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Training Ships


The earliest training ships were run by the The Marine Society, founded in 1756 by Jonas Hanway and still in existence. (Hanway was also a governor of the London Foundling Hospital and promoter of the 1766 Act to remove young children from London workhouses.) The Marine Society started life recruiting boys and young men for the Royal Navy at the beginning of the Seven Years War against France but, in an effort to reduce desertions, began training its boys before they were sent to sea. In 1876, the Society acquired the training-ship Warspite and by 1911 had sent 65,667 men and boys to sea, of whom 28,538 had gone into the Royal Navy.

The Royal Navy's own first training ship was HMS Implacable at Plymouth in 1855 followed by HMS Illustrious at Portsmouth. They aimed to give a training in naval life, skills, and discipline to teenage boys (or 'lads' as they invariably called) and, of course, provide a ready source of recruits for Her Majesty's ships. Over the next fifty years, around thirty other training ships were set up by a variety of other organizations, both public and private. The various ships catered for boys from a wide range of backgrounds, ranging from fee-paying prospective Merchant Navy officers on the Worcester, through those in Poor Law or other institutional care, to juvenile delinquents placed on reformatory ships such as the Akbar on Merseyside and the Cornwall on the Thames at Purfleet.

The Cornwall, c.1910
© Peter Higginbotham.

The Cornwall was involved in a great scandal in 1903 when seven boys contracted typhoid. It was discovered that cheap blankets from army hospitals, unwashed and infected, had been sold to the ship.

The remainder of this page is primarily concerned with those training ships which admitted pauper boys. Ships which were used as reformatories or industrial schools are discussed on a separate page.

Boys typically joined the ships at the age of eleven or twelve and stayed until they were fifteen or sixteen. Discipline aboard the ships was strict and the birch often used to enforce it. Food was limited in quantity and variety — biscuit, potatoes, and meat were the staples, with occasional green vegetables. Many of the new boys could not swim and needed to be taught — unfortunately some drowned before they mastered the skill! Sleeping accommodation was usually in hammocks which could be comfortable in the summer but icy-cold in winter.

Despite their promotion by the Local Government Board, local Boards of Poor Law Guardians appear to have shown some reluctance in using training ships for boys in their care — on 1st January, 1911, the national total of Poor Law boys placed on the ten available ships was only 453. This may have partly due to the cost of maintaining them there, typically eight or nine shillings a week or a one-off lump sum, which was generally a little higher than keeping them in their own local establishments. A payment might also be required for a boy's uniform.

A paper read by Mr Geoffrey Drage at the Central Poor Law Conference in February 1904 extolled the virtues of training ships:

The Poor Law authorities, therefore, who directly and indirectly encourage and support a training ship like the Exmouth are performing a great national service.
The question which next arises is whether from the point of view of the boys themselves the Guardians are not doing the best that can be done for them in sending them to the Exmouth.
In the first place the life is a healthy one for the boys, their physical development is carefully attended to, their education from an intellectual point of view is adequate, and they receive at the age at which they can most readily profit by it that technical training which at any rate as far as the sea is concerned, can only be properly acquired at an early age. More than all, the so-called stigma of pauperism is removed, and the boys are sent out into the world with a profession of national utility and under the aegis of the name of their training ship, and, when the training ship has an established position, it is an enormous advantage to a boy in after-life, to be able to claim association with it.
The advantages of the Navy as a career can hardly be over-estimated. Quite apart from the great traditions of the service and the universal respect which the uniform inspires, there is the substantial fact that a boy who goes from the Exmouth into a naval training ship can at the age of 40 secure a pension of over £50 for life. What is more, there are few, if any, recorded instances of a blue-jacket receiving relief from the poor law.
In the Merchant Service the career is not quite so satisfactory, but a boy once launched into any of the first-class lines has only to do his work well and his worldly success is assured.

With the advent of steam power, naval crews became smaller and the demand for boys steadily declined, particularly in the Merchant Service. Many of the original wooden training ships also became unseaworthy and their operation gradually moved onto land-based premises. Some survived until the end of the twentieth century but were then forced to close by a reduction in demand for places and in their funding.

Training ships that took boys from Poor Law establishments are listed in the table below.

Arethusa and ChichesterGreenhithe, Kent
ClioMenai Straits, North Wales
Cumberland and EmpressRiver Clyde, Glasgow
Formidable / National Nautical SchoolPortishead, near Bristol
Goliath and ExmouthGrays, Essex
IndefatigableNew Ferry, Birkenhead
MercuryHamble, Southampton
Mount EdgcumbeSaltash, Cornwall
WellesleyNorth Shields
Lancashire Sea Training HomesLiscard, Cheshire (land-based)

Arethusa and Chichester

In 1866, Lord Shaftesbury, a philanthropist and campaigner for the rights of children, promoted the idea of a naval training ship for homeless boys in London. Shaftesbury persuaded the Admiralty to loan a redundant 50-gun frigate called the Chichester. The ship was fitted up by Messrs. Money Wigram & Sons of Blackwall and moored on the Thames off Greenhithe. On 18th December 1866, the ship received its first intake — 50 boys from a children's refuge at Parker Street near Covent Garden. The ship was managed by a committee of the 'National Refuges for Homeless and Destitute Children' (later known as 'Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa').

