Captain M F Law MA RN

Officer-in-Charge, Service Children’s Schools, Malta and Naples

When British Service personnel finally leave Malta in 1979 it will have been a major British base for almost 180 years.  It therefore seems appropriate to mark the occasion with a brief history of Service Children’s Schools in the island – and where better to publish it than this excellent Bulletin, which in the short period of its life has carried a number of articles with a Malta dateline.

Much research needs to be done and one of the purposes of this opening article is to appeal for help from anyone with recollections of single-Service schools in the island, or who knows of any other sources of information.  I should be most grateful if they would write to me, Officer-in-Charge, Service Children’s Schools Malta, BFPO 51.  I should perhaps explain that records in Malta seem to be almost non-existent, partly because the Navy didn’t seem to take over any Army records when it assumed the administration of the Army Schools in 1969, and partly because such records as did exist were either destroyed or (more probably) returned to UK during the 1972 withdrawal.  I will nevertheless sketch in such information as we have already.

Probably the first British Serviceman to serve ashore in Malta, and certainly the first British Commander in the island, was Captain Alexander Ball, Royal Navy, one of Nelson’s “band of brothers”.  He came to assist the Maltese in ridding themselves of the unpopular French garrison led by Napoleon and which was at that time under siege in Valletta.  His assistance was at first in the form of a blockade by British ships but in December 1799 he was joined by the first detachment of British troops to be sent to the island.  The French Commander, General Vaubois, finally surrendered to the British on 5th September 1800, mainly as a result of Ball’s blockade, and British Service personnel have been continuously based in the island from that day to this.  The last one, likely to be another Naval officer, Rear Admiral O N A Cecil, the Commander British Forces Malta, is scheduled to leave on 31st March 1979, Malta’s “date with destiny”.

No information has come to light as to when the first Service Children’s School was opened in the island but there can be little doubt that it would have been one of the Army’s regimental schools which, by War Office Circular 79 of 27th December 1811, were established in each battalion or corps, presumably including those overseas, “for the instruction of young soldiers and of the children of soldiers”.  Such schools were presumably integral parts of the battalions concerned and moved with them round the world.  They could not therefore be said to be permanently established in Malta.  It is hoped that research may bring to light more information on these regimental schools in Malta.

The writer, being a Naval officer and having twice served at Tal Handaq School (1958-60 and 1970-74), has more access to Naval information and records than to those of the Army, which in any case have long left Malta, so it is not surprising that the majority of the information available so far has a distinct Naval bias.

An article in the RN School (Tal Handaq) Magazine for 1953 by the then Headmaster, Instructor Commander (later Instructor Rear Admiral) A J Bellamy, is a useful secondary source of information and tells us that the Admiralty opened the Dockyard School, Malta, in 1880, in a dining hall just inside the Dockyard gates.  It catered for 30 to 40 pupils, mainly the children of Maltese Dockyard personnel who were prepared for Dockyard Apprenticeships, but it was undoubtedly the direct predecessor of Tal Handaq School today.  In 1904 it became too big for the dining hall and moved to an old prison in Prison Street, Senglea.  It is interesting to note that the daughter of the Headmaster of about this time, Naval Schoolmaster W Candey, who subsequently herself taught at the RN School, is still living in Malta.

In Senglea the school gradually grew to about 250 pupils and from 1918 onwards the proportion of English pupils grew steadily as it began to concentrate on the children of British Dockyard Civilian and Naval personnel and to prepare pupils for the School Certificate (or Matriculation) examination as well as for the Dockyard Apprentice Entry Examination.  New premises were required and in 1929 the school moved to St Clement’s Bastion, adjacent to Verdala Barracks, Cottonera, to buildings which had already been in use as a Malta Government School since 1925, and which eventually became known as Verdala School.  The school was then still known as the Dockyard School and from that time onwards it seems to be confused in people’s recollections with the Dockyard Apprentices’ School (subsequently the Dockyard Technical College) which, of course, remained within the Dockyard until its closure in 1960.

The children’s school flourished at Verdala until by 1938 there were 530 pupils, so that upper storeys had to be added to the buildings.  In this year ten School Certificates were won.  It even continued after the outbreak of war in 1939 but in 1940, after Italy’s entry, it was hurriedly evacuated to St George’s Barracks, further along the coast to the North West and away from the Dockyard target area for enemy bombers.  It struggled on here until 1942 when it closed until after the war.

In 16th May 1946 the Dockyard Children’s School was reopened in two semi-detached villas in the fashionable waterside residential area of Ta’ Xbiex (rather easier to pronounce when you know that “x” sounds like “sh”).  The new Headmaster was Instructor Lieutenant Commander (later Instructor Captain) A H Miles, Royal Navy, who had been on the staff of the school before the war and who later returned to Malta yet again as Fleet Instructor Officer.  He was awarded the OBE for his work at the school and he remains the main source of first-hand information about the pre-war school.

