Vanbrugh Castle School

The Debt We Owe

[Use the back button on your browser to return or click heading to go to Home Page]

Edward Bishop's book about the RAFBF - The Debt We Owe

Edward Bishop wrote the book ‘The Debt We Owe’ in 1969 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund. A well written book, it gives a comprehensive account of the Fund and contains some interesting facts about Vanbrugh Castle School, Rooks Hill School and the school at Ewhurst in Surrey which superseded them. This book is now out of print but here are some facts gleaned from it.

The Beginnings of Education by the Fund

Shortly after the RAFBF was established in 1919 gifts of houses (from Mrs Salting and Alexander Duckham) paved the way for the educational work of the Fund to start. Vanbrugh Castle (from Duckham) was thought to be unsuitable as a boarding school, but by a narrow margin (three in favour, two against and four abstentions) the fund accepted the gift in 1921 to establish an experimental home for the boys of airmen killed in service. It is interesting to note that the castle was conditionally tied to education of airmen’s children and in no circumstances were officer’s children to benefit.

In 1921 the school was opened to the sons of serving airmen but the sons of dead airmen were given priority. The addition of a new dormitory for 12 boys increased numbers from 27 in 1923 to 39 in 1926 (ages ranged from 5yrs to school leaving age). Although called a school no teaching took place there apart from the very youngest. Boys attended local elementary schools and after 1922 the Fund paid Grammar School fees for boys who managed to pass the entrance examination.

The Fund held that the future of the boys was primarily determined by their own abilities. In reality the school provided a roof, a bed and the institutional care of a superintendant and matron, Captain and Mrs G.A.R. Slimming. The Fund hoped that in due course the boys would join the Royal Air Force and thus furnish the service with a supply of men

The Quetta earthquake of 1917 killed 55 people at the RAF Station there. At least two boys were subsequently looked after at Vanbrugh Castle School.

In 1933 the Fund spent £30,000 on the maintenance of VCS. In 1936 Fund expenditure on education was £7,335 including maintenance of VCS where there were now 42 boys. By this date 19 boys from the school had entered the RAF Apprentice Training Establishments at Cranwell and Halton. Lord Wakefield (Chairman of the Fund 1932-1940) was so impressed that he gave the adjacent house, Wakefield Wing which could accommodate 25 boys, to enlarge the school to 67 boys at a cost of £3000. Lady Newall ceremoniously opened The Wing in May 1939.

Alexander Duckham once again assisted the Funds education efforts by gifting his home set in 200 acres, Rooks Hill House near Sevenoaks. He moved into a cottage in the grounds and gave the Fund £1000 per year for the upkeep of the estate. Duckham wanted Rooks Hill to accommodate the very young children of non-commissioned officers killed in action. In 1940 fifteen boys and girls aged between 2yrs and 7yrs were sheltered there. But at the end of August 1940 with the Battle of Britain raging overhead Rooks Hill was closed and the children returned to their families. Vanbrugh Castle was closed too and boys who were attending the Roan Grammar School were evacuated with that school to the country.

Duckham who died in 1944 didn’t live to see the end of the war, but by that time, out of 56 Vanbrugh old boys 44 had followed their fathers into the RAF.

The Fund provided many education opportunities and preferred to give support by cooperating with outside bodies rather than by providing its own facilities. VCS and Rooks Hill didn’t follow this general rule because they were given to the Fund for a specific purposes. Rooks Hill re-opened in May 1946 with 20 children aged two to seven years. It was run by a committee of people who lived nearby and with RAF connections. With demand for places falling, partly as a result of safer aircraft, it was closed in July 1957.

Post WW2 Developments

Vanbrugh Castle re-opened in April 1947 with 25 boys aged seven to fourteen years. They continued to attend local schools for their formal education (Royal Hill Elementary School, Charlton Secondary and the Roan Grammar School - by now the Roan was no longer fee-paying). It was reported that the Fund Controller was impressed by the smart appearance of VCS boys attending outside schools - a tribute to the discipline of Captain Slimming and the late matron, Mrs Slimming, who had been in charge of the school since 1921.

Despite this, some mothers had complained about the manners and behaviour of their boys during the holidays which was attributed to the bad company they kept in the outside schools. When Wing Commander Burnet of the Education Advisory Committee visited these schools he was disturbed by conditions generally and the size of the classes. As a consequence in April 1950 VCS was transformed into a proper boarding school for boys aged 7 to 11yrs, while the older boys continued to attend outside schools. That year Captain Slimming retired and Mr. J.W.Webb-Jones, peviously headmaster of St.Georges School Windsor, was appointed headmaster. He had served in the RAF as an Education Officer.

