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Greenwich Hospital And Travers' Foundation

Volume 416: debated on Thursday 29 November 1945

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Motion made, and Question proposed,

" That the Statement of the. Estimated Income and Expenditure of Greenwich Hospital and Travers Foundation for the year ending 31st March, 1946, which was presented on 23rd August, be approved."— [ Mr. Dugdale.]

12.54 a.m.

When these accounts came before the House last year for approval, we had a most unexpected and lively Debate. I have re-read that Debate during the last few days, and I have come to the conclusion, with regret, that the former Financial Secretary to the Admiralty, in answering a series of awkward questions, was far too much inclined to take evasive action. These questions therefore still remain to be answered, and I am sure Members will be grateful if the present Financial Secretary will let us have a brief reply tonight. Last year the House chided the Admiralty for running the hospital at a loss. I must congratulate the present Financial Secretary, who with the aid of Lord Bruntisfield, for 9 out of the 12 months of the last financial year, has reduced that loss to almost negligible proportions. We shall be glad if the Financial Secretary tonight can hold out hope that the position will improve still further during the coming financial year. When we come to the Royal Hospital school at Holbrook, perhaps he has news for us about the joint running of the school by the superintendent and headmaster. The House showed very clearly last year that it did not feel that both were necessary, and the Admiralty were also asked to consider the appointment of an advisory committee to help the Board of Admiralty with the educational problems of this school at Holbrook. I hope the Financial Secretary may have something to tell the House about the position tonight. I ask these questions because I think it is well for this House to take an interest on this annual occasion, however late the hour, in this historic Greenwich Hospital and in the Travers' Trust.

12.57 a.m.

I rise to make my maiden speech on this subject because in the long history of this House and in the long history of this school, this is the first occasion on which a Member has been in this House who was educated at the school. I watched its vicissitudes over a period of 40 years. The object of the school, founded three centuries ago, was to educate the sons of seamen, and in particular, the sons of poor seamen, and orphans. That was done with success for a long period in the buildings now used by the National Maritime Museum. But after World War I, a wealthy individual by the name of Mr. Read, whose name is now perpetuated in the re-foundation, gave to the Hospital and the State a large sum of money. It was decided to build a new school at Holbrook, and from then onwards it has become one of the greatest charitable scandals of the century. Tenders were asked for which ran to a million pounds. They had to be cut down. There ought to be two hostels, but they were cut out. Later, some money became available, and instead of building the hostels, the church was built. There are still two missing hostels. The matter was investigated by a Select Committee some years ago. It is on record, and I have no wish to discuss that at this late hour. What is the present position? Take the number of boys. The old school at Greenwich provided accommodation for 1,000 boys. The new school at Holbrook was intended to provide accommodation for practically the same number. Butt he number went down, of course, because of the two missing hostels. We find that in 1939, the number borne was 835, but in 1943–44 the number is down to 587.

That is a reduction of nearly 250, or over a quarter of the 1938 figure. What has happened to the average cost? That cost in 1938 was £91. In 1943–44, it is up to £137. That means an increase of 50 per cent. The estimated cost for this school with 587 boys for this year is £94,000. I suggest that there is no other school in this country, or in any other country, conducted at an expense such as that.

I suggest that the reduction of boys and the increase of cost demand some explanation from the Admiralty. It is the duty of this House to keep an eye on such national charities, few of which are under Parliamentary control. What I am most concerned about is that the type of boy for which the school was originally instituted is no longer able to enter, or has the greatest difficulty in doing so. Boys of my origin would not be able to enter under present day conditions. Yet, at the outbreak of the war, three contemporaries of mine were serving as captains of cruisers, and one has since become a rear-admiral on the active list— the first ranker rear-admiral for 100 years. The reason these poor boys, of reasonable education, have the greatest difficulty in entering the school is that with the lavish-expenditure and reduction of numbers, an increase in the standard of entry has been instituted for no reason at all except to take the cream of the boys. The result is an attempt to turn the school, if it has not already been turned, into the equivalent of a lavish public school. To use the vernacular, it has become too "posh."

I have no objection to the standard being high. Boys for whom this school was originally intended should be taken in and trained to the highest possible standard by all means, but do not take the cream of the boys when they could do well elsewhere and keep out the boys for which this charitable school was intended. My information, and it is from a reliable source, is that at the last selection a number of eligible candidates by virtue of physique, attainments and good character were turned down who ought to have been entered, and that the only reason was this fictitious and unnecessarily high standard of entry. What is the result of this extensive training at the Royal Hospital School over a period of three or four years? Thirty years ago that school got the highest proportion of commissions awarded to the lower deck, but before the war very few commissions were being awarded to Royal Hospital School boys.

