The Royal Military Academy, Woolwich

Woolwich Academy prepared boys for commissions in the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers. The procedure, both in Frederick English’s time and in his son’s, was that, at age fourteen, a boy must get a nomination from the Master General of the Ordinance. Nominations were much sought after, and an aspiring cadet’s chances were greater if he had the backing of a person of influence. Many of the boys were prepared at crammers; others either went to a private tutor or came from one of the public schools. The subjects studied were arithmetic, Euclidian geometry, algebra, French, German, history, geography and drawing, with the greatest emphasis on mathematics. The eminent mathematician Charles Hutton (1737-1823) was professor of mathematics from 1773 to 1807.

While there is no hint in the letters as to how English gained his cadetship, Augustus’s path is made clear. Letter 18 indicates that father and son (then 13 or 14) together visited the Master General of the Ordnance Sir James Kempt and secured his candidacy, whereupon Augustus was placed with Mr Ambler. The reference to ‘losing places’ and the description of Ambler as ‘a preparatory schoolmaster’ (letter 39) suggests a crammer where the boy would be in a class, not taught individually.

A boy would take the entrance examination for the Academy at the age of fifteen, when only a minority of candidates qualified. The intake at the Academy was fifty or so Gentlemen Cadets a year. The syllabus included the subjects taken in the entrance examination, the mathematics embracing such topics as trigonometry, conic sections, statics and dynamics, properties of roofs and arches, hydrostatics, projectiles, and calculus. Annual examinations weeded out the weaker cadets. Woolwich was a military variant on the nineteenth century public school, with a senior under officer and corporals acting as prefects, fagging and, sadly, bullying.

Cadets successfully completing the course went on to the practical class at the Arsenal for four months before being commissioned in the Royal Artillery or the Royal Engineers, the latter taking only about a dozen young men each year who were then sent to Chatham for specialist training.

English would have been admitted as a Gentleman Cadet in 1804; he was commissioned in 1807. Augustus enlisted in 1835. However, by a letter dated 28 November 1835, Kate broke the news that he had been discharged (letter 50). This was a bombshell to English’s pride, but on mature consideration it became clear to him that his son was not to be a soldier, but had received some education that would fit him for a business career.

Lieutenant-Colonel A W Drayson wrote The Gentleman Cadet: His Career and Adventures at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich (1874), an account of life at Woolwich in the 1840s. The author, an artilleryman, passed out of the Academy in 1846, and was a member of its staff from 1858 to 1873.

The Royal Military Academy, Woolwich by Paul Sandby (1731-1809) (Royal Collection) shows the Academy buildings about 1770. Sandby was drawing master at the Academy from 1768 to 1796, retiring a few years before English’s arrival. Gentlemen Cadets, 2nd Company 1783 by the Victorian artist Thomas Seccombe (Royal Collection) shows cadets in the uniform of the period.