‘Nautical Training Ships: An Illustrated History’ by Phil Carradice

Nautical Training Ships: An Illustrated History

Phil Carradice describes the nautical training system in the United Kingdom as “a remarkable and distinguished period of British maritime history”. He starts with the founding of Sir William Boreman’s Greencoat Collegiate School in 1672 and ends with the closure of Wellesley – by then a community home with education – in 2006, and so his book encompasses the whole development, burgeoning and decline of the system.

It is a fascinating story, with many angles, throwing sidelights on the history of the British Empire, changes in youth justice, education and childcare, and developments in ship construction, seamanship and maritime trade.

In part the story is about the preparation of young people for a career at sea – training for the Royal Navy, the Merchant Navy or for other aspects of sea-faring such as work on trawlers, tugboats or lighters. During the period covered by the book, Britain gained mastery of the seas, and fought the Dutch, the French and the German navies. This domination matched the country’s economic growth with the Industrial Revolution, and its dominance as the leading world-wide trading power. It desperately needed sailors both for trading and fighting to build up and maintain these roles, and it is no accident that Jonas Hanway and Thomas Coram who developed early child care services were both linked to the sea and understood this need.

The story is also about the use of redundant ships as reformatories and industrial schools. The wooden ships that had fought in the Trafalgar era came to the end of their fighting lives, and were either broken up or used for other purposes. Concern about the treatment of young offenders and about the waifs and strays who wandered the streets of Britain’s cities culminated in the Youthful Offenders Act 1854. Using the old ships for reformatories and industrial schools followed soon afterwards, presumably with multiple aims.

The explicit purpose was to give the boys the opportunity to learn skills which could offer them a good career and at the same time meet a real national need for manpower. There were probably other reasons which made the system attractive to the benefactors who raised the funds. Life on board was tough, and there were always those who felt that young offenders should have life made difficult for them. Placing them on ships also reduced absconding and the offending associated with it.

This book is thoroughly researched and full of facts. Phil Carradice spells out how difficult life was – the accidents, the high death rate, the illnesses, the cramped quarters, the poor food, the bullying (sometimes encouraged as character-building), the low educational standards and the cruelty and incompetence of some staff. But there were also ships where excellent training was provided, where discipline was firm but fair, and where there were successes. Some nautical schools managed to place large numbers of boys in the Royal and Merchant Navies.

The poor conditions led at times to violence, mutinies, scandals (such as the 1910 Akbar incident, when Winston Churchill had to order an inquiry) and arson. Phil Carradice gives accounts of seven training ships destroyed by fire. The old wooden hulks were full of tar and other combustibles; once alight, they were hard to extinguish. No Royal Navy training ships were destroyed in this way while in use, but they did not have offenders living on board, and reformatory boys at times sought to retaliate against the system by burning the ships down. In almost every case the boys and staff were safely evacuated, but the incidents must have been both dramatic and terrifying.

Over time it became clear that nautical training could be provided quite as effectively and more cheaply on land, and as the hulks decayed and were taken to be broken up, the schools were sited ashore. Eventually, after the Second World War, both the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy were down-sized, and the need for nautical training diminished.

The book contains some interesting cameos. In 1896, Nelson’s old ship, the Foudroyant, was wrecked on the beach at Blackpool while on a fund-raising trip, and the boys had to be rescued by lifeboat. Then there was the cruise in the Atlantic, during which an apprentice underwent a successful appendectomy – no doubt a challenging time not only for the apprentice but also for the (untrained?) surgeon. Or again, did you know that in 1924 the Council of Dr Barnardo’s decided to cancel Christmas leave because boys at the Watts School were picking up Bolshevik or Communist ideas from their families?

The subtitle is An Illustrated History, and this is well justified. I reckon that there are about 150 illustrations, mainly of the old “wooden walls of England” and boys on parade, but including dramatic pictures of boys festooning the masts and yards of the ships, and of ships burning. The volume of pictures means that the written text is probably little more than 100 of the 180 pages, but the combination of words and illustrations provides the full picture.

The powers-that-be had an irritating habit of renaming ships, so that a particular ship may have had several names, and a particular name may have been attached to many ships. Researching the subject must have given Phil Carradice the heebie-jeebies. My only grumble is that I would have liked an index – especially of the references to the ships, and perhaps an appendix giving the basic facts about each of them. If you want to follow up the subject, there are useful Notes and a Bibliography.

I enjoyed reading the book and can recommend it as an interesting and useful account of a significant service, both in terms of Britain’s maritime history and in the country’s provision for children and young people.

Phil Carradice (2009) Nautical Training Ships: An Illustrated History

Amberley Publishing, Chalford, Gloucestershire

ISBN : 978-1-84868-696-0

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