Several schools have assisted the Fund by educating RAF children at most favourable terms - for example Royal Wolverhampton, Reed’s, Royal Albert and Alexandra and Gordon’s. It was to these schools that some boys from VCS went to finish their education after the age of 13yrs. From the end of the second world war to the end of 1968 the Fund had made 36,000 educational awards and the total expenditure including Vanbrugh Castle and Rooks Hill amounted to nearly three and a half million pounds.

In 1955 John Corner succeeded J.W.Webb-Jones as headmaster at VCS. Suitable boys were now being coached for entry into the RAF as apprentices and cadets, allowing Lord Trenchard the thought that a Vanbrugh boy might one day be the Chief of Air Staff!

Examples of Award of grants by the Fund

Edward Bishop in his book about the Fund, The Debt We Owe, describes the plight of two RAF widows thus:

Mrs A was living in married quarters when she was widowed and her eight-year-old son was attending a local school. As very often occurs, an officer with whom her husband, Corporal A, had served, offered to assist Mrs A with formalities - assistance which Mrs A gladly accepted because she was a German national by birth with insufficient English. The officer, a flight lieutenant, and the husband had served together in the Jungle Rescue Team of the Far East Air Force and he set out to obtain every possible form of relief for the widow. Thus, when Mrs A received the Fund's routine letter of condolence the flight lieutenant approached the Fund on Mrs A's behalf. He explained that the four worries on Mrs A's mind were a bank overdraft which would swallow up most of her husband's life policy, the future education of her eight-year-old son, house purchase, and a job.

He knew of the existence of Vanbrugh Castle School and it seemed to him the ideal school for her son. Mrs A was not at first persuaded about Vanbrugh, although the headmaster, after interviewing mother and child, noted 'the boy is above average and acceptable. Excellent for him to come. But mother very weepy and reluctant to part with only child.' However, John Corner had a well-tried remedy for weepy mothers and he applied it to Mrs A, putting her in touch with a previously weepy and by this time appreciative mother who had experienced similar misgivings before allowing her son to board at Vanbrugh.

There can be no more suitable person to speak or write for the virtues of this school than a mother who has been bombarded with Vanbrugh anecdotes in the school holidays ... 'there's rock-climbing . . . you ought to hear the school band and hear Paddy Purcell in action. He's director of the London Military Band too.' Mr Purcell retired from Vanbrugh Castle in 1968 and died a few years later.

Then there were the visits to Royal Air Force stations at home and abroad, the Christmas party with individual presents, a tradition started in 1948 by Mrs Ackerman, wife of Brigadier-General John B. Ackerman, the then Air Attache at the United States Embassy, and for many years a much-appreciated annual event. Cricket, football, athletics, swimming, the choir at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich . . .

To all of which, and more besides, John Corner, then headmaster, would not be human if he had not added with justifiable pride, in the brochure giving facets of life at the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund's boarding school: The boys are taught in small classes and take the Common Entrance Examination at the age of thirteen when they usually transfer under the guidance of the Fund to other boarding schools. Experience has shown that these boys are well up to the standards demanded by other boarding schools, both as regards their scholarship and their general attitude and character.


But it is the appreciative mother who perhaps finally convinces a new and undecided widow, writing: I know as the time approaches for my son to leave Vanbrugh he will have a heavy heart. I feel sadness that school years could pass so quickly. I see him so clearly on his first visit to the school wondering what was in store for him, his first holiday at home, and his eagerness to return to Vanbrugh; the time the headmaster assured me that he would enjoy rock-climbing, how right he was. Above all, he has learnt respect, loyalty and to share the joys and disappointments that a boarding school holds. How lucky to reap a harvest from a very deep sadness. My children have much to be thankful for, and so have I.

Perhaps it is needless to add that Mrs A's son was educated at Vanbrugh! But to return to Mrs A's story. After her husband's affairs had been settled she possessed only a small sum, comprising her husband's gratuity, a gift from a local disaster fund and what was left of her husband's insurance policy after repayment of the bank overdraft. She was receiving a war widow's pension and was still living in married quarters at the dispensation of the station commander, who had also engaged her as a temporary part-time batwoman, raising her income to a moderate figure. Obviously, neither Mrs A nor any Vanbrugh mother was in a position to pay full Vanbrugh fees at the time of £441 a year (£207 tuition plus £234 boarding), but no boy accepted for Vanbrugh was prevented from attending because his mother could not afford the fees.

In Mrs A's case the Ministry rejected the application but her Local Education Authority agreed to contribute almost all of the fees, leaving the widow to find a small amount annually, either from her own resources or from the Fund. In this case, Mrs A paid her share of the fees.

