This history which includes a mention of Verdala is courtesy of the Tal Handaq web site.  Our thanks - Verdala

The History of The Royal Naval School TAL HANDAQ

by Captain M F Law

Few of the present members of the school are familiar with the history of Tal-Handaq.  We reveal it here in this final Tal Handaq school magazine, from an account which appeared in the midsummer 1953 edition by Cdr A J Bellamy.  We are indebted to Capt M F Law, MA, Royal Navy, some time Head of Mathematics and later Headmaster of the school, for a continuation of the school's history.

I am frequently asked by visitors to the school as well as by parents, how and when the Royal Naval School came into existence.  The service population of Malta contains a considerable number who received their early education at the school in pre-war days (two old pupils are now on the teaching staff) but for the majority who know nothing of our history, this excursion into the past may be of interest.

The education of the children of people whose work takes them away from the UK has always been a problem.  In many colonies the answer lies in private schools.  Long ago, however, the Admiralty realised that not everyone could afford private school fees, and some sort of provision was made by them as long ago as 1880, when a 'Dockyard School' was started in an old Dining Hall, just inside the main gates of the Yard.  Here some 30 to 40 children, mostly Maltese or Anglo-Maltese were taught the rudiments of arithmetic and English.  The Dockyard Officers who were sent out from England continued to send their children to private schools and in those days few naval people brought their families to Malta.  Most of those early pupils neither spoke nor understood much English when they entered the school, but they were taught so well that many won their way to good positions in the professions or in Government Offices.

Even fifty years ago there were problems concerned with the growth of the School.  By 1904 it had outgrown its room in the Dockyard and new premises (an old prison!) were taken over in Prison Street, Senglea.  About this time one of the school staff (and later its Headmaster) was Naval Schoolmaster W Candey.  In fact, the Education Service of the Navy has always  provided the school's head and, until recently, all the male teaching staff.

In Senglea the school grew steadily to about 250 children.  Children entered, as now, at the age of 5 and left at 14, when the boys took the examination for entry to the Dockyard.  The school's troop of Sea Scouts started about 1910, very soon after the movement began.  The old records show that up to 1918 most of the children entering the school were Maltese, but from that time the proportion of English children grew appreciably and as they increased the character of the school changed.  In 1925 the level of instruction went beyond the Apprentice Examination and an 'Oxford Junior' class appears in the records for the first time.  This was the beginning of a serious effort to run the upper part of the school on secondary school lines as opposed to a preparing ground for Dockyard apprentices.  By this time, too, the school had ceased to cater for the children of locally entered Dockyard employees and had assumed its present function of providing education on English lines for children who would normally have gone to English schools.  There were now many naval, as well as Dockyard children.

Verdala appears on the scene in 1929.  By then there were once again too many children for the Senglea building to hold and an old Royal Marine barracks and ex-prisoner-of-war camp at Cottonera in St Clements Bastion was taken over.  This we now know as Verdala School.  Here were buildings which would hold 350 children, but the records for 1932 show only 150 boys and 70 girls attending.  This number increased steadily to 530 in 1938, when there were three classes of infants, five of juniors, and six secondary.  Boys and girls were taught separately in the secondary school in those days.  The school also catered for the education of the Dockyard apprentices in the evenings.  Top storeys were built on the main Verdala Blocks, in 1938.  In those days school lunches cost 6d, and the tuck shop sold lemonade at ld a bottle. The houses for the boys were the same as at present, but the girls had their own houses named Anne, Victoria and Elizabeth.

The school entered its first School Certificate candidate in 1932.  He failed, but in 1938 ten certificates were won.  This story of growth and development was sadly interrupted by the outbreak of war in 1939, and eventually all English wives and children were evacuated from Malta.  The school struggled on in yet another home at St George's Barracks, but eventually shut down completely in September 1942.

During the war the Verdala buildings were badly damaged and the main hall was destroyed.  Part of the School was used as a prison, and another part became HMS Euroclydon, and was used to house the crews of submarines.

