Captain M F Law MA RN

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

I trust my khaki-clad friends will forgive me if I begin this second article by adding just a little more to the Naval side of the story, a fuller account of which can be found in the 1978 edition of the Tal Handaq School magazine.  A recent appeal in the local press has brought me a number of letters of reminiscence together with several useful pointers to original sources and I am particularly grateful to Mr W Bellizzi of Balzan whose information finally led me to the Malta Times of Tuesday 19th October 1858 where I found the following:

Dockyard School in Malta

The friends of education will be glad to learn that arrangements have been made by the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty for the establishment of a school in Malta for the use of the children (boys and girls) of all persons employed in the Her Majesty’s Dockyard and Naval Establishments in this Island, and an afternoon and evening school for apprentices.  An excellent schoolmaster, Mr Sullivan, has been appointed who is already arrived from England and the school, we hear, is to be opened on the first of November next ----.

The Admiral Superintendent is appointed Visitor and the Committee of Management is to consist of the Master Shipwright, the Superintending Engineer and the Chaplain, who will be charged with the immediate superintendence of the school, and will take it in turn monthly to visit the school daily, if possible, to see that it is properly conducted. No female child will be permitted to remain in the school after the age of fourteen years, nor any male child after the usual age of apprenticeship;  and a payment of six pence a month is to be made to the Crown for each pupil for the use of stationery, books, slates, etc.  The method of education is to be that adopted by the National Society in their schools and in those of Her Majesty’s Dockyards at home, as nearly as found practicable.

(The office of examiner) will be performed by the Naval Instructor of the Flagship, or the Senior Naval Instructor present, and in the event of the fleet being absent, by such other properly qualified person, either a clergyman or a graduate, who will be called upon to draw up a report upon the school for transmission to the Admiralty Inspector of Schools England.

Thus 1st November 1858 appears to be the definitive date for the opening of the original, official, Admiralty-sponsored Dockyard School, although there seems to have been an earlier unofficial one.  This makes Tal Handaq, its direct descendant, by far the oldest of our remaining schools, just short of its 120th birthday.  It was very far from being the first official Service School, however, as we shall see, neither does it occupy the oldest remaining school building.

The next edition of the Malta Times adds the information that the Rev. B Howe, Chaplain to the Yard, had “the honour of first proposing the school to the Admiral Superintendent in March last.  Admiral Stopford readily took up the suggestion and forwarded Mr Howe’s letter to the Admiralty, supporting it with all his influence”.  However, this was not the first attempt by a chaplain to put the schooling on a proper footing.  Some twelve years earlier the Rev. M Tucker had proposed that a person from England be sent to fill the vacant appointment of Clerk of the Chapel and also to undertake the duties of schoolmaster.  Rear Admiral Lucius Curtis (“never having been consulted on the matter”) did not seem to be strongly in favour, but concluded his forwarding letter (1) dated 10th January 1846, by saying that, should their Lordships be pleased to approve the proposal he begged “strongly to recommend that the person sent should be married, as from experience I too well know that the temptations are so great that very few single men can escape the baneful influence of liquor, which is so cheap that they soon become inveterate drunkards”.  At this point I should perhaps confess that I first came to Tal Handaq as a bachelor.

The site of the school is more difficult to establish.  Various reports (2) indicate that it may have been originally in a sail loft, then the War Games Room, then an old dining hall, before moving to the well remembered site in Old Prison Street, just inside Isola Gate, Senglea.  These last buildings were old Army Barracks, first converted to Naval or Dockyard use about 1899 (3).  The issue is confused by the existence of an earlier, and presumably unofficial, school called the “British National School” in very much the same area (near the Sta Margherita Arches).  The only original evidence I have found is the following notice in the Malta Government Gazette of 31st May 1820.

British National School

Burmola (4) 20 May 1820

Wanted, a Governess to instruct the female children of this Institution in Needle-work, Reading, Writing and the Rudiments of Arithmetic.

The date of its opening and the length of its life are not clear but there certainly could have been a need for it as early as 1804, when there were already 28 English craftsmen (5) in the well established Dockyard.  However, Admiral Curtis, in his earlier quoted letter (1) refers to an unsuccessful attempt to start a school based entirely on voluntary contributions, in 1819.

