of about a hundred years, all these specifically established centres of education ceased to exist. These days the needs of the children of deceased and distressed Freemasons are now met by bequests made by individual Lodges.
I hope my presentation has shown you something of the way the Craft has endeavoured to relieve the poverty and advance the education of the children of deceased and distressed Freemasons and continues so to do. Much more information, together with some rather clearer photographs, is of course available on the Internet. As one who has benefited from such relief, it has been a privilege to have the opportunity to present this account.
NOTE: The Power Point images are available upon request of the Editor