In those days, both before and after the war, the school was staffed by a nucleus of Naval Schoolmasters and Naval Instructor Officers, supplemented by Locally Entered Teachers, who were recruited from the wives of the large numbers of Service personnel then in Malta.  In 1946 the reopened school had 55 pupils and Lt Commander Miles’ staff consisted of two Instructor Lieutenants and their wives, with Mrs Miles as School Secretary, very much a family affair.

From then on expansion was spectacular.  In January 1947 rising numbers (270 pupils and 11 staff) forced a move to disused wartime Army barracks at Tal Handaq, built of scattered flat-roofed single-storey buildings so as to appear from the air like a typical Maltese hamlet (a characteristic which has proved difficult to shake off) and on 15th July 1947 the name was changed to Naval Children’s School.  Numbers leaped to 530 by December 1948 and 735 in 1949, a year during which 500 new pupils were admitted.  It thus became essential to find yet more premises, and it was in April 1949 that Verdala school was reopened as a subsidiary to Tal Handaq to take some (but not yet all) of the Primary pupils.  Thus Tal Handaq continued to be an all-age school, with the Secondary department organised on bilateral lines.

It was about this time that Miss J Yule joined the staff as a Locally Entered Teacher.  She later became Senior Mistress and was awarded the MBE before her retirement in 1971.  Happily she remains in Malta as a good friend of the schools and is another useful source of first-hand information.

In 1950, with numbers over 500, staffing policy changed and for the first time the Admiralty recruited and sent out seconded teachers from UK, to the extent of 12 out of a total staff of 36 in 1950/51.  In 1952 (numbers at 1470) there was another change of title to “Royal Naval School” and it seems to have been in 1954 that it proved possible to house all the Primary section at Verdala, where a separate Headmaster was appointed, although the schools were still officially two separate parts of one whole.  Both Headmasters were Naval Instructor Officers and there were up to five other Instructor Officers on the staff of Tal Handaq during this period.

Throughout the fifties numbers increased steadily, reaching a maximum in 1960 of 1050 at Tal Handaq and about 1200 at Verdala.  Even those who were on the staff at the time find it difficult to understand how buildings designed to cope with 600, or eventually 800, sufficed for such numbers, but there were certainly a few floating classes with no classroom to call their own.

In the sixties, with Malta’s approaching independence, numbers began to decline but never as fast as predicted and in late 1966 there were still nearly 900 pupils at Tal Handaq, which had been reorganized along comprehensive lines in 1964 (a comparatively small and untraumatic change).  The Sixth Form was larger than ever (although still small by UK standards) and examination results in CSE and “O” and “A” level improved steadily in both quality and quantity to the point where there were regularly about 50 “A” level subject passes each year.

On the formation of SCEA in 1969, Instructor Captain H C Malkin, the Headmaster of Tal Handaq, became the first Officer in Charge, Service Children’s Schools Malta, Naples and Tripoli and took under his wing (in addition to Verdala) the Army Schools at St Andrews, Tigne and St David’s (Mtarfa) and the RAF School at Luqa (with an Annexe at Safi), as well as small schools in Naples and Tripoli.  This was clearly an unsuitable burden for a Comprehensive School Headmaster to bear so in January 1970 the present writer relieved Captain Malkin as Headmaster so that the latter could devote all his attention to administration.

Tigne School closed in Summer 1970 and after that the next major event was the sudden withdrawal of all British Service personnel and families from Malta in 1972.  This has already been described in an earlier SCEA Bulletin and all that need be said here is that all staff and pupils left the island within two weeks of the first announcement and all the schools were cleared of equipment (except furniture) and closed.  As is now well known they were subsequently reopened, the Primaries late in the Summer Term and Tal Handaq in September 1972.  About one quarter of the pupils had been in Malta before and roughly half the staff, but at the planning stage there was practically no information available at all, even on pupil numbers.  However, the resilience of Service Children and of the teachers, won through and the schools were soon back into their stride, the worst sufferers having been those pupils who were forced into an unplanned school change just over a term before they were due to take public examinations.

The rest is very recent history indeed, with a planned rundown during the years 1972 to 1979, the period of the Military Facilities Agreement.  St Davids Infants School Mtarfa closed in July 1975 and Verdala a year later, so that at the time of writing the schools are reduced to three:  Tal Handaq (Secondary) and Luqa and St Andrews (Primary).  All will close in July 1978, to coincide with the official end of family support facilities in September 1978.  No Serviceman will be allowed to bring his family out to Malta under official arrangements after March 1978 and any who retain children in Malta after September 1978 will have to make their own arrangements for schooling at local schools, as in any other extra-command area.

It will be seen that the preceding account lacks any sort of information on Army and RAF schools before 1969, although we do know that those mentioned, St Andrews, Tigne, St Davids, Luqa and Safi, had all existed for many years and that the date on the St Andrews School building is 1908.  What is mainly lacking, therefore, is information on other schools which are known to have existed at various times and it is hoped that the article will produce some offers of information.

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