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