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CHARLES DIBBIN, BOY, ROYAL MILITARY ASYLUM, CHELSEA, nr. LONDON

The cover was sent to, Charles Dibbin, Boy, No 1 Company, Royal Military Asylum, Chelsea, Nr. London, Per Simla and had a dull orange-brown imperforate ‘SIX PENCE’ wood block stamp, cancelled by a BN ‘1' of Melbourne.   An additional marking was a red PAID/ DD/ 3 AU 3/ 1857, presumably applied in London.  Not seen, was an originating postmark of Melbourne May 28, 1857, on the reverse (Figure 1).

The European & Australian Royal Mail (E&ARM) Company steamship Simla left Sydney on 24 May 1857 en route to Melbourne and England, and it took more than the 49 days to which the E&ARM had been committed in its contract (late arrival was a frequent occurrence).  By September 1857 the company was insolvent and its management was taken over by the Royal Mail.

The archaic term of ‘asylum’ has nothing to do with insanity, but has the meaning of ‘sanctuary or haven’, and this is the meaning here. In the original regulations the institution (“The Royal Military Asylum for Children of Soldiers of the Regular Army at Chelsea”) was intended for: “1st, Orphans;   2nd, those whose fathers have been killed on foreign service;  3rd, those who have lost their mothers, and whose fathers are absent on duty abroad;   and, 4th, those, whose fathers are ordered on foreign service, or whose parents have other children to maintain.”  The children were admitted at “the earliest age for nurture..... from four years till twelve years, being discharged at fourteen years.”

It basically was a boarding school for children, from 1803 until 1892, and the idea had been largely conceived of by Frederick, Duke of York, the second son of George III.  At the height of its existence it had 1500 children, 1000 boys and 500 girls.  The design of the main building that formed the centrepiece of the Asylum with it doric columns was a design similar to that used for many impressive public buildings of the period (Figure 2).

During the early years of the Institution and well into the 19th Century, the children leaving the Asylum were provided with indentured apprenticeships in all trades and callings, particularly as cotton weavers in Lancashire.  During their stay at the Institution, the boys wore red jackets and blue trousers, and the girls wore red gowns, blue petticoats and straw bonnets and white aprons.  An artist’s rendition of their clothing is seen in Figure 3.

They were taught reading, writing and ‘the four rules of arithmetic’ by a system involving monitors introduced by Joseph Lancaster, a Quaker.  One or more teachers taught monitors who in turn taught up to twenty of their fellow students.  Within a short time, the boy monitors of 13 and 14 years of age from the Asylum were sent to India, the West Indies, the Iberian Peninsula, Canada and other distant parts of the British Empire to introduce the monitorial system of education to regimental schools.

I was surprised by the large numbers of students that were taught at the Asylum as shown in an ‘Alphabetical List of Children Admitted to the Royal Military Asylum 1803-1880' where I found a Charles Dibben (as well as a brother(?) Henry Dibben), [both underlined in red ink], listed at the time of Charles’ imminent discharge from the Royal Military Asylum into the hands of his mother on 12 October 1857, a little more than two months after this letter arrived in London.  The fact that the cover was addressed to Charles as “No. 1 Company” I wondered if he was to join a regiment,  for he would have been aged 13, an age ripe for an army bugler! (Figure 4).

There is information that the Royal Military Asylum’s educational program also included that the boys might join the army.  In 1892, the RMA was renamed the Duke of York’s Military School and, in 1909 it moved from Chelsea to new premises constructed on the Downs of Dover, Kent.

 
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