Having got back to 1804 let us now transfer our attention to the Army who have usually been well ahead of the Navy in the matter of looking after families.  In the last article I mentioned the arrival of the first large detachment of British troops while the French were still under blockade and siege in Valetta and the three Cities.  They landed on 10th December 1799 at St Paul’s Bay, having sailed from Messina in HMS NORTHUMBERLAND and HMS CULLODEN, and consisted of the 30th and 89th Regiments of Foot (later 1 East Lancs and 2 Royal Irish Fusiliers) under the command of Brigadier General Thomas Graham (6).  The force comprised 64 Officers and 888 men, accompanied by 62 women and, astonishingly enough, 15 children, who must surely have been the first British Service Children to come to Malta.  They are hardly likely to have had a school but it is not impossible that one of the Regiments would have had a Schoolmaster on the strength, whose duties would have included the teaching of children as well as of young soldiers, although the regiments concerned have no evidence that such a man was on the strength.

For further information on early Regimental Schools readers should refer to Colonel N T St J Williams’ excellent and informative book “Tommy Atkins’ Children” (7) from where we learn that, although regimental schools had been in existence for many years (on an unofficial basis), in 1811, by War Office Circular 79, it became a requirement “that in each battalion or corps a regimental school shall accordingly forthwith be established”.  I am afraid it has not been possible from Malta to do the detailed research into regimental histories which would doubtless provide information on the many such schools which must have existed in Malta from 1812 onwards but in any case the next major development did not occur until 1850, and for what follows I am greatly indebted to the pupils of Verdala School in 1975, under the guidance of Mr Denis Sanderson, for obtaining from the Public Record Office copies of a long and very fascinating correspondence (8) on what they clearly thought would turn out to be the foundation of their school.  They must have been bitterly disappointed to find that it was not, but what they acquired was an absolute mine of information on a very significant development in Army education.  They were professional enough to leave their correspondence and facsimiles with Mr Roger Vella Bonavita, of the History Department of the University of Malta, and he has kindly made them available to me.

The planned building of Verdala Barracks (for 800 men) caused the Secretary at War to enquire, in a letter dated 2nd August 1849, “whether a School room on the new system has been included in these arrangements”.  After a first fairly glib reply (that “as the rooms are equally well adapted for the purpose, one or more can be so appropriated without any inconvenience except that of decreasing the extent of accommodation for Troops by 12 men for each of the Rooms so disposed of”), it became apparent that a chapel was also needed and a proposal was soon forthcoming for the building of one of the Chapel Schools conceived by the Rev. G R Gleig, Principal Chaplain and Inspector General of Army Schools 1846 – 1857 (9).  A survey of existing schoolrooms and the disposition of the various barracks was called for, and so we learn that in 1850 there were in existence six schoolrooms in all, situated in Upper St Elmo, Lower St Elmo (2), St James’, Isola Gate (the barrack that was later to become the Dockyard School) and Floriana.  All were unsatisfactory in various degrees, “being usually a Soldiers’ casemate room, lighted only from the door, or small windows near it, and from the solidity of the buildings, incapable of alteration”. (10)  To cut a long story short, it was decided to build two Chapel Schools, one on each side of Grand Harbour, to which the majority of the men (children apparently not being considered to any great extent) would have sufficiently easy access.  They were to be modelled on the one at Preston (but with no ceiling, like the one at Cork) and the first specifications and plan for the one for Verdala Barracks were produced in April 1851, the first estimate of cost being £2527 4s 5¼d.  It subsequently suffered a reduction in length, increase in height, reduction of cost (by reducing the thickness of the walls, amongst other things) and no less than three changes of site, being finally completed at Sta Margherita Square (just opposite the Vittoriosa Bus Terminus today) almost exactly four years later in April 1855.  An exact twin to this Chapel School was completed at the Upper Baracca, Valetta, a year or two later, having first been proposed for the site of the Auberge d’Angleterre, where the Opera House was eventually built.

