HMS FAME

By Bernard de Neumann, Formerly Nelson House, Royal Hospital School

This is a brief history of the three full-scale land-based model training ships called Fame, which were used by Greenwich Royal Hospital School for the training of its boys before they embarked upon a seafaring career.

A History of The Royal Hospital School

The following brief account is provided in order to put the history of the Fames into context. The origins of the school reside in King William’s and Queen Mary’s Royal Charter of 25 October 1694 to erect and found an Hospital within Our Mannor of East Greenwich in Our County of Kent for the reliefe and support of Seamen serving on board the Shipps or Vessells belonging to the Navy Royall...... who by reason of Age, Wounds or other disabilities shall be unable to maintain themselves. And for the Sustentation of the Widows and the Maintenance and Education of the Children of Seamen happening to be slain or disabled....... Also for the further reliefe and Encouragement of Seamen and Improvement of Navigation [emphasis added]. In the 1696 Act for the Increase and Encouragement of Seamen, the benefits of the Hospital were extended to include such mariners, watermen, seamen, fishermen, lightermen, bargemen, and keelmen as shall voluntarily come in and register themselves in and for His Majesty’s sea service. Following the establishment of the Hospital in Greenwich, consideration was given to the provision of education to the children of seamen, especially orphans. The first Greenwich Hospital pupils were sent to Weston’s Academy in Greenwich in 1712, where they received an excellent and highly valued education under the tutelage of Thomas Weston, the Assistant to the Astronomer Royal (John Flamsteed). At this time the boys were accommodated in the attic of the Hospital buildings. Soon the number of Greenwich Hospital pupils grew to such an extent that it became economical to provide their own school and teachers.

Bowsprit and Figurehead of HMS Fame with the mast and tower of the Royal Hospital School in the background

The school became a great success through its teaching of mathematics, navigation and nautical astronomy, providing its pupils with sufficient knowledge for them to become navigators and ships’ officers in the Royal and Merchant Navies where they joined directly as Masters’ Mates. The boys would have been taught to use such navigational instruments as the magnetic compass, Nocturnal, Back-staff, Cross-staff, Quadrant, and Sextant, and would have been familiar with map projections such as Mercator. They would have participated fully in the propagation of techniques for determining longitude, especially after Harrison’s construction, and Cook’s demonstration of the sea-going chronometer.

Such education was highly prized, but extremely unusual, in those times when hardly any mathematics was taught in schools, let alone universities, and grammar schools concentrated upon the "practicalities" of speaking the dead language Latin! The rules of the school stated: that no boy was to be admitted before the age of 14, nor retained after the age of 18, and furthermore that: boys are "To be put out as apprentices to Masters of ships and substantial Commanders, for better improvements of their talents, and becoming Able Seamen and Good Artists". The school also provided the bulk of officers to the Hydrographic Service (the branch responsible for surveying the oceans of the world). The first person to pass the Extra Master’s examination of Trinity House was a former pupil of Greenwich Royal Hospital School. Thus, just as, according to the Duke of Wellington, the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, it may justifiably be claimed, that the establishment, defence, integration, and trade of the largest empire the world has yet seen, the British Empire, was charted and plotted in the classrooms of Greenwich Royal Hospital School, and facilitated by its former pupils.

Long ago it acquired the title Cradle of the Navy, a title that may well derive from James Moncrieff’s 1759 pamphlet Three Dialogues on the Navy in which it is stated in regard to Greenwich Royal Hospital: "From the couch and sepulchre of age, I would change it into the cradle and, as it were, the forge of youthful merit." [After several changes of name and location, Weston’s Academy became the Royal Naval Academy at Coldharbour, Gosport.]

In 1798 in an independent development, The British National Endeavour, a boarding school in Paddington was established, with fervent public support and subscription, following public concern at the loss of life and injuries sustained by British seamen during recent battles. The school rapidly outgrew its premises in Paddington, which could only take 70 children. Originally it was a small "industrial school" for children whose fathers had been seamen in the Royal Navy, and had fallen in action.

