Royal Mathematical School (RMS)

Royal Mathematical School (RMS)

With an incredible journey of exploration that started over 350 years ago in 1673 the Royal Mathematical School (RMS) at Christ’s Hospital has been transforming the lives of its students for generations.

The RMS was established at Christ’s Hospital in 1673 by King Charles ll and went on to be shaped by some of the world’s foremost intellectuals, including Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Christopher Wren. The determination back then was to train children as mathematicians and navigators. It was hoped that this would address the late 17th century need for a stronger maritime presence.


Since its inception the objectives have continued to evolve and change, with thousands benefitting from the RMS’ ethos. It has been a key feature of Christ’s Hospital’s work as the leading charitable school in the country to provide life-changing opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, equipping them with the essential skills required to navigate life.

Simon Reid, Head Teacher at Christ’s Hospital, said: “To mark its 350th year, the RMS is launching a new initiative for the 21st Century. Although the call for seafaring skills is not as prominent today, the same spirit of exploration that defined the foundation lives on and we can only imagine the remarkable feats to be achieved by alumni of the future. The new ‘Expedition’ programme will complement the outstanding academic, pastoral and broader curriculum at CH by helping students to develop the skills and self-belief required to make a difference in today’s world. Students who have never previously engaged in expeditionary activities can partake in a new programme of exciting, inspirational and outward-bound adventures to develop their leadership and teamwork skills.”

To find out more about Expeditionary Education at Christ’s Hospital click here

The RMS remains so much more than just mathematics and navigation. It encompasses the subjects of sciences, geography and humanities. But more than that, it is the embodiment of what CH stands for: creating social mobility and opportunities for the academic and life potential of our students. The 350th anniversary of the RMS provides an opportunity to mark not only its long history but the continued impact it and the wider school have on young people and their role in the world of today and tomorrow.

Royal Charter and History of the RMS

At various points in the 17th century, England was at war with its neighbours in Spain, France and Holland. France had successfully established specialist naval colleges to teach seamanship and navigation, contributing to heavy losses at sea for England.

Richard Aldworth had left £7000 in his will to Christ’s Hospital for the education and maintenance of forty boys, but the government held the legacy and the school had had no success in persuading the Treasury to release the funds until 1673, when the RMS was opened by Royal Charter on 19 August 1673. Two years after the foundation of the Royal Mathematical School, the first boys left to begin seven-year apprenticeships with ship captains, with much support from Samuel Pepys who persuaded the government to pay captains for the extra work. Samuel Pepys continued to be closely associated with the Royal Mathematical School throughout the rest of the century, alongside key figures including Sir Christopher Wren, and John Flamsteed, astronomer at the newly built Royal Greenwich Observatory, who gave lessons in astronomy to some of the boys. Even Isaac Newton became involved, when in 1694 he suggested a revised syllabus which was used for a short time. In 1698 two qualified boys were selected by Peter the Great to assist with the teaching in a new school of Mathematics and Navigation in Moscow.

Meanwhile, a very large framed commemorative painting by Antonio Verrio had been completed and installed in the main hall of the school which was then in Newgate Street in the City of London. This painting was transferred to the Dining Hall of the new school at Horsham which was opened in 1902 and it is one of the features of the current Verrio tours for the public.

RMS students were distinguished from others by a silver badge, designed by Robert Hooke, on the left shoulder of their uniform. This was the first ‘presentation badge’ at CH, many of which continue to be worn today. Every year, 40 boys were taught maths, physics, astronomy, navigation, geography, map reading, technical drawing and calligraphic writing, in readiness for Trinity House exams when they reached 16.

As well as famous alumni, it attracted influential teachers, including William Wales, Master of the RMS in the late 18th century. Wales had been an astronomer for Captain James Cook on a voyage to the Antarctic, and his teaching had a major impact on the students, perhaps most notably the great Romantic poet, critic and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, famous for his later poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Between 1673 and 1887, when records end, just over 2,000 boys were trained as navigators in the RMS. Since then, thousands more have benefited, as the ethos of the RMS has continued to drive Christ’s Hospital’s work as the leading charitable school and a pioneer in social mobility.