The Chichester, 1867.

The first Commanding Officer was the recently retired Captain A.H. Alston who although a devout Christian was a stern disciplinarian. Other staff included William McCarthy as Chief Officer, Mr Phillips as Schoolmaster, and Messrs Wm Samuels and J Marsh as Instructors — all lived onboard and worked a seven-day week. Mrs McCarthy, the Chief Officers wife, was awarded £20 per year for teaching the boys how to cut out and make their clothes from material supplied by the Naval Yard at Deptford. However, both she and her husband were dismissed for drunkenness in January 1868.

An early task was teaching the boys to swim, although sadly there were several instances of boys falling overboard and drowning. To help with this problem, a barge was moored to the head of the ship and filled with water to act as makeshift swimming pool. By the end of the first year nearly 200 boys had undergone training onboard. Of the 42 who had moved on: 21 entered the Merchant Navy, 9 entered the Royal Navy, 7 returned ashore, 1 became apprenticed to a tailor, 2 had drowned, and 1 had died of fever.

Training on the Chichester include work in: compass and lead, knotting and splicing, sail-making, knowledge of all running gear and parts of ship, reefing and furling sails, and rowing and steering, not to mention time spent in swimming, cooking, carpentry and tailoring.

The ship was given a small yacht, the Dolphin, as a sailing vessel which was replaced in 1870 by a pinnace. Unfortunately, soon afterwards, the pinnace was hit by a steamship and four boys died.

One bureaucratic problem that afflicted training ships was that the Royal Navy refused to accept anyone not in possession of a birth certificate. Many of the boys had no idea of their parentage let alone a birth certificate. Lord Shaftesbury managed to persuade the Admiralty to waive this rule for Chichester boys, provided they declared their age and agreed to serve for a specified period.

Increasing friction between Captain Alston and the ship's governing committee over matters such as his being allowed to have a wine cellar on board, led in April 1869 to his being called upon to resign. However, Alston persuaded all the ship's instructors to depart with him to positions on the Cumberland, an Industrial Training ship, based at Greenock on the Clyde.

The ship had strict rules about use of the birch as a punishment — birchings could only be administered by the Captain and up to a maximum of 24 'cuts'. The birching scale ranged from 24 cuts and dismissal with disgrace for any act of gross indecency or immoral behaviour, to 12 cuts and dismissal for stealing, and 6 cuts for being in an improper place. Absconding earned 12 cuts, although a second offence brought dismissal from the ship.

Originally, Arethusa boys were known onboard only by their number — when they met up in later life, none of them knew each others' names! This custom continued until 1927, after which time boys were referred to by their surnames.

Food on the ship was limited in both quantity and variety. The daily dietary scale for many years comprised:

  • 1lb Soft bread
  • 8oz biscuit
  • 7oz fresh meat
  • 8oz potatoes
  • 3/4oz cocoa
  • 1/8oz tea
  • 2/3oz sugar

plus occasional green vegetables and twice-weekly rations of pea soup and rice, and treacle pudding as a treat on Sundays.

In 1873, following a donation of £5,000 from Lady Burdett-Coutts towards, a second ship was established. For this role, the Navy contributed the Arethusa, an wooden frigate which could accommodate staff and 250 boys. The Arethusa, built in 1849 had seen action in Crimea and was the last British ship to go into battle under sail. She took up position at Greenhithe and was officially opened on 3rd August, 1874, by the Earl of Shaftesbury and Baroness Burdett-Coutts.

From The Times — 6th July, 1877.
—On Wednesday a numerous company assembled at Greenhithe to witness the distribution of prizes to the lads of these two vessels. A few months ago the boys in both ships were among the homeless and destitute in the streets of London, but the training they have received has enabled them creditably to pass several examinations in nautical knowledge and in various branches of handicraft. The prizes were distributed by Lord Shaftesbury on the upper deck of the Arethusa. Mr W Williams, the secretary of the National refuges, presented the reports of the commanders of both vessels, and these were of a most satisfactory character. The Arethusa had sent 20 lads to the Royal Navy and 141 to the Merchant Service in the course of the year; the Chichester had sent 17 to the Royal Navy and 135 to the Merchant Service, making a total of 313. The report of Mr. T.H. Withers and Mr. A.P. Clark, nautical examiners, referred especially to the promptitude the lads had displayed when dealing with an imaginary case of "fire" on board the vessel. While the examiners were inspecing the boys the fire-bell rang, and in the short space of 1 minute and 20 seconds the pumps were throwing at least four tons of water per minute, showing that if an accident did occur the boys were fully able to cope with it. After the prizes were distributed, addresses were delivered by the Rev. T. Shore, Admiral Sir W. King Hall, Admiral Phillimore, Admiral Wellesley, and Mr. W. Hubbard. Lord Shaftesbury, in response to a vote of thanks, said he was sure he expressed the feelings of all present in congratulating Captain Walter, Captain Boxer, and Mr. Williams upon the complete success of the Arethusa and Chichester.

