To be a sailor boy

Friday 16 April 2010, 16:17

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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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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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Phil, what do you mean by "an untimely death"? I can see how boys died on these ships, falling off the masts and things like that. But an untimely death? Do you mean murder?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I don't know if you can call it murder as there clearly wasn't intent to kill anybody but on 9th February 1906 William Crooks, a thirteen year old trainee on the Clio, died at Bangor Infirmary. He had been repeatedly bullied - knocked down by two older, bigger boys and then kicked as he lay on the floor. A verdict of Death by Misadventure was returned by the coroner's inquest. The two bullies were birched and that was the end of the matter. According to the Authorities it was a case of bullying, nothing more. Amazing! I'd like to say it wouldn't happen now but I'm not so sure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    My grandmother had 5 brothers all of whom joined the Royal Navy as ‘Boys’. I have a long list of the training hulks to which they were posted – HMS Impregnable, HMS Pembroke, HMS Boscawen, HMS Cambridge, HMS Minotaur to name but a few. As you will know Phil, many of these ‘wooden wallers’ were originally built in Pembroke Royal Dockyard.
    My G grandfather served in his later naval career as gunnery instructor on various training ships including HMS Clyde – naming one of his sons after her! He also served on HMS Implacable – was it she Phil, that was formerly the French ship Dougay Trouin, captured just after Trafalgar and sadly, sunk in the Channel after WW2? Great grandfather was probably selected as a training instructor as he had taken part in ‘live firing practice’ when in 1865, serving on HMS Galatea they bombarded Haiti, since some Revolutionaries had seized members of the British Mission there and this was considered an ‘affront to the British Flag’.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    You're right, Roger, the Implacable was originally the French Duguay Trouin, captured by Sir Richard Strachan two weeks after Trafalgar - at which she had fought. She served in the Royal Navy for a few years, then was laid up until 1857 when she became a training hulk for Boy Entrants to the navy. This was a task she carried out (at Portsmouth) for fifty years before being bought by a group of businessmen and moored in Falmouth Harbour as a private training ship. She was used as an accommodation hulk during WW2, then in 1949 with rotting timbers and a leaking hull, rather than give her back to the French she was taken out into the Channel where she was scuttled.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Firstly I live in Australia. Secondly, where can I find out what happened to the youngsters on the ship Clio. I ask as one of my grandfathers brothers, Percy Earl, is shown on the 1911 census as being on board. No mention has ever been made of him in family history and until I started looking into our genealogy, did not know he existed. Would they have gone on into the navy or just disappeared into civilian life at the end of their term.
    My thanks for the information on this site

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    Comment number 6.

    There are several possible sources of information regarding the disposal (their words, not mine) of Clio boys. Gwynedd Archives have some information at their offices in Bangor. The Maritime Museum in Liverpool has a little. The University at Liverpool has a large archives but I don't know if it contains TS boys. The Public Records Office (Kew) has a huge number of files on all the training ships - it's a question of trawling through them, really. But, ultimately, record keeping in those days was poor
    Boys from the Clio would have gone, in the main, to the Merchant Navy. Some would have gone to the Royal Navy - if your relative was one of these his records would be at Kew. I take it you have trawled census returns etc. I wish you luck.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    My great uncle George John Breasley was on the Clio in the 1891 census. As he lived in Ireland why would he be there from such a long way. What could have done to warrant going all this way


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    Comment number 8.

    Hi Margaret, it wasn't unusual for boys from all over the place to be sent to ships like the Clio. In those days it was a case of wherever there was a vacancy. So Ireland - which did have its own training ship for a short while, in Belfast - was not too far away, just across the water, really. The Irish authorities would have applied for a place. And as long as they paid it would be given. Your relative needn't have done anything too serious, particularly if he'd expressed a wish to go to sea.

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    Comment number 9.

    This is a great website. I remember that one of the hulks - I believe in the Cardiff area - turned turtle and caused considerable loss of life amongst the young men who were housed within it. I know that questions were asked in Parliament about the accident.
    Does anybody please know the name of the ship, when it happened and any other details. Many thanks.

    John N

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Hi John N
    Several of the training ships/hulks went down - usually as a result of fire, often fire started by the boys themselves. There were two, at least, on the Thames and the Clarence in the Mersey was also burned (twice!). I don't know of any such disaster in the Cardiff area. The TS Havannah was beached in Cardiff for many years and ran as a training ship until the early part of 20th century but she didn't turn turtle. You might be thinking of the Foudroyant which was wrecked on the beach at Blackpool at the end of the 19th century.


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