Train­ing ships

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A com­mon aim of chil­dren’s in­sti­tu­tions was train­ing their charges for fu­ture em­ploy­ment. For boys as­pir­ing to a life at sea, the sev­eral dozen naval train­ing ships moored around Bri­tain’s coast pro­vided a use­ful prepa­ra­tion. The ships were op­er­ated by a va­ri­ety of bod­ies, some of whom also ran land-based es­tab­lish­ments. Some ves­sels, like the Arethusa, on the Thames at Green­hithe, were char­i­ta­bly run in­sti­tu­tions aimed at help­ing the chil­dren of the poor.

Oth­ers ranged from those for fee-pay­ing prospec­tive naval of­fi­cers on the Worces­ter and Con­way, through to those trans­ferred from work­houses or other in­sti­tu­tional care, for ex­am­ple, the Ex­mouth at Grays, Es­sex. A num­ber of train­ing ships served as re­for­ma­to­ries, such as the Ak­bar on Mersey­side and the Corn­wall at Pur­fleet, or as in­dus­trial schools like the Shaftes­bury, also at Grays, and the Clio on the Me­nai Straits.

Boys typ­i­cally joined the ships at the age of 11 and stayed un­til they were 15 or 16. 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, with some un­for­tu­nately drown­ing be­fore they mas­tered the skill. Sleep­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion was usu­ally in ham­mocks, which could be com­fort­able in the sum­mer but icy cold in win­ter. As well as learn­ing nau­ti­cal skills, boys on train­ing ships were of­ten taught other use­ful crafts such as tai­lor­ing, shoe­mak­ing or car­pen­try.

A group of boys in a flag- sig­nalling class on board the train­ing ship 1931

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