Lord Nelson was an early patron, as were the brothers Abraham and Benjamin Goldsmid. Following the news that the French and Spanish had been defeated at Trafalgar it was renamed under a Royal Warrant backdated to 21st October 1805 as The Royal Naval Asylum. The Asylum acquired the Queen’s House and its estate and moved to its new home in Greenwich. The new facilities (presently occupied by The National Maritime Museum) were formally opened on 21st October 1807 (Trafalgar Day) when a large Turkish cannon, captured from the island of Kinaliada in the Sea of Marmara by Admiral Duckworth on 27 February 1807 was presented by the Duke of Cumberland. The cannon, decorated by the Royal Arsenal with plaques commemorating the great sea battles that led to the establishment of the Asylum, is now on display defending the main entrance to The Royal Hospital School, Holbrook, Suffolk. [Opposite, HMS Ganges’ Maharajah figurehead glares defiantly at passing motorists. HMS Ganges was the Royal Navy’s first teak ship-of-the-line, and gave her name to the nearby Naval Training Establishment.] Only the children (boys and girls, orphans or motherless, or the father disabled or serving on a distant station) of sailors and marines were admitted to the Asylum aged between 5 and 12 and presumably left at normal school leaving age (14?). Because of a generous donation valued at £61,000 by Lloyd’s Patriotic Fund, Lloyd’s were permitted to nominate children from other seafaring backgrounds for attendance at the Asylum. Thus, rather loosely, the Asylum corresponded to today’s primary schools, whilst the GRH School corresponded to a secondary school, however their purposes were much different.

The two schools operated independently side-by-side at Greenwich until 1821 when it was realised that it would reduce administrative overheads to merge the schools and their sites as, eventually the Greenwich Royal Hospital Schools. In the merger the old Greenwich Hospital School became the Upper School, and the Asylum the Lower School. Later the Upper school was increased in size at the expense of the Lower School, and a third even higher school established called the Nautical School, principally for teaching navigation and nautical astronomy. Under the guidance of Edward Riddle, and in succession his son John, the Nautical School became the globally acknowledged leading school in the instruction of navigators.

The combined schools offered the boys an education suitable for entry into a sea-going career at various levels. The girls were given an education suitable for domestic service. In 1841 the girls’ part of the school was closed, and the way cleared to extend the nautical education of the boys by providing a land-based training ship in the grounds in front of the Queen’s House facing northwards towards the River Thames. [Throughout 90 years the Fame provided a well-known feature in the maritime scene of Greenwich.] Thus began the story of the three Fames. [In the following we have distinguished between the successive Fames by appending a version number; in reality each was simply called Fame.]

Fame I: 1843 – 1860. Was a Sloop-of-War, and the hull was built in sections in Chatham Royal Dockyard, and assembled there on railway sleepers in order to confirm the novel design. The hull was then dismantled and removed to Greenwich where it was reassembled. Masts and rigging were salvaged from scrapped vessels, as no doubt were many of the structural timbers. The figurehead (Fig. 1), already more than 100 years old, came from Admiral Lord Anson’s famous ship Centurion (a fourth-rate of 50 guns, launched in 1732 and broken up in 1769). [During 1740 to 1744, Anson circumnavigated the world in Centurion in an amazing voyage, during which time many of his ships’ companies died, and Centurion was the first British warship to enter Chinese waters. Many of the sailors on this expedition were Greenwich Hospital pensioners who had volunteered. During this voyage Anson captured a Spanish treasure ship, and brought back to England treasure valued at over £400,000 in those days. This was probably the most valuable treasure ever captured by the British.] Lieutenant John Rouse, Superintendent, lent his considerable energies towards her assembly and construction at Greenwich. Rouse had been Superintendent at the Royal Naval Academy, Portsmouth, prior to moving to Greenwich. He was very popular with the boys, and had a leg shot off in the landing on Kinaliada during Duckworth’s expedition through the Dardanelles to threaten Constantinople and the Turkish Navy. He thus had a historical link with the school’s cannon. Fame was equipped with 14 lateral gun ports, two bridle ports, and two stern-chaser ports. She was armed with 16 long guns, and other lesser pieces. A vision of boys preparing to open fire on imagined enemies of the British Empire is easily conjured. Fame was judged to be unsafe during early 1860, and put out-of-bounds to the boys. The ship’s relatively short life, together with the fact that she was not subject to the normal rigours of the sea, suggests that the normal liberal application of Stockholm tar and pitch was not applied. Possibly some timber used was already suffering from rot which would have spread fairly rapidly throughout the structure.