The Arethusa, c.1900
© Peter Higginbotham

The increase in the use of steam power led to a fall in demand for naval crews and an increasing difficulty in placing boys from the training ships. As a result, it was decided in 1889 to dispose of the Chichester. Her place was taken by a 83-foot twin-masted gaff-rigged schooner which took over the Chichester name and was used as a sailing tender for training boys in seamanship and handling sails.

The Arethusa — Compass Instruction, c.1910
© Peter Higginbotham

The Arethusa — Knotting and Splicing Instruction, c.1910
© Peter Higginbotham

In 1911, the ship's Captain Superintendent was Commander E. A. Martin, R.N., and there was accommodation for 240 boys. Protestants only were admitted, and had to be between 13½ and 16 years of age, and of good character. The only payment required was one inclusive sum of £15 for each boy between the ages of 13½ and 15 years, and £10 10s. for each boy from 15 to 16. The requirements as to minimum height were as follows:

13½-154ft. 8 in. (without boots.)
Over 154ft. 10½in. (ditto.)

All boys had be prepared to go to sea, and by 1911, out of the 8,500 who had passed through the ships, 1,500 had joined the Royal Navy, 6,000 entered the Merchant Service, and 1,000 had joined the Army, Royal Marines, and other services.

On 20th January 1918 the nearby Warspite training ship was destroyed by fire. Its owners, the Marine Society, suggested amalgamating Warspite with Arethusa but this was turned down. The Warspite was replaced by the cruiser Hermione and carried on in competition with the Arethusa. By the late 1920s the Arethusa and Warspite were the only ships remaining at Greenhithe. Despite pressure from the authorities to join forces, they all stayed stubbornly independent. However by the late 1920s, the Arethusa in a poor state and was given notice to quite her anchorage by the Port of London Authority. Eventually, in 1932, a German-built vessel, the steel-hulled Peking, was purchased for £6250 to replace the old Arethusa. She was towed to Greenhithe where she was renamed Arethusa II and preparations were made to convert her for use as a training ship at a cost of about £15,000. The new Arethusa was moored at Upnor near Rochester and was officially opened by HRH Prince George on 25th July, 1933. This last vessel is now an exhibit at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York under her original name of Peking.

Robert Henry James Rumbles Powditch served on the Arethusa and Chichester from 1907-09. His discharge certificate is transcribed below.

Conduct: Very Good
Arethusa & Chichester Training Ships

This is to Certify that Robert H.J.R. Powditch, 21, who has served on board the above Ships, under my command, from the 30th November 1907 to the date hereof, knows how to reef, and Is able to furl small sails. He can heave the lead and make all bends, knots, and splices; knows the flags according to the Commercial Code; can swim; pull in a boat, keep his clothes in repair; read, write, and do common arithmetic.
First Class P.O.     3 Good Conduct Badges.
   Given under my hand, on board the "ARETHUSA" at
   Greenhithe, this 2nd day of March 1909.

A.T. Target
Commander R.N.


The Industrial Training Ship Clio, moored off Bangor, North Wales, was lent by the Admiralty in 1877 and had accommodation for 260 boys. Boys of all religious denominations were received, between the ages of 11 and 16 years. The payment required was 8s. weekly. All the boys' boots and clothes were made on the ship, thus giving the boys a useful training over and above that they received in seamanship. A Home was provided at Liverpool for the use of the boys after leaving the ship, which they were encouraged to make use of between voyages.

The Captain Superintendent was Captain F. G. C. Langdon, R.N. The Offices of the Society which controls the ship were at 29, Eastgate Row North, Chester, the Honorary Secretary being Mr. E. M. Sneyd Kynnersley. The ship was certified for the reception of boys under the Children Act, 1908, but was not certified by the Local Government Board.

T.S. Clio off Bangor, c.1909.
© Peter Higginbotham

T.S. Clio, c.1909.
© Peter Higginbotham

The Clio was demolished on Bangor beach in 1920.

Cumberland and Empress

The Cumberland, built in 1842 at Chatham, was a 2214-ton two-deck 70-gun man o'war, 180 feet long, with three masts. She served in the Crimean War with a crew of up to 620 men. In 1869, she was taken over for use as a training vessel by the newly formed Clyde Industrial Training Ship Association. The Association had the object of providing for the education and training of boys who, through poverty, parental neglect, or any other cause were destitute, homeless, or in danger from association with vice or crime. Originally, boys were trained for entry into both the Royal Navy and the Merchant Service. However, after the Royal Navy decided to accept only boys of good character, the training became more oriented towards the Merchant Navy.

In 1889, the Cumberland was destroyed by a fire and was replaced by the Empress, a wooden battleship originally known as HMS Revenge. The 3318-ton Revenge, built in in 1859, was 245 feet long and had a complement of 860 men. Her previous roles had included Flagship of the Channel Fleet in 1863, Second Flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet in 1865, and Flagship at Queenston (1873), as well as coastguard duty at Pembroke and Devonport. Under the name of Empress she served as a training vessel until being sold off in 1923.

The Empress at Helensburgh.
© Peter Higginbotham

The Empress Band, date unknown.
© Fiona McInnes

The Empress Band, c.1910.
© Peter Higginbotham

The Goliath and Exmouth

From 1870-75, the Forest Gate School District operated a ship called the Goliath moored on the Thames. It provided boys from all London's Poor Law authorities with training to help equip them to enter the Royal or Merchant Navy. The scheme proved highly successful, but the ship was destroyed by fire on 22nd December 1875 with the loss of twenty-three lives.

