The school that I went to was unusual in that it was a military boarding school. At the time that I attended, all of the boys in the school (it was single sex then) were the sons of serving or ex-soldiers, as they had been since its foundation.
The school was founded in 1803 as the Royal Military Asylum with the purpose of educating the orphans, both male and female, of soldiers killed during the Napoleonic Wars. The Royal Military Asylum was the second of the eventual three military schools in the UK.
The first of the schools was the Royal Hibernian Military School, which was founded in Dublin in 1770 and which was organised along similar lines to the Royal Military Asylum from the early nineteenth century. When Ireland became an independent country in 1922, the school was moved to Shorncliffe, near Folkestone, before being amalgamated with the Duke of York’s Royal Military School in 1924.
The last of the military schools, Queen Victoria School, was founded in 1908 in Dunblane in memory of those who had died during the South African wars of the late-nineteenth century. It is the only one of the three schools that is still exclusively for the children of service personnel and funded by the Ministry of Defence.
The Royal Military Asylum was initially located in Chelsea, London before it was moved to Dover in 1909, having become the Duke of York’s Royal Military School in 1892, at the same time that it became single sex. The original school buildings and grounds remained in control of the Ministry of Defence, as the Duke of York’s Headquarters until 2003, when it became part of the Saatchi Gallery.
Once the school arrived in Dover, this is where it has remained, on top of the cliffs and a focus for just about every cold wind in the south-east of England, apart from two short evacuations during the First World War to Hutton in Essex and during the Second World War to Braunton in Devon.
Being the sort of school that it was, there was much emphasis on the military aspect of life. In fact, when I first started at the school, we were issued with No.1 Dress uniforms and berets and we had ‘Military Training’ lessons timetabled at least three times a week. In addition, we were expected to master the intricacies of drill, marching-up to meals and participating in ‘Church Parades’ every Sunday.
The two most important parades each year were Remembrance Sunday and Grand Day, the latter being when the school ‘Troop the Colour’ in a similar ceremony to that seen in London. However, it’s the first of these two parades that I am going to talk about.
Every year on the Remembrance Sunday parade, as well as all of the pupils on parade, there was also an ‘Old Boys’ Contingent’, made up of the guys who had left the school, and in fact the entire weekend was known as Old Boys’ weekend.
I clearly remember my first of these parades as when the order “Fall-in the Old Boys” was given, there was a large number of Old Boys who made their way onto the parade square. But it was also the manner in which they were dressed. There were the older Old Boys, in their pin-stripe suits, British Warms and Bowler Hats, their numerous medals pinned to the chests, some First World War (it was 1978, just 60 years since that war had ended), some Second World War, some with both. Then there were the next generation of Old Boys, again smartly dressed in suits or in their uniforms, some with one or two medals pinned to their chests. Lastly, there were the ones that had just left the school and were at university, or in some cases polytechnic. As I have said, it was 1978, so many of these Old Boys shuffled onto the parade square with long hair that would never have been allowed when they were at the school and dressed in ragged jeans, sheepskin jackets and beaten up old plimsolls.
However, when the order to “Quick march” was given, all of these Old Boys, suited, uniformed or ‘jeaned’ stepped off and marched immaculately down to the school war memorial. But this was the last year that the it was possible to see this, as the School’s Regimental Sergeant Major in my first year retired at the end of that year and was replaced by one who was Grenadier Guards and would only allow Old Boys on parade if they were ‘appropriately dressed’ in a suit and tie or uniform.
After I left the school, I returned a few times for Old Boys’. As one of the younger ones, it was a case of making our way to Dover on the Saturday, book into a guest house that we would see little of and then make our way to the pub, where we would drink to excess, fall into bed and then get to the school, suited and booted, in time to parade the following morning.
The older Old Boys’ would attend a black-tie dinner in Dover Town Hall before joining us in the pub after the event, usually in time for last orders, before they, too, fell into bed and attended the school the following morning. I only ever attended one of these in the late-80s with my ex-wife and felt very out of place as I was about twenty years younger than the next in age to me.
However, due to living so far away and then my Reserve commitments, during the 1990s and 2000s I was only able to attend two Old Boys’ weekends, in 2000 when I went to the pub and in 2008, again at the pub (see Remembering).
Since I have been with Emma, and because I no longer have Squadron commitments in Maidstone, we have been to Old Boys’ for the last three years, staying in the hotel that is conveniently located right next to the school and attending the black tie dinner that takes place in the school dining hall.
This year I travelled down with No.1 son, so that I could show him the place that had shaped me during my teenage years, so we headed off to Dover, booked into the hotel and then headed across to Dover Rugby Club where there is a rugby match between (normally) an Old Boys’ under-30 and a select Dover RFC side and an Old Boys’ over-30 side and Dover RFC Veterans. However, this year, there was only one match as the World Cup had interfered with the fixture list and Dover was unable to produce two sides.
The matches are normally for the Christian Redman Memorial Trophy. Christian was an Old Boy of the school; in fact he had been there at the same time as me although he was several years younger. His father was also a teacher at the school. He had been on a rugby tour with the Singapore Cricket Club’s rugby team. In October 2002 had been on tour and was in Paddy’s Bar in Bali when a terrorist bomb detonated. He, along with 201 other people of 23 nationalities were killed.
This year the weather was miserable and it rained for most of the match. Although the Old Boys’ got off to a good start, sadly the youth of the Dover side got the better of them and they were soundly beaten.
After a couple of beers in the bar with various friends (the advantage of having No. 1 son drive!) we headed back to the hotel to join Emma who’d driven down after us.
It was then a case of getting ready for the dinner, including my having to help Alec with his bow tie (I wouldn’t allow him to wear a pre-tied one and insisted that he have a self-tie) before jumping in the minibus to the school.
The dinner was pleasant and the company was excellent, the only complaint being that those of us who had decided to have the double-cooked belly of pork each received a piece of pork smaller than a post-it note. However, the wine flowed, as did the conversation, with the after dinner entertainment being provided by a band consisting of Old Boys’ and named the Hong Kong Streakers Club (in honour of another of Chris Redman’s exploits).
After it was all over, we walked back to the hotel where I slept like a log, even though Emma (vey vey drunk!) woke me up to ask me something that I just couldn’t understand.
After a hearty breakfast, it was back to the school and the parade. There was a good turn-out of both Old Boys and Old Girls, hence the contingent now being referred to as ‘Former Pupils’. The weather stayed nice, with no rain, although it was chilly. However, having elected not to wear uniform this year, I had the opportunity to try out the new overcoat that I had bought the previous week.
After the parade, rather than attending the chapel service, I showed Emma and Alec around the school a bit before we said our goodbyes to everyone and headed home with plans to do it all again ‘same time next year’.