Fame II: 1861 – 1871. Was constructed from the salvageable parts of Fame I. In the illustration the stern appears very similar to Fame I, and so it is surmised that the main structural timbers and masts and rigging were retained, and that the rebuild centred on revamping the more cosmetic components. This retention of old timbers seems to have resulted in Fame II only lasting 10 years. Centurion’s figurehead was retained, but this further weathering proved too much and it became unsalvageable for later display – a really great shame, which would not, these days, be countenanced. Very little else is known of this ship.

Fame III: 1872 – 1933. Following the diminishing returns from the two previous ships, Greenwich Hospital ordered an entirely new replacement to be built, and placed the order with Messrs Silley, Green and Wear Ltd, of Surrey Commercial Docks. She was described as a three-masted corvette, but fully rigged as a ship (square rigged on all three masts) with a new figurehead of Fame holding her long trumpet. She was built on the lines of a Blackwall Frigate for which this firm was renowned, and had all the eye-catching beauty and grace of these famous vessels. Photographs of St Lawrence built in 1861, and Melbourne built in 1875 show marked resemblance, although they were much larger than Fame. During the school year she was manned by two crews, respectively from the Upper School and the Nautical School, each of 100 boys. She was operated as a normal man-of-war of the period, watches being kept, and time, and watch changing, being indicated by the normal signals from the ship’s bell. Entering-, and leaving-, harbour routines, and depth sounding by lead swinging, were practised assiduously, and when in harbour it was "hands to paint ship". Action Stations still included gun drill and making and setting sail; in fact life was as near as practically possible the same as if the company were on active service at sea. As a concession to safety, nets were slung out from the sides, and above the main deck, to arrest any unfortunate who might fall from aloft. Photographs show Fame under full sail with evident repairs to her sails (no doubt the handiwork of boy sail-makers equipped with sail-maker’s palms and needles), and the boys manning the yards.

In 1914 the yards were taken down and the crews reduced to boys in their last six months of training. Scaling the rigging to the masthead, or truck, each morning was still continued, and life was as near as possible, given the circumstances, lived according to naval routine. Gun drill was ceased, but the boys carried out boat-work and slept in hammocks aboard, but meals were taken in the Upper Nautical Mess instead of aboard ship.

The masts and rigging were gradually reduced over the next 10 years, until in August 1926 the three remaining stumps and rigging were removed. Access was forbidden the boys as the Fame was now in a state of advanced deterioration and dangerous, although superficially she seemed sound enough. A contender for the title Fame IV was built that served from 1926 – 1933, although Fame III still existed as a "hulk". The teaching of ship handling was still a requisite in the boys’ training, and so a replica fully rigged ship with a miniature hull, rigging and sails was constructed in the seamanship room. She had a full-sized double steering wheel on the poop and a compass binnacle, and could respond to helm by rotating horizontally. These days she would have been called a mechanical simulator.

Many of the photographs show the school cannon, complete with tampion, standing ahead of Fame, and carefully aimed between the Royal Naval College (Greenwich Hospital) buildings, thereby defending Queen Mary’s valuable vista and persuasively arguing for its retention.

In the mid Nineteenth Century "Action Stations" required sailors and gunners to be stood-to in readiness to ascend the masts, set and trim sails, and handle heavy cannon and ammunition with great efficiency and speed. Drills familiarising the boys to life aboard a man-of-war were practised including hoisting, lowering and working sails when weather conditions permitted. The boys were taught to handle cannon and to fight and repel boarders with pikes and cutlasses. (Each cannon had a team of sailors under the control of a "captain" to operate it by charging with gunpowder and a wad, tamping, loading shot and a wad, ramming, running out with tackle, priming, aiming, discharging, running back, swabbing with a damp mop, and repeating the whole process. All at maximum speed.) [The cutlass saw action on RN operations for the last time on 28th March 1941 during the Battle of Matapan when gunners from ‘A’ Turret, HMS Jervis boarded the battle-damaged Italian heavy cruiser Pola and rescued the remaining 257 of her bemused crew, before administering the coup de grace. In 1940 a party led by Lieutenant Commander Bradwell Turner, armed with cutlasses, rifles, and pistols, boarded the German prison ship Altmark and famously rescued the British merchant seamen being held prisoner. Previously HMS Cossack (Captain Vian) had trapped and forced aground the Altmark in Jossingfjord, Norway.] Pikes were withdrawn in 1905. They must also have practiced damage control and fire-fighting, which were particularly important in wooden ships, impregnated as they were with tar and pitch in addition to their powder magazines. They also spent their last term at the school enhancing their knowledge of seamanship (signal flags, semaphore, Morse code, helmsmanship knots and splices, blocks and tackles, boat handling, weather lore, rules of the road, etc), learning the ropes, swinging the lead, and sleeping in hammocks in preparation for a life at sea. Their geography lessons concerned places within 20 miles of the sea that could be shelled, or reasonably taken by landing parties. The elite learnt to shoot the sun, stars and planets, and how to relate these heavenly bodies’ apparent position to their own situation on the high seas. In 1902 the boys, with their astronomically trained observers’ eyes, played their part in attempting to resolve the debate about canals on Mars.