Training Ship Goliath on Fire, 1875
© Peter Higginbotham

In 1877, a replacement vessel, The Exmouth took over the role, now moored off Grays in Essex and was managed by the Metropolitan Asylums Board. The Exmouth was an old wooden two-decker line-of-battleship, built in 1854, which had carried the flag of Admiral Seymour in the Baltic during the Crimean war. A news report in June, 1877, recorded an official visit to the ship.


The President of the Local Government Board, Admiral Phillimore, and the managers of the Metropolitan Asylums Board, paid an official visit to her Majesty's ship the Exmouth, lying off Grays, in Essex, which has been instituted as a training ship for boys chargeable to the poor rates of the metropolitan parishes and unions. The Exmouth takes the place of the Goliath, destroyed by fire last Christmas twelve-month, but is under different control. A few East London parishes, under the name of the "Forest Gate Stool District," in order to provide a marine training for boys chargeable to the rates in their parishes, had taken the burden of providing the Goliath, and when that ship was burned we suggested that this important work should in future be undertaken by a body representing the whole metropolis — by, in fact, a body with such wide powers as are possessed by the Metropolitan Asylums Board. The President of the Local Government Board immediately adopted the suggestion. The Admiralty placed at the service of the metropolis the fine ship now in use. The whole cost of refitting the ship and the purchase of the property belonging to the Forest Gate District has been £30,000. For this sum accommodation has been made for at least 500 boys; for whom, if like provision had to be made on land, the cost would be £50,000 or £60,000. We say the provision is for "at least" 500 boys, because, as the ship in the Baltic had a crew of 750 men, room could be easily made for more boys, especially as 30 are in training on the brigantine, where their training is completed, and some are usually in the house on land. The actual cost per head is 11s. a week; but, allowing for the aid given from the Imperial rates for school teachers and seamen instructors, the cost is 10s. a week for each boy taken from a London workhouse and trained for the Imperial or mercantile marine.
   On reaching the causeway, the ship was found to be in holiday trim, the boys "manning" the yards of both the Exmouth and her tender ; and the boats' crews awaiting the visitors were in sailor fashion saluting.

When on board, Admiral Robertson, the chairman of the committee, and other members of the committee, accompanied the official visitors in an inspection of the nearly 300 boys drawn up at "open order" on the deck. The ship is commanded by Captain Bourchier, RN. The boys, all of whom were dressed in sailor fashion, looked exceedingly well. The lads drilled fairly well, and marched well to the music of a hand. The visitors were then taken over the whole ship, and all the arrangements were minutely inspected. Upon their return to the upper deck the boys were drawn up to form three sides of a square. Admiral Robertson, addressing the President of the Local Government Board, acknowledged the great help given by the Local Government Board and by the Admiralty in the work. While the ship, he said, was being prepared, the committee had kept 120 boys in training in the home and on the brigantine, and in December last they were transferred to the ship ; since which time 349 other boys had from the London Poor Law Institutions. Of the first 120, there had been 17 discharged to sea; and he ended by asking him to present the prizes awarded to boys for proficiency in the various branches. The President congratulated the managers upon the lads' appearance and performances. Only one fourth of the present ship's company, he said, were on the old Goliath, and therefore three-fourths had been there at the most some six months. That in this time they had become so sailor-like and well-disciplined was a credit to themselves and their officers. The prizes were then distributed, most of them being good books of fiction, travel, adventure, and instruction. The party then had luncheon. Afterwards, the visitors were entertained by the boys dancing hornpipes, playing at single-stick, and athletic exercises. Boat-races were organized, the prizes. being subscribed by the visitors At the close of the day's proceedings, the boys again manned the yards, and gave their visitors a parting cheer.
   It may be mentioned that the London School Board propose to try and set up a ship for the industrial school class. The training ship Warspite, at Woolwich, is under the Royal Marine Society, the oldest training-ship society, and, like the work of the Chichester and I, is carried on by voluntary subscriptions.

Boys were able to join the ship from the age of twelve. Their first task was to learn how to mend and patch their own clothes. They also had to learn how to wash their clothes, and keep their lockers and contents in good order. Each boy had his own hammock which was stowed during the day, leaving the decks clear of bedding. As well as learning the skills of sailing, rowing, sail and rope-making, gunnery, and signalling, they continued ordinary school work, and other physical activities such as swimming and gymnastics. The ship had its own band and bugle-band.

The original Exmouth, c.1903
© Peter Higginbotham

In 1892, admission to the ship was extended for up to 50 boys from parishes and unions outside the metropolitan Poor Law Area. In 1896, 137 boys entered the Royal Navy from the Exmouth (compared with a total of 135 from all other training ships in the country combined). In 1899, of 372 boys discharged from the Exmouth, 149 entered the Royal Navy, 135 the mercantile marine, 58 joined the army as musicians, and 30 returned to their respective parishes.

Training ship Exmouth, 1893
© Peter Higginbotham

In 1903, the ship's hull was found to be in an unsafe condition and was condemned. A replacement of similar appearance, but built of iron and steel, was commissioned from the Vickers company in Barrow-in-Furness. The new Exmouth was towed round the coast to Grays where she was inaugurated in August 1905.