Another widow, Mrs B, was left with two sons aged eleven and four and two daughters aged eight and five. The Fund advised Mrs B that it could assist her and in particular that the two boys were eligible for Vanbrugh. The elder boy entered Vanbrugh a few weeks after his father's death. In Mrs B's case a yearly grant of his fees was contributed by the Ministry of Social Security. But, unlike Mrs A, she did not fare so well with the Local Education Authority, where her application for assistance was refused.

As with Mrs A, Mrs B was asked by the Fund to approach her Local Education Authority Committee and the Ministry for assistance with the Vanbrugh fees. At the same time, the Fund assured the widow that, whatever the outcome of her application, her son would be educated at Vanbrugh and that she would only be required to contribute as much as she could reasonably afford. In fact, this generally meant in practice the child's war pension or state pension allowance, though in Mrs B's case the balance of the fees were waived by the Fund as her entire income consisted of a weekly pension.

With her elder son at Vanbrugh and her second son 'down for Vanbrugh', Mrs B moved into a small house, bought and furnished by the Fund. ' Please note any change of address' she wrote cheerfully, and continued: I would like to try to tell you how grateful I am for all that has been done for us. I could never have given my children such a lovely home without your help. Thank you also for the financial assistance granted to me towards the cost of furniture.

My eldest boy is very happy at Vanbrugh Castle School. He is a strong-willed boy who needs a lot of discipline and I feel that this can only be carried out by a man. My husband and I had always wanted him to attend a boarding school

Knollys’ Wing Extension

It was in the 1960’s that the house adjacent to The Wakefield Wing was purchased to provide further accommodation for the school. It was given the name Knollys’ Wing after the Chairman of the Fund Viscount Knollys.

The School cook from 1949 - 1965

Mrs Doyle was the cook at VCS for fifteen years. She had previously served during the war in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force as a corporal cook. It was during the final years of Lord Knollys’s chairmanship of The Fund that £10,000 was given to the the Royal Air Forces Association Home at Sussexdown to endow one bed for elderly Royal Air Force patients. It so happened that Mrs Doyle in her old age was the first beneficiary of this arrangement.

The End of Vanbrugh Castle School

The Ministry of Defence was contemplating a change to the educational allowance by extending it to all serving personnel. The RAF would require a boarding school to ensure continuity of education for children of families on the move. Of course Vanbrugh Castle was a boarding school but it was only big enough for 60 boys and was becoming uneconomic and had no recreational facilities.

Mr W.P. Jones had succeeded John Corner as headmaster in 1973. Jones had been a wartime flying instructor, had been head of the junior school at Kimbolton and had served six years as headmaster of an RAF school in Nicosia. He was keen to implement changes at Vanbrugh Castle. In 1972 admissions were offered to sons of officers as well as NCOs and airmen - the first change in a long established tradition at the school.

It was clear there would be an ever increasing demand for places and that Vanbrugh Castle would be too small to cope. So a search was made for alternative suitable premises in the south of England suitable for about 140 boarders and with adequate playing fields. By chance a school at Woolpit, Sussex, was discovered which was in financial difficulties and had all the facilities they were looking for. A merger was agreed upon and the Fund took possession of Woolpit with the intention of transferring Vanbrugh Castle School to the new premises in 1975. In fact , after necessary building work had been carried out , the combined school opened in 1976. W.P.Jones became the headmaster and two other masters from VCS joined him - Michael Moreton and Arthur Rogers (who had been a VCS pupil). Of the 135 pupils at the new amalgamated school, 40 were Vanbrugh Castle boys.

With the agreement of Professor A. N. Duckham and his sister Mary, Lady of Cults, Vanbrugh Castle was sold to the Blackheath Preservation Trust for £177,500 and the proceeds given to the new school. Within the first year of operation the school, with the permission of the Queen and the agreement of the Fund President, was renamed Duke of Kent School and was honoured by an informal visit by the Duke on 3 March 1977. It was also decided to open the school to the children of all serving personnel as full fee payers to fill available vacancies, priority having been given to children who had lost their fathers in the service.

It was further decided to make twenty places available to girls, thus making Duke of Kent School one of the first co-educational boarding preparatory schools in the country. In 1979 there were 157 pupils at the school, 43 of whom were paid for by the RAFBF. Of the remainder, 77 were fee paying children of service personnel, 21 were fee-paying boarders and 16 were fee-paying day pupils. Twenty of the total cohort were girls from RAF families.

Vanbrugh Castle School had finally come to its end.