By contemporary standards the school had become badly overcrowded by the 1930s, and so it was decided to move it to purpose-built facilities in Holbrook, Suffolk following a generous bequest of land and money by Gifford Sherman Reade. With the move to Holbrook, it was decided that Greenwich should be dropped from the name of the school, as it no longer seemed appropriate, despite the school’s formal links with the Greenwich Hospital Crown Charity. The Greenwich boys could not have been other than totally impressed and overawed by their new home with its spacious facilities, including new school-buildings, and their idyllic views over the River Stour to Essex. The Fame at Greenwich was broken up, with only the bow section with the figurehead and bowsprit, and the stern retained. The bow section was fitted to the south end of the small-bore rifle-range of the new school buildings at Holbrook, and the stern, including the "ginger-bread" and coat-of-arms of Greenwich Hospital, was purchased by Earle B. Smith, buyer for the Mariners’ Museum, in Newport News, Virginia, on 8 April 1935, and shipped to the museum. Both may still be found at these final resting-places. Boat work continued using naval cutters and whalers, and sailing dinghies on the River Stour.

Two new masts were constructed at Holbrook, a signalling mast at the main entrance with gaff and crosstrees, and a fully rigged 125-foot (38 metres) ceremonial main-mast (comprising lower and top masts, three yards, two tops, truck, shrouds, and stays) but this mast was only retained until 1953 when maintenance costs became prohibitive and it was removed, leaving impressive mast-manning ceremonies to near neighbour HMS Ganges at the confluence of the Rivers Stour and Orwell. [At this time in 1953 the signalling mast was replaced by a new one, and a flag pole removed from over the main entrance building.] Originally a Popham semaphore machine was mounted on the decking on the rifle-range, and a fully equipped seamanship room installed in the main buildings, which included a steering and engine-room telegraph simulator built by Link (of "Link Trainer" fame, and a contender for the title Fame V), signal lights, Morse distribution board with headphones and Morse keys, and various radio kits.

The Royal Hospital School continues to flourish, and is now a regular boarding school, still bent on its naval traditions, but educating its pupils to fill useful places in modern society. It has gained Head Masters’ Conference status and draws its pupils from a wide social cache, not restricted to those with a seafaring background. Lloyd’s still has powers to nominate pupils, and the Greenwich Hospital charity still offers advantages to those with seafaring parents/grandparents. In fact it is the most successful wholly boarding school in the United Kingdom, and the number of places it offers to pupils is still being increased to meet demand, despite the fact that most boarding schools have seen a decline in student numbers. The pike and cutlass drill of the old school have long given way to the ceremonial small arms drill of the school guard, who together with the excellent marching band, are much in demand outside the school. Boat handling continues in the form of dinghy sailing on nearby Alton Water, and in sea-going yachts that venture out to sea from the Stour.

The remarkably prescient vision of Queen Mary in promoting what she was pleased to refer to as "the darling object of her life", has throughout three centuries borne fruit in many corners of the globe. For example: The first Governor of Australia, Admiral Arthur Philip, was a pupil; the Canadian Coast Guard College in Sydney, Nova Scotia, has its roots in the school; and many other nautical colleges, academies, and schools were strongly influenced by, or modelled on, Greenwich Royal Hospital Schools. Other international links include a sister institution also founded by its original Royal patrons: William and Mary College, Williamsburg, Virginia, USA.

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