These two buildings, therefore, were the first purpose-built (or more accurately, dual-purpose-built) Service schools in Malta, that at the Upper Baracca being still in existence today, but as a GPO sorting office.  Most people remember it as the Valetta Garrison Church but not one person has mentioned its use as a school so I conclude that its scholastic function ceased at, or before, the turn of the century.  In more recent years it served as the Vernon Club.  The Sta Margherita School, however, although completely demolished during World War II (walls too thin?!) is remembered by many people as a school and I believe it must have been closed in the early 1920’s.  Mr J Galea of Zabbar even remembers it in 1914 in its dual-purpose form divided into classrooms during the week by curtains, but its use as a church ceased about this time.  Mr Galea and others remember travelling to the various Army Schools in horse or mule-drawn wagons or ambulances, even as late as 1934 at St Andrews.

It is ironic to read in a report dated July 1858 (11) that “whilst two of the regiments are provided with magnificent schoolrooms in the two newly-erected chapel schools, rooms indeed far beyond their requirements, the others are labouring under every possible disadvantage in carrying on their duties in barrack rooms but ill suited for the purpose …”.  Gleig’s aim of concentrating the schooling was thus not achieved, someone having decided that the travelling problem was too great in the heat of the Maltese summer.

It seems that the first single-purpose-built Service school in Malta may have been at the English Curtain, below the Anglican Cathedral and opposite the Auberge de Baviere, Valetta.  Confusingly enough it is described on the original plan (12) as St Elmo Adults’ and Infants’ School although it is not actually situated at St Elmo, where there was another school at the same time.  The school at the English Curtain still stands today much the same as when it was opened in 1905, although it became the Provost HQ during the last War and has not been used as a school since.  It was long ago handed back to the Malta Government.  The Floriana Garrison School, in a building now used by the Inland Revenue, also seems likely to have been purpose-built and to have opened in the first few years of the century, and it continued in existence at least until the beginning of the Second World War, but I have no exact dates.  As mentioned earlier, St Elmo had a school within its boundaries at least up to the First War and probably Riscasoli did too, but I have no exact dates and no information as to whether either of these was purpose-built.

The most recently used barracks are St Andrew’s, St David’s (Mtarfa) and Tigne.  The school at Tigne was originally hutted but at the time of its closure in 1970 it was in permanent buildings adapted for the purpose.  I am afraid I have no knowledge of the history of St David’s School, closed in July 1975 but to St Andrew’s goes the honour of being our oldest purpose-built school still in use, having been completed in 1908 and used almost continuously since then.

No account of Army schools in Malta would be complete without a reference to those mainstays of Tommy Atkins’ Children’s education, the Queen’s Army Schoolmistresses, who often provided the backbone of the school staffs, sometimes in circumstances much more difficult than those of today (13).  At least one former QAS and former Headmistress of Tigne School, Miss M C Clark MBE, is still living in Malta today, and with Miss J Yule MBE (former Senior Mistress of Tal Handaq) and Miss L Harris-Candey (who not only taught at the Dockyard (later RN) Children’s School but was educated there, her father having joined the staff in 1902, later becoming Headmaster) provide a seemingly inexhaustible fund of information and personal reminiscence.

Finally a very brief word on RAF schools, on which, in spite of the Editor’s valiant efforts, information has remained very scarce.  Luqa School, on its present site, is certainly purpose-built and is believed to have opened in 1952 and for a considerable (but uncertain) period it had an annexe at RAF Safi.  Luqa Airfield itself was not built until after the outbreak of war in 1939.  The first RAF base in Malta was at Kalafrana (a pre-1914 RN seaplane base) and I am told by Mr Gregory of Mellieha that a school was built there, probably just after the First War, and was situated near to Octopus Creek.  It probably continued as the only RAF School until 1939, catering also for children at RAF Hal Far.

In summary, therefore, at the time of writing we are about to bring to a close probably 170 years, or even more, of British Service Children’s Education in Malta.  We salute those who have gone before us and who laid the foundations for the flourishing school system with which we are proud to be associated today.  We like to think, as no doubt all Service School teachers and authorities do, that our schools have been characterised, above all, by a concern for the interests and problems of the individual child and family, a concern which has sometimes, but regrettably not always, been echoed in correspondence with schools in the United Kingdom.  Comments from parents and pupils certainly encourage us to believe that we have succeeded in this aim and they leave us in no doubt that they will be leaving this island with as many happy memories of the schools as we ourselves shall have.

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