So we have this "posh" and expensive school taking the cream of the applicants for entry, and yet at the crucial test, as far as our type of entry is concerned, and after special training, they cannot hold their own against other boys from other sources in the matter of commissions from the lower deck. I recommend to the Parliamentary Secretary that the whole organisation of this school, and particularly the large staffs which are detailed in the statement of the expenses, requires thorough investigation. I understand that a committee some little time ago investigated certain aspects of the school, and I hope that its report will be made available to Members of the House who are interested in the school.

I would also suggest that early steps should be taken to increase the number of boys to fill the capacity of the accommodation because there is no doubt that there is ample accommodation and ample staff. Lastly, with the shortage of housing accommodation the two missing hostels will have to wait. Their building should have the highest priority on the Admiralty list of new buildings. This orphanage should be run as was originally intended, to give sons of poor parents, particularly those of fathers lost in the service of the Navy and Mercantile Marine, a better chance of a full life as the result of these large charitable gifts and the large amount of money in the Trust. Failing this, the next annual statement will have a far more stormy passage in this House than the present one has had tonight.

1.7 a.m.

It is my great pleasure at this late hour—and a rather unexpected pleasure—to congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend on a most unusual and I think unique maiden speech. I would not say that I hope we shall often hear him again on this subject, on which he is so manifestly at home, because that would mean that we should hear him only once a year. I hope that we shall hear him much more often than that on other subjects, to which I am sure he will address himself with equal eloquence. I think many hon. Members may have been reminded of the first of Anthony Trollope's series of Barchester novels, where a situation, not quite exactly the same as that described by the hon. Member, but comparable to it, was developed. It seems to me that my hon. Friend has exposed something which is, as he put it, a first-class charitable ramp, which should be investigated by my hon. Friend on the Front Bench. At least it can be said that, fortunately, no such error has been committed by the Labour Government this year as was committed by the Coalition Government a year ago, when, as my hon. Friend's predecessor admitted frankly, there was a breakdown in the presentation of these accounts to the Vote Office. That matter was ferreted out by that very vigilant ferret, Sir Herbert Williams, who is no longer with us, and it provided the House with a most interesting and entertaining historical Debate.

Is it in Order to call an ex-hon. Member of this House: a ferret?

I assure the hon. Member that it was a pure metaphor, and I apologise if he thought for a moment that I meant it literally. I will not detain the House more than a moment longer, because I know that you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, like all of us, want to get home to bed, but I would like to say seriously: Can the hon. Gentleman tell us now, or at some future time, a little about the curriculum of this very expensive school, and, in particular, are the students there taught anything about the subject which is sometimes—perhaps rather primly or priggishly—referred to as citizenship? I am sure my hon. Friend knows what I am leading up to. I am leading up to the absolute right of every Service man to communicate with his Member of Parliament at any time on any subject. I hope my hon. Friend is going to tell us that the boys in this school are taught that they will always have that right when they enter the Royal Navy.

1.09 a.m.

:I should like to congratulate the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Kingston-upon-Hull, East (Commander Pursey), who may well have made history; there can certainly be very few people who have made a maiden speech at five minutes past one in the morning. It says a great deal for his great perseverance, endurance and courage that he should have done so. I am sure hon. Members will be interested to know that it was not a speech prepared over a long period, because the hon. and gallant Member only came to me this afternoon and asked if there was to be a discussion on this matter. When I encouraged him to speak, he went away and wrote his speech. I think it is an example to many of us who have spent hours preparing a speech.

This Motion concerned one individual school expending a minute sum of. money compared with the figures we have been discussing this afternoon. Many other countries with other Houses of Parliament might well be interested to see the way in which we deal with the smallest details. Questions have been asked about this school for which my predecessor takes responsibility for seven months and I take-responsibility for five months. Let us deal with the finances of the Fund. 1 am not surprised that the hon. Member for South Dorset (Viscount Hinchingbrooke) who raised this matter last year is not in his place, because since this Government came into power he has done his best to discourage saving and appears to take little interest in the finances of the country. But I can reassure him as regards the finances of Greenwich Hospital Fund, which arc a much wider thing than the school, and this Fund has made a profit of £3,000 in 1941, £10,000 in 1942, and £7,000 in 1943. So that it has been by no means a drain on the Exchequer.

