Boys and Youth in the Royal Navy: Enlisted Men/Ratings--Training Ship Era (Mid-19th through the early-20th centuries)


Figure 1.--The Royal Navy in the mid-19th centurt began training boys on training ships rathers as on-board apprentices. This drawing shows the training ship 'HMS Wellesley' (of course named after Lord Nelson) while it is moored at South Shields in 1876. They are shown in the blue Royal Navy uniforms. We see almost identical scenes in the early-20th century. By this time Royal Navy sailors were wearing shoes, but the boys trained barefoot. We believe that this was primarily a matter of tradition.

Very young boys since the days of Drake and the Spanish Armada served on naval ships. We are not sure when the Royal Navy first issued regulations on the ages of boys joining the service, but it almost certainly was during the 19th century after the Napoleonic Wars. In the mid-19th century the Royal Navy first instituted a training program, using old ships moored in port that were no longer seaworthy. The Royal Navy trained boys aboard active duty ships until 1855 when the first naval training ship was commissioned. The Royal Navy operated these training ships for about a century. The training ships appeared at about the same time that the Royal Navy began to make the shift from sail to steam and wood to iron. The training ships were old sailing vessels, but the Royal Navy was shifting to steam and steel. At the toime of the scene here on HMS Wellesley was done at at a time when this transition had already tranformed the fleet. This transition changed the skills required aboard a Royal Navy ship. Small stature boys, for example, were no longer nededed as powder monkies. And Britain had begun constructing a public school system. Changing societal values, including opposition to child labor all acted against allowing small boys to join the Royal Navy. We are not yet sure how the boys coming out of the training program were used on Royal Navy ships. Many were still younger teen agers. We are not sure when the Royal Navy stopped accepting pre-teen boys, but it was apparently in the early-20th century. By the time of World War the youngest boys seem to have been younger teens. We know that it was 15 years of age with prental permission. I recall a TV documentary interviewing Ted Briggs (1923- ), one of the three HMS Hood survivors. He mentions how he was awe strick when he first saw Hood at age 12 years. He was told to come back when he was 15 years old which he did one week after his 15th birthday with his parents permission. He trained on the HMS Ganges at Shotley Gate in Ipswich. After his training he was surprised and delighted to join the Hood crew.

Ages

Very young boys since the days of Drake and the Spanish Armada served on naval ships. We are not sure when the Royal Navy first issued regulations on the ages of boys joining the service, but it almost certainly was during the 19th century after the Napoleonic Wars. Britain at the same time that training ships were adopted to train boys had begun constructing a public school system. Changing societal values, including opposition to child labor all acted against allowing small boys to join the Royal Navy. We are not yet sure how the boys coming out of the training program were used on Royal Navy ships. Many were still younger teenagers. We still see quite young boys on the training ships before World war I. We are not sure when the Royal Navy stopped accepting pre-teen boys, but it was apparently in the early-20th century--perhaps just before or during World War I. You might think that some mikitary historian would have researched this is in detail, but we have not yet found any detailed presentation on Royal Navy age regulations. After World War I the youngest boys seem to have been younger teens. We know that it was 15 years of age with prental permission during the 1930s. I recall a TV documentary interviewing Ted Briggs (1923- ), one of the three HMS Hood survivors. He mentions how he was awe strick when he first saw Hood at age 12 years. He wanted to enlist right away, but was told to come back when he was 15 years old. He did just this one week after his 15th birthday with his parents permission. He trained on the HMS Ganges at Shotley Gate in Ipswich. After his training he was surprised and delighted to join the Hood. t the time, most boys (especially working-class boys) did not go on to secondary schools after they finished their primary education at about age 14 years. Thus 15 years was a kind of natural progression after boys finished school.

Duties

At the time of the scene here on HMS Wellesley was done at at a time when this transition had already tranformed the fleet. This transition changed the skills required aboard a Royal Navy ship. Small stature boys, for example, were no longer nededed as powder monkeys.

Supervision

We are not sure just how the younger boys were supervised on a Royal Navy ship. A Royal Navy crew was a rough lot. Thus one might think that someone in the Royal Navy had given some thought to the proper supervision of boys, to ensure that they got needed training, did not misbehave, and were not influenced by some of the more unsavory types on board. We suspect that some of the older sailors had fatherly attitudes toward the boys. But there undoubtedly some prepred to abue then or to lead them into unsavory prctives like drinking or even worse. We have not yet found any sources addressing this topic. We note that in the 20th century that younger sailors got grog money instrad of grof (rum and water). We are not sure just when this practice was implemented. Earlier the boys probably got grog. Of course the crew in general was supervised bu the officers and non-commissioned officers. We do not know, however, if any special provision was made for the boys aboard ships. We would be interested in any insights readers may have.

Training

For centuries, the young boys joining Royal Navy ships were trained aboard the ships. In the mid-19th century the Royal Navy first instituted a training program, using old ships moored in port that were no longer seaworthy. The Royal Navy trained boys aboard active duty ships until 1855 when the first naval training ship was commissioned. The Royal Navy operated these training ships for about a century. The training ships appeared at about the same time that the Royal Navy began to make the shift from sail to steam and wood to iron. The training ships were old sailing vessels, but the Royal Navy was shifting to steam and steel.

Uniforms

We are not sure just when uniforms were inteoduced for Royal Naby ratings. The Royal Navy had uniforms for officers and the Marines posted on ships, but not for ratings (enlisted men) as late as the Napoleonic Wars. Just when the classic uniforms were introduced that so influenced boys' clothing, we are not sure. We suspect that it was during the 1830s, but this needs to be confirmed. Nor do we know who desigbned the uniform and the process of approval. We do know that there had to be a uniform (1840s) because that uniform was used as a model for the sailor suits in which the royal princes were dressed. And we see that the boys on the new training ships smartly uniformed in the classic style (1850s).








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Created: 7:27 AM 10/13/2011
Last updated: 5:28 PM 10/14/2011