The new Exmouth, c.1905
© Peter Higginbotham

Exmouth boys at drill, c.1929
© Peter Higginbotham

Exmouth boys, c.1929
© Peter Higginbotham

The Exmouth had a companion ship, a brigantine called the Steadfast, used for cruising and to provide the boys with practical training in seamanship. The original Steadfast was condemned in 1894 and replaced by a new vessel of the same name.

Onshore at Grays, a playing field, swimming bath, and infirmary were provided in an old manor house called Sherfield House.

In 1945, the new Exmouth became HMS Worcester, the third and last training ship under that name, as part of the Thames Nautical Training College. She continued in service until the college's closure in 1968 and was broken up a few years later.

Formidable / National Nautical School

The Formidable was leased from the Admiralty in 1869 for use as a training ship in a scheme financed by several Bristol businessmen, led by Mr Henry Fedden, who were concerned about the high numbers of urchins wandering the city's streets. The vessel was moored at Portishead in the Bristol Channel, and anchored about four hundred yards off the pier. Much of the cost of her conversion, around £3,000, was raised by organising excursions out to the ship for local people. The ship could take up to 350 boys, the first of whom arrived in December 1869. The official opening was performed by the Reverend Charles Kingsley, author of Westward Ho! and The Water Babies. The Formidable was withdrawn from service by the Admiralty early in 1906 after damage from strong gales.

The Formidable was then replaced by a new shore establishment known as the Incorporated National Nautical School whose buildings were designed by Edward Gabriel. The school was located on a 15-acre site overlooking the Bristol Channel about two miles from Portishead.

The Formidable Nautical School, Portishead, 1906.

Parts of a contemporary report about the scheme is reproduced below:

The site is situated at the end of the Nore road, Portishead, and comprises 15 acres of undulating land belonging to the British Corporation, which have been secured on lease at a nominal rental. The ground is particularly suitable for an institution wherein are to be reared boys intended afterwards to join the Navy or Mercantile Marine. The architect is Mr. Edward Gabriel, of Old Broad-street, E.C. The main buildings will have a frontage of 382ft., and will rise 45ft. high from the parade ground, the whole being arranged so as to give as much light and air as possible. Owing to the rapid fall in the site there will be a basement extending the whole length of the building, and 40ft. in width. The space thus provided will be used as carpenters', tailors', shoemakers', and other shops, and stores, laundry, and heating apparatus. There are also here a band-room and instruments' store. Under the tower in the central building is the main entrance, surmounted with carved figures of Neptune and Britannia. The tower, which is to contain a clock 90ft. high, is finished with wood and copper flêche. The small towers at the corner of each main block contain staircases. The two upper floors are to be used as dormitories, and from each dormitory there will be two stairs uses for use in case of emergency, the steps of solid balks of timber, which, besides being fire-resisting, are not so likely to cause chilblains as stone when trodden on by the boys' naked feet. The entrances for the boys are on each side of the central building. The ground floor of the west block will be used for a messroom for the boys, officers' messroom, with kitchen, scullery, and storerooms adjoining. At the extreme end of the west block is to be the chief officer's house and rooms for resident schoolmaster. At the rear of this block is to be a bay for sick boys, for which hereafter a separate cottage hospital will be substituted when the necessary funds are available. The great floor of the east block is to be devoted to schoolroom and classrooms, library, and teachers' room. At the extreme east of this building is the residence of the captain superintendent, which will be connected with the main building, and from which house there will be ample supervision of the parade ground and playing fields. The central building is to contain committee-room on one side of the main entrance, and offices for the captain superintendent on the other. On the upper floors of this building there are to be spare cabins for officers and any old boys who may hereafter visit the institution. Each large dormitory will have four officers' cabins, and from inspection windows for efficient supervision. The floors of the dormitories are to be of solid balks of timber, tongued together, and the space will be made to resemble the deck of a vessel as much as possible. The lads will sleep in hammocks, as on board ship. The bathrooms and lavatories are adjoining the dormitories, but cut off by means of cross ventilated lobbies. Passing through the hall from the main entrance, access will be gained to the gymnasium which is at rear of the central building. The dimensions of the gymnasium are 84ft. by 50ft., and 20ft. high to the springing of the roof. It will be used not only for physical exercise, but also for meetings and entertainments, and for services when the weather may prevent the boys attending church. The buildings are to be warmed by hot water on the low pressure system. Accommodation will be provided for from 350 to 400 boys. From the parade-ground access is obtained by broad flights of steps to a lower terrace. The land between this and the Channel is to be laid out as playing-fields. There will also be a jetty and boathouse on the foreshore. The contract for the building will be undertaken by Messrs. W. Cowlin and Sons, of Bristol, and it is estimated that £30,000 will be expended, but a good many further additions will be needed, such as entrance lodge, gates and fencing, so that probably more than this amount will be required, and several thousands of pounds in addition to the sum already contributed for this purpose.

As well as land-based training, the school had a sea-going tender and two ten-oar cutters for training the older boys in practical seamanship. Of the 3,700 boys discharged from the Formidable and the School between 1869 and December, 1909, 2,312 went into the Merchant Service and 192 into the Royal Navy.