When this Government was formed, we found in the Admiralty that a controversy had been raging with the Treasury for 20 years. There was controversy as, to whether or not the Treasury should receive a sum of £45,000 a year every year from the Greenwich Hospital Fund. I discussed this matter with the new Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and I am happy to say that for the first time in the history of this Fund, this subvention will cease and from now onwards £ 45,000 a year which previously went to the Treasury will by means of this Fund be used to give pensions to deserving cases of orphans and widows of seamen.

I have been asked various questions mainly about the school, and I would say, if I may, that this is a very good example of national control. Schools of a rather more famous character such as Eton and Harrow might, I do not say they do, but they could, neglect their pupils' education and cut down the supply of food and carry out a system of discipline comparable with that of Dotheboys Hall and there would be no redress from this House. But the House of Commons is asked tonight to consider whether in fact the children in a single school are getting the best education. I think that is a very admirable thing.

The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. J. P. L. Thomas), my predecessor, asked, among other things, about the headmaster and superintendent. Last year there were, in fact, a headmaster and a naval superintendent. It has been decided this year that it would be better if we only had one head and now there is only a headmaster and no naval superintendent. I have been asked about the Advisory Committee.

Is there any direction as to whether the headmaster shall have had any naval experience?

:No, there is not, but I will deal with that in connection with the Advisory Committee. This Committee includes among its members a number of Naval officers, and the chairman is the headmaster of Harrow. The members include the headmaster of Berkhampstead, the secretary to the East Suffolk Education Committee and the Director of Education for Cambridgeshire. They include also the Director of Naval Training and the Director of the Education Department in the Admiralty, who is a naval captain, so I think 1 can say that the naval side of the school is fully attended to. I visited the school a month or two ago, and arrived on a Tuesday, on which day it appears there is always a full naval parade. The discipline was first-class. I think that any sailor who saw it would be proud to know that the boys are being thoroughly imbued with naval discipline and traditions. Therefore, although it may be, in a sense, a civilian school, it has a very strong naval tradition.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Hull talked about the school being "posh." It is a very good expression. That is one of the troubles we have been faced with recently at the Admiralty. There has been a tendency, as there would be at any school, to step up the education to greater and greater heights, and the greater the heights the harder it is for boys who may not be quite so intelligent to get in. It is not every child of every seaman who reaches the highest level of intelligence. Many of them do, but not all of them. If one sets a very high level of entry, it may well be that some may be excluded. The Admiralty are now trying to see whether means can be found by which the school can be kept at a level at which all the sons of seamen who are qualified to go to it can in fact go. We do not want to see public funds originally set aside for the benefit of the sons of seamen being used to set up a "posh" secondary school to which anybody can go. That would be a misuse of public funds. Therefore, we want to see that the standard is kept at such a level that it will both cater for the boys for whom the Charity was founded and will at the same time provide an adequate training for men who are going into the Royal Navy.

I have been asked some questions about the cost. It is £143 per boy. I would compare that with the Thames Nautical Training School, where the cost is £140 per boy, and the Pangbourne Nautical Training College, at which it is £170. I do not think, therefore, it can be said to be exorbitant. One trouble we have suffered from—and I hope it will be cured, at any rate to some extent, by tonight's Debate—is that the school has not been well enough known. Not enough people have made use of it. I hope that hon. Members will do their best to see that in each of their Divisions as many people as possible do hear of it, so that a larger number of boys may go to the school. The larger the number of boys we can accommodate there, obviously, the smaller the cost. The Admiralty have got out a leaflet, and have done all they can to publicize the school, but hon. Members can help, if they will. I would only say this in conclusion. We do not want too many boys to come in, because we do not want to get the school crowded to the detriment of the education. I said at the outset that this was a small affair compared with the Finance Bill, and, indeed, it is, but to those concerned it is of vital importance. This school is for the sons of seamen, men who have given very great service to their country, many of whom have died in the service of their country. I hope we in this House—everyone of us—will see the boys get the finest education we can give them.

Question put, and agreed.

Resolved:

" That the Statement of the Estimated Income and Expenditure of Greenwich Hospital and Travers' Foundation for the year ending 31st March, 1946, which was presented on 23rd August, be approved."