Earlier this week it was announced that the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall, Twickenham is to be closed ‘as part of a £500m estates disposal plan‘. Already the proposal is meeting opposition, led by local Conservative MP, Dr Tania Mathias. There is also an online petition to save the institution.
This is not an entirely new story. Whitehall has been keen to get rid of Kneller Hall for the best part of a century. It’s a fine old listed building, right next to Twickenham rugby stadium, with extensive grounds that are ripe for a property developer. Thus far, however, all attempts to sell it off have been thwarted. The following is extracted from my book The Trumpets Will Sound: The Story of the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall (Parapress, 1996):
As long ago as 1934 proposals had been put forward to vacate Kneller Hall and relocate the School. Nearly fifty years later, in 1981, the issue was to return to the political agenda with a finance-driven decision to merge the schools of music for the three services: Kneller Hall, the Royal Marines school at Deal, and the RAF school at Uxbridge. What ensued was a five-and-a-half year struggle to defend the independence of the services, culminating in 1987 with a decision that the Royal Military School of Music was to remain at Kneller Hall.
Normally such processes are hidden for decades under the cloak of government secrecy, but in this case we have the benefit of an account by the former civil servant, Clive Ponting, who was part of the Ministry of Defence team charged with finding savings in the music budget. In Whitehall: Tragedy and Farce (Hamish Hamilton, 1986), Mr Ponting recorded his impressions on first visiting Kneller Hall:
By the 1980s it was run-down and decaying. The old house needed repair, the barracks accommodation was spartan, music practice facilities were almost non-existent, there was no concert hall, and worst of all it was directly under the flight path to Heathrow with large jets passing overhead every few minutes. It was just about the worst possible place to put a music school.
Neither Uxbridge nor Deal met with Ministry approval either, and a new site was proposed at Eastney near Portsmouth, in an old Royal Marines barracks. (A Royal Navy School of Music had been founded at Eastney under the guidance of Edward Stretton in 1903.) Mr Ponting had no doubt that this was the most cost-effective option, but his report on the subject coincided with the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands, and any decision was inevitably postponed until the cessation of hostilities.
When the proposal was re-floated in late 1982, a fierce opposition to the suggested closure of Kneller Hall was mounted on two fronts: pressure was brought behind the scenes by the senior levels of the Army, whilst a public campaign was led in the House of Commons by the local Conservative MP for Twickenham, Toby Jessel, who declared, ‘I will fight like a tiger to save Kneller Hall’. By 1987 Mr Jessel could proudly boast that he had spoken in support of Kneller Hall 17 times in the Commons, had met Defence Ministers on eleven occasions, had rallied the support of 164 Conservative MPs for an Early Day Motion and had presented a petition of over 18,000 signatures to the Prime Minister. His endeavours were recognized by all sides in the debate, from Margaret Thatcher, who congratulated him ‘on his valiant campaign in support of the excellent military bands’, right through to Mr Ponting, who commented pointedly that he was ‘remarkably well briefed’.
Whilst these campaigns were progressing, there was an equally intense political struggle at Cabinet level. Michael Heseltine, who had become the Secretary of State for Defence in the wake of the Falklands War, chose to reject the Eastney proposal in favour of an Army site in Edinburgh, presumably as part of a continuing attempt to spread government money around the country. Meanwhile, however, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Peter Rees, was espousing the cause of Deal – where, by a strange coincidence, he was the local MP – as the location of any unified School.
Deal it was that in December 1984 ultimately emerged as the government’s choice. It was a muddled decision and one that was clearly based more on political considerations than on the quality of music that a new School would be able to offer the Services, or even on the initial objective of saving money, as The Times reported on 5 December 1985:
Sir Clive Whitmore, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, told the public accounts committee last night that there was little difference between the cost of continuing with the existing schools and going to Deal.
Under highly critical cross examination from angry Conservative and Labour MPs, he also indicated standards at the new school could drop. Mr Ponting went even further, estimating that, rather than saving four million pounds, the Deal option would actually cost two and a half million more.
Those who opposed the proposal were in no mood to yield to the confused messages emanating from the MoD; further representations were made within the defence establishment, whilst the public debate continued to rumble on for more than two years, with Mr Jessel in particular seizing every opportunity to raise the issue.
In February 1986 the Public Accounts Committee produced its report, which was highly critical of the Government’s flawed economic arguments, and it became evident that the battle was turning in the School’s favour; Lord Trefgarne, the Minister of State for Defence Support, told the House of Lords:
It is already clear that the original date of 1988 for establishing a Defence School of Music can no longer be met, and I can tell your Lordships, therefore, that there is no prospect of Kneller Hall or the RAF school of music at Uxbridge being closed before 1989.
The following month the government threw in the towel altogether, and announced that Kneller Hall had been reprieved. Amongst the many guests at that year’s concert season were George Younger and Roger Freeman – the Defence Ministers responsible for taking the decision – Viscount Tonypandy, the former Speaker of the House of Commons, and, inevitably, Mr Jessel.