National Nautical School site, 1920.

Portishead Pier.
© Peter Higginbotham

The school took boys between the ages of 10 and 14 years, at a payment of £23 per annum. In 1911, The Captain Superintendent was Commander Willoughby E. Still, R.N., and the offices of the Honorary Secretary (Mr Henry Fedden, J.P.), were at 1, St Stephen's Chambers, Bristol.


In 1864, Liverpool seaman and ship-owner John Clint founded a charitable institution to provide naval training 'for the sons and orphans of sailors who are without means, preference being given to those whose fathers had been connected with the Port of Liverpool'.

The original Training Ship Indefatigable was established in 1865 on a ship loaned by the Admiralty and moored on the River Mersey at New Ferry, Birkenhead. Mr James Bibby contributed £5,000 to transform her from a fighting ship into a training ship, and this was to be the start of a long association between the Bibby family and the school.

The Indefatigable, 1866.
© Peter Higginbotham

The ship had accommodation for 250 boys aged from 12 to 15 years who were required to be 'of good character'. The payment required was £22 per annum, and £5 10s. for outfit on discharge, and boys of all religious denominations were received. A sailing tender was attached to the ship, and a hostel was established for boys returning from sea. By 1911, 5,000 boys had passed through the ship, of whom 4,500 had been sent to sea. The Captain Superintendent was then Commander Henry Butterworth, R.N.

In 1874, the ship acquired a floating bath in which the boys learnt to swim in safety. It was designed by W. R. M'Kaig, engineer, and J. Carlton Stiff, and made at the Windsor Ironworks, Garston. It was an iron cellular structure, the pontoons or compartments of which enclosed a space 50 ft. long by 20 ft. broad, which formed the water area. The depth at the shallow end was 3ft. 6in., but the deep end could be varied from 3ft. 6in. to 6ft. 6in., by means of an adjustable bottom or tray, hinged at one end and supported by chains at the other. The lifting power was supplied by two small worm-wheel and pinion apparatus. The bath, which was open to the sky, was moored at one end and swung with the tide. The water entered at the deep end and passed out at the shallow end.

The Indefatigable's swimming bath, 1874.
© Peter Higginbotham

The Indefatigable, c.1910.
© Peter Higginbotham

The Indefatigable band, early 1900s.
© Peter Higginbotham

In 1912, the ship was deemed unfit for further use. As a replacement, in 1913 the Admiralty provided HMS Phaeton which was renamed the Indefatigable until 1941. The war then forced the establishment onto land, first at temporary accommodation in North Wales, and later in 1944 at Plas Llanfair, Anglesey. In 1945, the ship amalgamated with the Lancashire National Sea Training Homes and renamed The Indefatigable and National Sea Training School for Boys. Many of the boys trained on the Indefatigable went on to have long and successful careers in the Merchant or Royal Navy.


The Mercury training ship was established in 1885 by London philanthropist Charles Hoare. The ship, a barque previously named Illova, was originally moored at Binstead on the Isle of Wight.

Training ship Mercury, c.1910.
© Peter Higginbotham

In 1892, the ship moved to the River Hamble near Southampton where land had been acquired on which to erect shore-based accommodation for the school. After Hoare's death in 1908, the Honorary Director of the school became Charles Burgess ('CB') Fry, the well-known scholar and sportsman. In 1911, the Mercury accommodation for 150 boys of good character between the ages of 12 and 15½ years. The minimum height requirements for admission were:

13½-144ft. 9½in.28in.
14 -14½4ft. 10½in.30in.

A group of Mercury boys, c.1895.
© Peter Higginbotham

In addition to cutters and yawls and a hospital ship, the 45-acre shore establishment included a church, gymnasium, etc.

The Shore Branch of the Mercury, c.1895.
© Peter Higginbotham

The training given was primarily for sea-service, and 90 percent of the boys gained the higher ratings in the Royal Navy. Boys were taught to swim in the tidal river and expected to participate in 1000 yards swimming races

Training ship Mercury - boys swimming, c.1910.
© Peter Higginbotham

In the Local Government Board's Annual Report for 1894-5, Mr Baldwyn Fleming, the Board's Poor Law Inspector for Southern England, reported that:

During the past year the "Mercury" training ship in the river Hamble has been certified by the Board for the reception of pauper boys. For many years I have been anxious that there should be a training ship in the district. Long ago I endeavoured to obtain one by arrangement between the great sea coast unions, but technical objections stood in the way. There are many pauper boys, difficult to dispose of satisfactorily otherwise, for whom a sea life opens an excellent and happy future, and nowhere could such boys be better found or trained than on the "Mercury." The ship is a beautiful one, and is supplemented by a separate floating hospital, and by every kind of appliance on shore, both for instruction and amusement. No healthy boy who can tell the truth, or learn to tell the truth, need look for a better life and training than he would find on board the "Mercury." The poor law authorities do not yet seem to realise the value of the institution thus placed at their disposal, and less than 20 of the "Mercury" boys are at present paid for by guardians. Some apprehension may exist on the score of expense, as the Board have authorised a payment up to 20l.par annum, which by the bye does not even cover the cost. The usual course of training takes three years, and costs 60l. Guardians think they can keep a boy for about 12l. a year. The difference, therefore, amounts to 24l. in the three years, and for the 24l. the boy's future is practically assured, as Captain Superintendent Hoare rarely fails to place his boys so advantageously that they need trouble the rates no more.

