To be a sailor boy

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A whole range of training ships were available. Reformatory ships were designed to cater for hardened delinquent boys, some as young as ten. Such boys could expect brutal treatment, often being doused with cold water, beaten with birch rods that left permanent scarring and enduring solitary confinement for the slightest misdemeanour.

If they survived five years of such treatment, employment in the merchant navy or in the fishing fleets of Britain must have seemed like paradise. There were no reformatory ships in Wales but there were two on the Mersey, at Liverpool and Birkenhead, and these regularly took boys from places like Cardiff and Newport.

Industrial School Ships, for boys who might easily become delinquent if they were not helped, did exist in Wales. The Havannah lay beached on the mud at Cardiff, having been established in 1861.Cardiff, then, was a bustling and vibrant seaport, full of sailors from around the world. Life was cheap. As the reformer Mary Carpenter wrote in the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian:

"If such a school is needed in any part of the world it certainly is at Cardiff."

The second Welsh industrial school ship was the Clio, moored off Bangor Pier in 1877. A small corvette, conditions on board were always cramped and her history is full of recorded instances of bullying - even, on one occasion, an untimely death.

Wales also saw two training ships of slightly higher calibre. The Indefatigable had started life as an Industrial School Ship on the Mersey but soon went "up market," taking children of needy but honest parents. In 1941 she was moved to the Menai Straits to avoid German bombing and in 1944 became shore-based at Plas Menai where the establishment ran as a public school until the end of the 20th century.

The other, perhaps more famous, training ship in Wales was the Conway, designed to train boys for positions as officers in the Merchant Navy. Moored in the Menai Straits, she may well have been intended for officers but conditions on board were no better or easier than on the reformatory and industrial ships.

After operating for nearly a 100 years, Conway was wrecked while being towed to Birkenhead for repair in April 1953, lying for many weeks on the foreshore with her back broken and all hope of repair long gone.

Training Ships have disappeared from our coasts. But the Foudroyant - a privately owned training ship that was once moored in Milford Haven - is still afloat. Based at Hartlepool, she is open to the public as one of the oldest sailing ships in the world. A visit must surely give some indication of the conditions boy trainees had to endure a hundred years ago.

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