After the war English families started to come back to much damaged Malta and education again had to be provided for their children.  Early in 1946 the old Headmaster was sent out to see how much was left of the old school equipment, after the bombing.  He found seventy five desks (we still use them) and some moldering books most of which are now museum pieces, but this was not a very encouraging start for the re-opened school.  Re-open it did on 16th May 1946 with 55 children, in two requisitioned houses on the water's edge at Ta' Xbiex.  The staff were two Instructor Officers and their wives.  Children under seven couldn't be accepted because no one could teach them.  Soon after the school opened it became clear that the two houses in Ta' Xbiex would very quickly become inadequate and another search was made for a new building.  Various country houses, hotels, etc all proved unsuitable but in September 1946, a disused Army Barracks at Tal Handaq was discovered.  This had been built during the war to resemble a Maltese village, in order to give camouflage from the air.  However this unpromising and remote spot had room for lots of children and so work began to fit it out as a School.  So in January 1947 the Dockyard School (children's section) came to Tal Handaq and ever since there has been a continual race between the Civil Engineering Department of the Dockyard in preparing new rooms and children coming along  to occupy them.  In 1947 the name of the School, now completely separate from the Apprentices' School, was changed to Naval Children's School.

The Headmaster's report for 1948 said that no more children could be crammed into Tal Handaq (150 extra have been put in somehow since then!) and in 1949 the old School at Verdala was repaired and restored as a school.  The rebuilding of the hall was not completed until 1951 and meanwhile the present hall had been built at Tal Handaq.  The School's record year for growth was 1952 when 300 additional children were absorbed, the total number reaching 1947 by the end of the year.  This year also gave us our new name 'Royal Naval School' - a more dignified and inspiring title for an organisation which is unique among schools.  Now it would seem we have reached the limit of growth in our present buildings.  Where next?

A recent appeal in the local press has brought me a number of letters of reminiscence (at least one of which appears elsewhere in this magazine) as well as one or two useful leads to original sources of information, and in this respect I am particularly grateful to Mr W Bellizzi of Balzan and to Dr Depasquale, Librarian of the National Library, Valletta.

The following notice appeared in the Malta Government Gazette of 31 May 1820:

British National School
Burmola 20 May 1820

Wanted: A Governess to instruct the female children of this Institution in Needlework, reading, writing and the rudiments of arithmetic.

It is likely that this school was a semi-private venture but it Is noteworthy that it was situated at Burmola (Burmla) better known to us as Cospicua.  When it was started, I do not know, but since by 1804 there were already 28 English craftsmen in the Dockyard it could have been very early.  In a magazine article D. Degiorgio tells us that it was situated near the first Dockyard Chapel, beneath the Sta Margherita Arches, and that it was later moved by Rear Admiral Sir Lucius Curtis to a drawing office (already converted for use as the 'War Game Room') under St Michael's Bastion.  It was about this time that a proposal that a Schoolmaster be appointed from England was made by the Dockyard Chaplain, the Rev M Tucker.  Admiral Curtis does not seem to have been strongly in favour ('never having been consulted on the subject') but he concludes his forwarding letter, dated 10 January 1846, by begging '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 escape the baneful influence of liquor, which is so cheap that they soon become inveterate drunkards.  The most interesting of my finds, however, has been the following Article in The Malta Times dated Tuesday 19 October 1858:


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 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, but 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. A further paragraph in the next edition of the newspaper apologised for the omission of any reference to 'The Reverend B. Howe, Chaplain to the Yard, who has the honour of first proposing the school to the Admiral Superintendent in March last, Admiral Stopford readily took up the suggestion and forwarded Mr Howes letters to the Admiralty, supporting them with all this influence'.

I think we can take this as firm evidence of the opening of the first official Dockyard School (and direct forerunner of Tal Handaq School today) on 1 November 1858, making the school almost 120 years old.  In the preceding article, Commander Bellamy took up the story from the move of the school (originally in or near the Chapel by the sail loft in the Sta Margherita Cospicua, area) to the old dining hall.  I now continue where he left off.

You may have noticed that although he mentions Verdala he still talks about the 'school', in the singular, because at the time there was just one all-age RN Children's School, housed on two separate sites, some but not all of the primary children being at Verdala.  It was about 1954 that it proved possible to house all the primary section at Verdala and also about that time a separate Verdala Headmaster was appointed, although he was still responsible to the Headmaster, Tal Handaq.

The huge total of 1470 pupils, referred to by Cdr Bellamy, was for the two sections of the school combined, only 700 of them being at Tal Handaq.  He might have been surprised had he known then that in 1960 the numbers were to reach 1050 at Tal Handaq and 1200 at Verdala, those at Tal Handaq being housed in buildings which were expanded from a theoretical capacity of 600 in 1958 to 800 in 1960.  I was on the staff at the time and although I can't really remember where all those pupils went, I do know that there were a few 'floating' classes with no rooms of their own.  Tal Handaq has always quietly got on with the job of achieving what most people would think of as impossible without making a fuss about it.