The Mercury racing crew, c.1895.
© Peter Higginbotham

In 1914, the original ship was supplemented with HMS President (formerly named HMS Gannet), a former Naval Reserve drill-ship previously moored in London's West India Docks. The old Illova was retired in 1916 and the President took on the Mercury name. The new Mercurywas mainly used a dormitory for the school where the boys slept in hammocks. Despite the later installation of central heating, it was apparently not uncommon to find ice in the hammocks in winter.

Training ship Mercury landing-stage, c.1919.
© Peter Higginbotham

The school finally closed in July 1968 after training over 5,000 boys.

Mount Edgcumbe

The training ship Mount Edgcumbe started life at Woolwich as the 56-gun HMS Winchester. In 1861, the Admiralty lent her to the Marine Society who moored her at Liverpool and re-named her the Conway. After being returned to the Admiralty in 1876, she became HMS Mount Edgcumbe. On June 28th, 1877, she was recommissioned as the Mount Edgcumbe Industrial Training Ship for Homeless and Destitute Boys and anchored at Saltash in Cornwall. The ship was associated with the Reformatory and Refuge Union.

Mount Edgcumbe off Saltash, c.1909
© Peter Higginbotham

The 1884 Regulations for the Admission of Boys to the "Mount Edgcumbe" Industrial Training Ship are shown below.

Until further notice, boys between the ages of twelve and sixteen will be received on board the "MOUNT EDGCUMBE", if sent by the Magistrates, with a medical certificate of good health, and approved by the Committee, from any of the NEIGHBOURING COUNTIES, under the following Acts of the Industrial Schools' Act, 1866, viz. —

CLAUSE 14 — Any person may bring before two Justices or a Magistrate, any child, apparently under the age of fourteen years, that comes within any of the following descriptions, namely:—

  • That is found begging and receiving alms (whether actually or under the pretext of selling or offering for sale anything), or being in any street or public place, for the purpose of so begging or receiving alms.
  • That is found wandering and not having any home or settled place of abode, or proper guardianship, or visible means of subsistence.
  • That is found destitute, either being an orphan, or having a surviving parent who is undergoing penal servitude or imprisonment.
  • That frequents the company of reputed thieves.
  • The Justice or Magistrate before whom a child is brought, as coming within one of those descriptions, if satisfied on the inquiry of that fact, and that it is expedient to deal with him under this Act, may order him to be sent to a certified Industrial School or Ship.

CLAUSE 16 — Where the parent, step-parent or guardian of a child, apparently under the age of fourteen years, represents to two Justices or a Magistrate that he is unable to control the child and that he desires the child to be sent to an Industrial School, under this Act, the Justices or Magistrate, if satisfied on inquiry that it is expedient to deal with the child under this Act, may order him to be sent to a certified Industrial School or Ship.

Boys may also be sent under the second Sub-Section of the 11th or the 2nd Sub-Section of the 12th Section of the Elementary Schools' Act 1876.

In the case of boys who may not come under either of these clauses, and therefore cannot be sent by a Magistrate's order, they will be received into the Ship, provided those persons who are interested in them are willing to contribute towards their support £20 per annum for each boy; and provided, also, that the boy be physically fitted for a sailor's life, apparently between the ages of twelve and fourteen, be approved by the Committee and Medical Officer.

No boys who have been to prison can be received into the Ship.

Mount Edgcumbe life-saving drill, c.1904.
© Peter Higginbotham

In 1911, Mount Edgcumbe had accommodation for 250 boys between the ages of 12 and 14 years. The payment required for residence was 8s. per week. A sea-going tender was attached to the ship. The boys were mainly drafted into the Mercantile Marine.

In 1910, Captain H Wesley Harkcom was appointed as Captain Superintendent and introduced many changes. He dispensed with the word 'Industrial' in the title, stopped using the birch on the boys, and he bought as much of their provisions from the local businesses as he could.

Mount Edgcumbe was closed down on December 4th, 1920. The ship was sold off a few months later and was soon afterwards towed to Plymouth where she was broken up.


The Humber Industrial School Ship Southampton, at Hull, was established in 1866 and had accommodation for 250 boys. By the end of 1909 had trained 2,600 boys, 57 percent of whom had gone into the Merchant Service, and 5 per cent. to the Royal Navy. It took boys of all religious denominations, between the ages of 11 and 14 years, at a payment of 8s. weekly, plus a payment of £2 for their outfit. In 1911, the ship was under the control of Commander H. J. de W. Kitcat, R.N. The Secretary was Mr. F.C. Manley, solicitor, of 16, Bowl-alley Lane, Hull.


The Warspite, anchored off Woolwich, Kent, was been lent to the Marine Society by the Admiralty in 1876. The Warspite had accommodation for 500 boys on board the ship. A yacht was attached to the ship, and a shore establishment included swimming baths, hospital, laundry, storehouses, etc.

Training ship Warspite, 1877.

