Royal Military Academy, Woolwich

The Royal Military Academy, an elegant and commodious structure, situate at the south-east corner of Woolwich Common, affords accommodation to about one hundred and thirty young gentlemen, the sons of military men, and the more respectable classes, who are here instructed in mathematics, land-surveying, with mapping, fortification, engineering, the use of the musket and sword exercise, and field-pieces; and for whose use twelve brass cannon, three-pounders, are placed in front of the building, practising with which they acquire a knowledge of their application in the field of battle.  This department is under the direction of a lieutenant-general, an instructer, a professor of mathematics, and a professor of fortification; in addition to which there are French, German, and drawing masters.

--Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844

This was the older and more senior of the two establishments from which the present RMAS was formed.  It was set up in 1741, near the Royal Artillery Depot at Woolwich, with the aim of producing, in the words of its first charter, "good officers of Artillery and perfect Engineers".  The Corps of Royal Engineers, originally an all-officer corps, was not formally separated from the Royal Regiment of Artillery until 1787.  Both remained under the control of the Board of Ordnance until 1856, and were collectively referred to as the Ordnance Corps.  The RMA provided the high level of scientific education required by these two corps, while at the same time ensuring that their officers had the same level of military training as those serving in the Line.

Two expressions from the old RMA passed into the language. "Talking Shop", meaning "to discuss subjects not understood by others", derives from the RMA being commonly known as "The Shop", as its first building was a converted workshop in Woolwich Arsenal.  "Snooker", the table-top game, was invented by a former cadet of the RMA, where the members of the junior intake were known as "snookers", from a corruption of "les neux" (the new guys).

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Students at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, both of which closed on the outbreak of war in September 1939, were known as gentlemen cadets.  Unlike modern Officer Cadets, who are technically private soldiers and are paid and clothed as such by the MOD, gentlemen cadets were not subject to military law.  Their parents paid tuition and boarding fees, in the same way as at a public school or university, and also paid for uniforms (of the same pattern as worn by subaltern officers, but without badges of rank), books, and mathematical instruments.  Fees were reduced for the sons of serving or former officers, and there were also a number of cadetships (comparable to scholarships).  Admission was by competitive written examination in a variety of academic subjects, and candidates passed in, in order of merit, according to the number of marks they achieved.  There were no practical tests of aptitude for leadership such as were first introduced during the Second World War and which continue to form the basis of the present-day Regular Commissions Board.  This had the effect of confining entry to either the RMA and or the RMC to public schoolboys, often from families with a military connection.

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Artillery and engineer officers could purchase neither first commissions nor subsequent promotion.  All had to pass out from the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, and then advanced by seniority.  The Royal Military Academy, which finished up at Sandhurst, was established in 1801, but potential officers were not obliged to attend it and there was no guarantee that those who did would receive free commissions.

The purchase system had advantages, enabling competent young officers to gain higher rank more quickly than would be the case today, and helping ensure the army’s loyalty because its officers were men with ‘a stake in the country’.  And even those officers who did not attend formal training at Sandhurst were prepared by their regiments, being obliged to train with the recruits until they were thoroughly proficient in individual drill and understood how to drill a company.

If purchase fitted comfortably into the fabric of Georgian England, with its emphasis on place and patronage, it came under increasing attack in the 19th Century and vanished in Cardwell’s reforms.  These obliged officers, with few exceptions, to attend Woolwich or Sandhurst, which merged after World War Two to form the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.  However, the end of purchase did not open an officer’s career to all, for until World War One it was difficult for an officer to survive without private means.

The fact that most officers came from a relatively narrow social spectrum did not matter much in peacetime, but when the army expended for World War One many surviving pre-war regulars received promotion beyond their normal expectation.  Britain’s first citizen army was commanded, at its higher levels, by officers from the old army.

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In the south-west part of Woolwich Common, to the left of the road leading to Shooter's Hill and Eltham, is the Royal Military Academy, established by George II. "for instructing persons belonging to the military portion of the ordnance in the several branches of mathematics, fortification, etc., proper to qualifying them for the service of artillery and the office of engineer."  The Academy, as a matter of fact, was founded in 1719, but it hung fire until 1745, and in 1745 it was transferred from within the Arsenal to the present site.  Sir J. Wyatt designed the building, which consists of a central quadrangle (the original has been destroyed by fire) with wings.  Among the cadets educated here was the Prince Imperial, to whose memory his fellow-students have erected a bronze statue.