Vanbrugh Castle was presented to the RAF Benevolent Fund with the wish that it should be used as a boarding school for the sons of deceased NCOs and airmen. It stands overlooking the Thames six miles from the centre of London. Since it began fifty years ago more than 400 boys from the Service have been educated there.
Reprinted from THE ILLUSTRATED LONDON NEWS, 26th September, 1970
On a lovely Saturday afternoon in July I had the privilege of giving away the prizes at the RAF Benevolent Fund's famous school for the sons of deceased and disabled Warrant Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers and Aircraftsmen — Vanbrugh Castle, Greenwich. I am not good at giving away prizes, being, like most persons of a literary turn, on the clumsy side and given to dropping things. And speaking to a mixed audience of small boys and their teachers and parents is among the more exacting forms of oratory and one considerably above my reach. I am always reminded on such occasions of P.G.Wodehouse's harrowing account of Gussie Finch-Nottle's prizegiving speech at Market Snodbury Grammar School after both Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, without realizing that the other was doing so too, had liberally — indeed, far too liberally — laced the teetotal and apprehensive speechmaker's lemonade with gin in order to overcome his diffidence, and with such electrifying results. I therefore usually resist suggestions that I should assume the role of visiting prize-distributor at seats of juvenile learning.
But requests from the RAF Benevolent Fund are not requests which anyone can properly refuse, certainly not anyone with any memory. For, if it hadn't been for the RAF in those grim years between 1939 and 1945 none of us would be here or, if we had still somehow managed to survive, our lot would be a pretty sorry one.
It is just a quarter of a century since in this very month the pilots and ground crews of the RAF saved the world. It is more than twice that time since that man of vision, Hugh Trenchard — Marshal of the Royal Air Force and Chief of the Air Staff — founded the RAF Benevolent Fund to meet the needs of RAF widows and disabled survivors and their families.No act by any man in our time can have been productive of more unqualified good. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that every pound subscribed over the past 50 years to this great and beneficent Fund has lightened the burdens and widened the opportunities of those over whom the shadow of deprivation or poverty had fallen as the result of the selflessness and sacrifice of men who, in Trenchard's words, had "covered themselves with glory and thought of nothing except to work for others". To aid their bereft dependants is not charity; it is an act of obligation and requital. "The Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund," said Winston Churchill in a broadcast in 1951, "is part of the conscience of the British nation. A nation without a conscience is a nation without a soul. A nation without a soul is a nation that cannot live."
I am not suggesting that a few halting words in a garden marquee on a July afternoon at a school prize-giving is in any sense a form of requital for the debt which every Briton — and many others besides — owe to those who in two world wars,
and in preparation between those wars and since, have guarded this country and her great cause of liberty from the destruction and enslavement which mastery of the air by an enemy would have brought, and still could bring, to us all. Yet to have refused this small service would have seemed a mean and shabby thing. So I steeled myself to bear my well-founded lack of confidence in my oratorial capacity to hold an audience of sharp eyed little boys and their mums — to say nothing of several kindly air-marshals and commodores — and the all too probable contingency of my dropping at the moment of presentation some handsomely bound volume or silver sports-cup.I need have had no fears. For the afternoon was a sheer delight. Thanks to the quality of that school, of its boys and masters, and the atmosphere of obvious happiness which pervaded the whole place, I forgot my own clumsiness, dropped nothing, and even made it tolerable speech which, if a did not, like that of Gussie Finch-Nottle's, cause plaster to-fall from the ceiling, at least evoked polite applause. But it was not the speaker who impressed the audience, but the audience which impressed the speaker. For, having been in my time, though long ago, a schoolmaster and even, for a short while, a headmaster, I am not without experience of schools and the capacity to judge them. From the start I realized that I was being privileged to share in the traditional gala day of a very great school indeed.
Vanbrugh Castle, following the presentation by Alexander Duckham in 1921 of the architect Sir John Vanbrugh's old home to the RAF Benevolent Fund, was the latter's most cherished pioneer establishment in the days when the Fund was still struggling to obtain support from a Britain which had temporarily forgotten the needs of the fighting men who had saved her. And pioneering has always been the RAF's speciality. After the war, when Vanbrugh suffered from the blitz and its former pupils served almost to a man in the Forces, most of them in the RAF, it was reopened as a boarding school recognized by the Ministry of Education. By the early 1960s ithad become a fee-paying preparatory school of the highest quality, with the RAF Benevolent Fund making it possible for the fees to be paid by the widows of those who had died in the RAF's service. Under its present Headmaster, John Corner, who came to it 15 years ago from The King's School, Canterbury — England's oldest public school — it is without question one of the most inspiring establishments of its kind I have ever seen. It is all that a great school should be — a germinative oasis of civilization, good manners, happiness, comradeship, and eager industry and learning.
After the prizegiving, two of the boys took me round their haunts, showing me with immense pride their classrooms and dormitories, games room and the library, laboratory, hobbies room, and the wonderful view from the windows over the river and the great city beyond. It was impossible not to be deeply impressed by the astonishing variety of literary, scientific, technical and artistic tasks — "projects", as they call them — on which the boys had been engaged, far in advance of anything my own excellent preparatory school taught me and my contemporaries 60 years ago.
The fruits of the term's labours were on exhibition in every room, making a delightful and richly variegated museum and art gallery in miniature. And outside in the garden the school band, its oldest member no more than 13, played orchestral selections with splendid verve and spirit under their conductor teacher. But of all the afternoon's sights of youthful happiness and healthy vitality the one that delighted me most was the unanimous rapidity with which, after the school had lined up according to
custom to cheer the visiting prize-giver on his departure, the whole happy concourse, their courteous duty done, turned as one boy and raced towards the tea tent where a glorious repast had been prepared for them by the school's cook.
Vanbrugh is in need of additional funds to improve the accommodation and extend its magnificent work for fatherless children in need of a school to take a father's place. As one widow wrote to the controller of the RAF Benevolent Fund:
"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 rapidly ... 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."
It is not only the bereaved mothers who benefit from the work of this splendid school, it is England and civilization.