HRH Princess of Wales presenting prizes to boys on Warspite, 1877.

In 1911, boys were admitted between the ages of 14 and 16½, with a minimum height of 4ft. 11in. without shoes. They were required to be of good character, and to go to sea at the end of their training. They also had to sign indentures for 2 years from date of admission. The only payment required was a fee of £15 on the boy's admission. In 1911, the Captain Superintendent was Captain W.H.F. Montanaro, R.N., and the Secretary was Lieutenant H.T.A. Bosanquet, R.N. The Society's offices were at Clark's Place, Bishopsgate St. Within, London.

Training ship Warspite, c.1910
© Peter Higginbotham

On 20th January 1918, the Warspite was destroyed by fire and Warspite lads were transferred to the nearby Worcester. The Marine Society approached the Arethusa with a suggestion of amalgamation but was turned down. Subsequently, the old Warspite was replaced by the cruiser Hermione which took on the Warspite name and carried on in competition with the Arethusa.

The new Warspite, c.1930
© Peter Higginbotham

The training school finally closed in 1940, although the Marine Society continues to this day.


The Wellesley Training Ship Institution was established in 1868 by a group of philanthropic Tyneside businessmen, led by James Hall, 'to provide shelter for Tyneside waifs and train young men for service in both Royal and Merchant Navies.' They initially used the ex-frigate HMS Cornwall, but in around 1874 took over an old wooden battleship, HMS Boscawen which was renamed TS Wellesley.

The Wellesley, c.1910
© Peter Higginbotham

The Wellesley was stationed on the Tyne at North Shields and provided accommodation for 300 boys. It had an auxiliary shore establishment, known as Green's house, in Mile End Road. South Shields, with accommodation for 60 boys. Here, boys were received as early as 7 years of age, then transferred to the ship on reaching the age of 12. Boys were admitted on the ship between the ages of 11 and 14 years, many going on to the Mercantile Marine. The Institution was certified as in Industrial School, and also by the Local Government Board, and boys of all denominations were received. In 1911, the Captain Superintendent was Commander Percy de W. Kitcat, R.N., and the Secretary Mr. George Luckley, solicitor, of 25, Queen Street, Newcastle-on-Tyne.

The Wellesley, c.1910
© Peter Higginbotham

The Wellesley, Band and Ship's Company
© Peter Higginbotham

Advertisement for hire of Wellesley Band, c.1900.
© Peter Higginbotham

The Wellesley was destroyed by fire in 1914 and the school moved ashore becoming the Wellesley Nautical School.

The Wellesley on fire at North Shields, March 1914
© Peter Higginbotham

The Lancashire (Navy League) & National Sea Training Homes

The Lancashire (Navy League) & National Sea Training Homes for poor boys were located at Liscard, Cheshire, This institution, which provided accommodation for 125 boys, was established by the Liverpool Branch of the Navy League in October, 1905, and worked in conjunction with the Manchester Branch of the League. Only boys of good character were admitted. Instruction was given in every aspect of seamanship that could be taught on shore. Berths were then obtained for the boys on board merchant ships, or in the Navy when they reached the requisite physical standard for that Service. A home was also established for the use of the lads between voyages.

Boys are received between the ages of 14 to 15½ years, although Poor Law boys were taken at an earlier age. The boys were bound as apprentices for three years after admission. The payment required was £18 4s. per annum, and £3 10s. for outfit on admission. The minimum physical requirements were as follows:

144ft. 9in.28-29in.
14½4ft. 10in.29-30in.
15½5ft. 1in.30-31in.

In 1911, the Superintendent Commander was Captain A.H. Garnons-Williams, R.N. The Secretary was Captain Alan Field, F.R.G.S., and the address of the Society's offices, Tower Buildings, Water Street, Liverpool.

In 1945, the Homes amalgamated with the Indefatigable and renamed The Indefatigable and National Sea Training School for Boys.





  • Antrobus, Edmund (1875) Training Schools and Training Ships (London).
  • Ayers, Gwendoline, M. (1971) England's First State Hospitals and the Metropolitan Asylums Board (Wellcome Institute of the History of Medicine, London).
  • Carradice, P (2009) Nautical Training Ships: An Illustrated History
  • Cuthbert, V (1937) Where Dreams Come True: A Record of 95 years: the Shaftesbury Homes and "Arethusa" Training Ship (London: Shaftesbury Homes and "Arethusa" Training Ship)
  • Douglas, Gordon (2008) We'll Send Ye Tae the Mars: The Story of Dundee's Legendary Training Ship
  • Evans, Bob (2002) The Training Ships of Liverpool (Birkenhead: Countyvise)
  • Masefield, John (1933) The Conway: From Her Foundation to the Present Day (Heinemann)
  • Percival, T (1911) Poor Law Children (London: Shaw & Sons)
  • Powell, Sir Allan (1930) The Metropolitan Asylums Board and its Work, 1867-1930. (MAB, London)
  • White, A.L. The Training Ship Mercury - A History (Mercury Old Boys' Association)
  • Local Government Chronicle, June 1877.


  • Thanks to John Algar (researcher into the Powditch surname) for information on Robert Powditch. Thanks to Fiona McInnes for the photograph of the Empress band.

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