In those early days besides being all-age it was also what newspapers today describe as 'all-in', although not strictly speaking comprehensive in the usual sense of that word.  The school was divided into separate grammar and modern sections but even in those days transition from one to the other was quite easy.  As early as 1964 the school was reorganised on comprehensive lines, which meant that the grammar/modern division was removed altogether (although some streaming remained) and from the fourth year upwards pupils had individual timetables with a wide range of optional subjects which they could take at a combination of different levels, as they do today.  This change, when it came, was comparatively small and undramatic, in sharp contrast to the upheavals going on in the UK system.  'Comprehensive' is in some ways what Tal Handaq has always been (and could only be) and the word does not have the unpleasant overtones with which it unfortunately so often seems to be associated at home.

In the sixties, after the closure of HM Dockyard and with Malta's approaching independence and the consequent British run-down (yes, it's been going on for a long time!), numbers began to decline, but never as fast as predicted, and in late 1966 there were still nearly 900 pupils at Tal Handaq.  The Sixth form was larger than ever, although still small by UK standards, and examination results in CSE and at 'O' and 'A' level improved steadily in both quality and quantity, reaching 433 'O' level subject passes in 1967 and 80 'A' level subject passes in 1968.  Even up to 1971, with numbers in the range 700 to 800, there were regularly over 50 'A' level subject passes a year, and remember this was in a comprehensive school which was notably 'bottom-heavy' (seven first-year forms but only three in the fifth year) and to which parents frequently (and not surprisingly) did not bring out their older and more academically inclined children.

1969 saw the demise of single Service schools and the formation of a joint organisation called the Service Children's Education Authority.  This was something else which had comparatively little effect on Tal Handaq as ever since the war it had been the only Service secondary school on the island and, although run entirely by the Navy, it catered for the children of parents of all three Services as well as Government civilians.  Its only effects were to take away the Headmaster, Instructor Captain Malkin, to become a full time administrator (as Officer in Charge, Service Children's Schools, Malta, Naples and Tripoli), replacing him by an Instructor Commander (myself), and to change the name from Royal Naval School to Service Children's School.

The rest is comparatively recent history, but mention should perhaps be made of a little hiccup during the Christmas holiday 1971 when, a few days before term was due to start, it was announced that all Service dependants were to leave Malta within two weeks and the schools would not reopen. I can perhaps leave the effects of this short notice closure to your imagination (they were described in the 1973 magazine), but we certainly did go home and the school was reduced to an empty shell in Malta, a vast number of ominously rattling packing cases at Bicester, several large boxes of documents at Eltham and a staff, still technically on the strength but dispersed all over the UK, somewhat plaintively enquiring what was to happen to them next.  Pupils were scattered to the four winds and regrettably there was little we could do to help them.

Two terms later, in September 1972, we reopened, somewhat reduced in size and with about 50% new staff and 75% new pupils.  Numbers reached 600 by September 1973 and stayed about this level until early 1977 when the final rundown began to bite, causing numbers to decline steadily to the final total of just over 300.

Finally, as my main source of material for this article has been old school magazines, and particularly Headmasters' Annual Reports, I should like to pay tribute to former Headmasters by recording here as many of their names as I have been able to discover.

Headmaster W Candey 1918  
Headmaster Govier Mar 1925  
Headmaster H E Hindmand MBE Mar 1925 Jun 1928
Headmaster G H Rickers Jun 1928 Dec 1932
Headmaster Lieut W F Plant Nov 1932 Dec 1937
Headmaster Lieut F J Giles Dec 1937 Sep 1942
Instructor Commander A H Miles OBE (later Instructor Captain, CBE) May 1946 Jan 1951
Instructor Commander A J Bellamy OBE (later Instructor Rear Admiral, CB) Jan 1951 Apr 1954
Instructor Captain B J Morgan (later Instructor Rear Admiral, CB) Apr 1954 Apr 1959
Instructor Captain D E Mannering Apr 1959 Aug 1963
Instructor Captain L Broad Aug 1963 Aug 1966
Instructor Captain H C Malkin (later CBE) Aug 1966 Jan 1970
Instructor Commander M F Law (later Captain) Jan 1970 Apr 1974
Commander G D Stubbs Apr 1974 Jul 1978