350 years of the Royal Mathematical School

Charles II founds the Royal Mathematical School (RMS) by Royal Charter. 40 ‘poor boys’ are taught navigation to be apprenticed to the captains or commanders of ships for service at sea. The boys, known as ‘King’s Boys’, are required to wear a distinctive badge.
The RMS badge, designed by Robert Hooke, is created. This badge is still worn today. It shows a Bluecoat Boy in front of Arithmetic, holding a tablet of Figures; Geometry, holding a triangle and compasses; and Astronomy, holding an armillary sphere and a cross-staff. Silver badges were replaced in 1785 by silver-plated badges.
Samuel Pepys persuades the government to contribute £370.50 per annum to pay ships’ masters as an apprentice fee. Samuel Pepys continued to be closely associated with the RMS throughout the rest of the century, alongside key figures such as Sir Christopher Wren, Sir Jonas Moore, and John Flamsteed, who gave astronomy lessons to some RMS boys.
Sir Jonas Moore writes a textbook, ‘A New Systeme of Mathematicks’, for the use of the RMS boys, which is completed and published after his death in 1679. He was a mathematician, engineer, and astronomer, and became the driving force behind establishing the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.
A separate building for the RMS boys, which includes a schoolroom and a separate dormitory known as the ‘King’s Ward’ is completed. It has in a niche a statue of Charles II, which today stands on the right-hand side of Big School.
The monumental painting by Antonio Verrio, commissioned at the instigation of Samuel Pepys to commemorate the founding of the RMS, is completed. It has dominated the three dining halls in which it has hung since 1690, being transferred to the dining hall in Horsham in 1902.
A Drawing School is set up to teach RMS boys how to sketch views of coastlines, harbours, and ships. The Drawing Master, Bernard Lens, was succeeded in 1725 by his son, Edward. Lessons were initially on three afternoons a week in the Great Hall.
Isaac Newton presents a die for a badge to be worn by the boys on the foundation of Henry Stone. There were expected to be twelve boys on Stone’s foundation, with a maximum of sixteen, who were expected to complete a preparatory class in the RMS prior to qualifying to become King’s Boys.
A ‘New and Compleat Drawing Book’, for use by RMS boys, is first published. Described as by the late Mr Lens, it is thought to feature the work of both Bernard Lens and his son, Edward. Its frontispiece features two RMS boys holding up their drawings.
‘Elements of Navigation’ by John Robertson, Master of the RMS, is published for the use of RMS boys. It includes ‘books’ on arithmetic, geometry, plane trigonometry, geography, astronomy, plane sailing and globular sailing. RMS boys used this book to produce detailed, calligraphic workbooks which they took with them when they left CH.
William Wales, who was appointed Master of the RMS in 1775, revises and corrects the 4th edition of ‘Elements of Navigation’. There were seven editions, the last being in 1805. William Wales, who had sailed with Captain Cook on his second voyage as an astronomer, was the first RMS Master with practical experience at sea.
A badge is created to be worn by two boys on John Stock’s Foundation. Stock’s boys were the sons of Lieutenants who were to be educated in navigation, following the same course of instruction as the King’s Boys. They were generally sent to the Navy Board at the age of fifteen, some occasionally becoming King’s Boys.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge writes ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, one of his most celebrated poems. From 1785, Grecians were taught mathematics in the RMS in preparation for university exams, Coleridge being influenced in his poem by William Wales telling him about his career at sea.
Governors decide to present a suitably engraved silver watch to each RMS boy of good behaviour placed out to sea service. This tradition continued well into the 20th century, eventually being replaced by the more practical gift of a wristwatch.
The Master of the RMS becomes responsible for all boys being taught mathematics as well as for those studying navigation in the King’s Foundation. This included up to 50 boys on Travers’ Foundation, who had been taught mathematics in a separate school since 1799. There was no obligation on Travers’ boys to learn navigation or to go to sea.
New Grammar and Mathematical Schools are built, in which RMS boys are taught, after the 1684 RMS building had been demolished. The statue of Charles II was transferred to the right-hand side of this building and a new statue, of Edward VI, stood on the left side. These two statues are in the main quadrangle at Horsham.
A Supplemental Charter releases Governors from the obligation of apprenticing all boys in the RMS for seven years’ sea service, for which purpose the annual grant of £370.50 had had to be applied. Governors were instead allowed some discretion in using the funds. This confirmed an existing trend of a reducing number of RMS boys entering sea service.
The Mathematics Department is split into three sections: The Upper Mathematical School with 25 Grecians and c40 Deputy Grecians preparing for university entrance; the Lower Mathematical School with up to 120 boys learning geometry, algebra, and other mathematical topics; and c55 boys in the RMS. The RMS boys were increasingly becoming a minority class in the mathematics department, continuing the trend started in 1826.
CH stops maintaining the register of boys leaving the RMS for sea service, which records the names of the ships and their masters they joined on leaving CH. The register shows a declining number of boys as RMS boys were no longer obliged to enter sea service.
RMS boys show their drawings to Queen Victoria for the final annual ceremony, due to the ill health of the Queen. The practice was not revived by Edward VII when he became King in 1901.
In 1891, a new CH Scheme of Administration prevents CH endowments being used for boys joining the RMS, resulting in no boys joining from 1892-1896. The Scheme was amended in 1896 to reinstate the use of funds for RMS boys, which were increasingly applied to provide discretionary grants for some boys going into the navy and others into naval colleges, rather than going to sea. The combined impact of reducing numbers of boys entering the RMS and of fewer RMS boys entering the navy confirmed the long-term trend of the original purpose of the RMS no longer applying.
The first girl is accepted to CH on an RMS place and wears the RMS badge, through arrangements which have been adapted to suit modern circumstances whilst reflecting the historic importance of the 1673 foundation of the RMS for 40 ‘poor boys’.
There is a maximum of 40 RMS places available at any one time as a method of admission to CH. These historic places are not subject to funding but special consideration for places is given to children of personnel who are serving, or have served in the Royal Navy, Royal Marines or Royal Navy Reserve. Children admitted on an RMS place can wear the RMS badge and the Head of Mathematics at CH retains the title of Master of the RMS.

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