The Havannah: Cardiff's floating industrial school

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During the 19th and early 20th century, three wooden warships became permanent fixtures in the docks area of Cardiff, then one of the greatest sea ports in the world.

These vessels were moored or grounded hulks that, over the years, were to become as familiar to the people of Cardiff as Llandaff Cathedral or the Pier Head building.

To begin with there was the Thisbe, a gospel ship where sailors and people from Cardiff could come to worship. Then there was the Hamadryad the famous and long-serving hospital ship for the town and dock.

The third of the three ships, one that was spoken about with bated breath – and one which children would cross the road to avoid – was the Havannah. She was, technically, an industrial school but everyone in Cardiff knew her as the place where naughty boys were sent to 'do their time'.

The Havannah was launched at Liverpool in March 1811 and saw active service in the West Indies and the Mediterranean during the Napoleonic Wars.

In 1815 she was one of several men-of-war that escorted Napoleon into exile on St Helena after his defeat at Waterloo and she went on to sail around the world on two separate occasions. However, by the middle years of the 19th century the Havannah was out of service and laid up ready for breaking.

Enter Mary carpenter, reformer extraordinary and the woman who, almost single-handedly, created a system to extricate young offenders from the adult prisons of the time. In these places, Carpenter believed, young delinquents were not helped or corrected but schooled in what were effectively academies of crime.

Largely due to Mary Carpenter's efforts several scts of parliament such as the 1854 Youthful Offenders Act created a system of Reformatory and Industrial Schools to cater for these young delinquents.

As far as Cardiff was concerned, Carpenter had already written in the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian that: "If such a school is needed in any part of the world it certainly is at Cardiff."

With poverty, delinquency, vagrancy and abuse rife in both the dock area and the town, the Cardiff Ragged School Committee requested from the Admiralty the loan of a ship on which they could base a school. The Havannah was donated.

On 4 July 1860 Captain Harvey and 10 men took the tug Iron Duke to Devonport and returned with the Havannah in tow. Five days later the Havannah was berthed in East Bute Dock.

At that time she was the largest vessel to enter the dock and a huge crowd gathered to witness her arrival. Although a request had been made to keep the ship's yards and rigging, this was refused by the Admiralty – they were valuable commodities and reusable, unlike the old wooden ship itself.

Consequently, when she was moved to a muddy anchorage to the south of Penarth Road, a bare stone's throw away from Cardiff Arms Park, her main deck was built up and roofed over. A doorway was cut in her side and a wooden bridge connected the grounded hulk to the land. The first Ragged School classes met on board on 1 November 1860.

Ragged schools were not what the organisers had in mind, however. With the tide of delinquency and vagrancy growing ever stronger in Cardiff, the committee applied for a licence to run the Havannah as an industrial school, a place where delinquent boys could be taught an honest trade, along with some basic schooling, to lift them out of the trap of poverty and crime.

The licence was duly received on 5 January 1862. The Havannah ran as an industrial school for the next 40 years, the primary aim being to turn delinquent boys into sailors in the Merchant Navy and fishing fleets of the country.

She was never totally satisfactory as an accommodation hulk, being old and leaking before she even arrived at Cardiff. Although nominally grounded, at high tides the ship would often float off the mud.

Embankments had been built to keep the sea out but the high waters of the Bristol Channel invariably roared over these, destroying the vegetable plots that the boys had cultivated around the hull of the old ship.

Soon over 100 boys, many from Cardiff with others from west Wales and even England, were being contained and helped on board the Havannah. They were sent by magistrates, usually without considering the individuals' needs and wishes and many of the boys were totally unsuited to life afloat. Disease and death were not uncommon.

The Havannah had a small tender, called the Polly, and on this the boys would cruise up and down the channel. Conditions were harsh and often brutal, both on the tender and on the Havannah, containment usually being seen as more important than education. The end of a rope was standard punishment for any misdemeanor.

Although initially quite successful in her work – or, at least, in reducing crime figures - by the late 1880s, the work of the ship was being heavily criticized by the inspector of reformatory schools. One particularly virulent report commented that "The institution, discipline and training are grossly inefficient ... the boys are greatly addicted to both lying and thieving ... their health is much tried in consequence of the swampy location."

Nevertheless, the Havannah managed to limp on for another 20 years. Fewer and fewer boys were placed in positions at sea and, inevitably, referrals began to drop.

By 1900 there were far better options available to magistrates and the ship was, in any case, now leaking like a sieve. It was clear that things could not continue as they were and, reluctantly, the Committee reached decision to close down the Havannah.

In January 1905 the boys were duly transferred to the training ship Formidable at Portishead near Bristol and the Havannah was sold for £1,030 to the salvage company Norris of Cardiff.

After she was broken up, Mr Norris presented two of Havannah's cannons to Cardiff Corporation. They were placed in Roath Park but with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 they were taken away for scrap metal. It marked the end of Cardiff's connections with the Havannah.

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