Spectacular history of Addiscombe college is required reading

Private army: cadets in the mid-1800s posing in front of the Addiscombe Military College, which trained officers for the East India Company

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: It played a significant part of the history of Croydon, and of Britain, yet today is largely forgotten. DAVID MORGAN reviews an important and surprising new book about Addiscombe Military College

Kate Birbeck’s new book Addiscombe Military College and the Cadets Who Forged an Empire is a treasure of a publication which will delight local historians and provide a wealth of information for a wider audience.

The Military College at Addiscombe was a significant institution which, after its closure in 1861 and subsequent demolition by 1864, has largely disappeared from Croydon’s collective memory. This book will bring back to life many long-forgotten stories and personalities.

The result of Birbeck’s lengthy research is spectacular. She has put her material together into a format that can be easily read and accessed.

One group of people who will find the book particularly fascinating are those who now live in the Addiscombe area and whose roads and properties are built over the former college grounds.

Residents of Outram Road can find out their houses were built over what was once a chapel or a dairy or a bakehouse.

Those people living in Fryston Avenue can find their road on Victorian maps which reveal the extent of the college grounds.

Photographic memories: pictures such as this, of Addington staff member Sgt Malster, bring many of the book’s characters to life

Birbeck has also collected a number of artifacts which are pictured in the book. One is an examination paper from 1860 which all cadets had to sit. It reveals the sort of curriculum which the young men were taught and the standards they were expected to achieve.

Translations of Greek and Latin, as well as Hindustani and Urdu, would stretch the linguistic ability. Pure Maths questions required a deep knowledge of logarithms and calculus, vital for future artillery officers. Freehand drawing skills were important, as was a technical approach to geometric drawing. It was a demanding course designed to give the young men a solid foundation.

One of the great features of the book are the photos. The College incorporated the new art of photography into its curriculum in 1855 and Birbeck’s impressive collection provides a face for many of the names that previously had just been printed on a page or etched onto a memorial stone.

Cohorts of cadets stare out towards the camera as part of their valediction; professors sit proudly in front of the latest piece of technology; prizewinners and sporting champions show off their trophies and medals.

To my mind though, Birbeck’s finest achievement within these pages has been the pen portraits she constructed. The triumphs and tragedies of both cadets and staff have been meticulously put together to provide the reader with a myriad of pictures of Victorian, and later Edwardian, life. They contain insights into the family and social life of the times.

Military careers are documented. Planning and decision-making in constructing railways, dams, irrigation systems and roads are seen as practical extensions of what was taught as part of the curriculum. The mapmakers who opened up large parts of the sub-continent are revealed.

Throughout the portraits, it is clear that the risk of death from disease or injury was never far away from the majority of the college alumni.

As a historian closely associated with Croydon Minster (the Parish church as it was back then), it is so interesting to read the paragraphs about the cadet, John Baillie, who was buried there after a tragic accident in the grounds, as well as the background to Sir Ephraim Stannus, the second Lieutenant-Governor of the Seminary whose gravestone is now a portion of the pathway outside the Minster.

The parishioners from St James, Addiscombe, will also be able to reflect on photos and information about the men from the College who were buried there.

Addington Palace, the summer residence of the Archbishops of Canterbury, was right next to the College. Birbeck paints a lovely picture of cadets venturing beyond the confines of their own grounds and into the Palace estate where they would do a little poaching to supplement their diets and their incomes, “under the noses of the Archbishops”.

Of course, there will be surprise moments for readers of the book. In my case it was to discover someone who, when they returned from active service, lived in a house next door to where I was to be born many years later!

Birbeck’s information in the book will provoke a great deal of thought. It sheds much light on the era of “empire-building” and the influence which this College and the East India Company wielded towards that end. The cadets were trained to provide a service, which they did exceedingly well. Many grew up and had stellar careers in the military or in civil engineering. Whatever their achievements, it is fair to say they never forgot their time in the College.

Kate Birbeck is to be congratulated on producing a book which will delight many and which will become a staple for researchers in years to come.

  • David Morgan is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups

If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page

Other articles by David Morgan:

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5 Responses to Spectacular history of Addiscombe college is required reading

  1. Dave West says:

    As someone who lived in Addiscombe for most of their 65 years and with a keen interest in local history, this is a book I’ve been waiting for. There was always a gap in my knowledge around the college. However at £47, I really can’t justify it. Shame. Suspect that many of the people it might appeal to will feel the same. If only we still had public libraries…

  2. Colin Gamm says:

    Fryston Avenue within the college grounds? Surely not.

  3. J Michael Phillips says:

    I should be grateful for a contact e-mail for Kate Birbeck to invite her to give a lecture about Addiscombe.

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