Boys and Youth in the Royal Navy: Enlisted Men/Ratings


Figure 1.-- This is a detail from perhaps the most famous painting about the Royal Navy--"The Death of Nelson" by Benjamin West. It depicts "HMS Victory" at Trafalgar (1805). Notice the boy. I think he is a powder monkey. I am not entirely sure what he is carrying. Perhaps tht was a container for the gun powder charges. Water was carried in buckets. This is a small part of the large canvas. Nelson lies dying to the left.

Boys seeking to become able seamen through the early-19th century commonly joined the Navy at ages 10-12 years. Younger boys were less common. This was not unusual. It is about the age that boys began their working lives. At the time there was no public school system. And before the Indistrial Revolution, many families need the children to supplement the family income. And the Royal Navy needed boys both so they could be trained as future able seamen and because small boys were useful in thge cramped conditions on Royal Navy ships. We are not sure when the Royal Navy first issued regulations on the ages of boys joining the service. Boys seeking to become able sailors were drawn from the lower classes, primarily from port cities where the population was familiar with seafaring. Boys in rural communities generally followed their fathers and worked on farms. The boys involved had various motives. Some may have heard romantic tales about the sea amd sought adventure. Some may have come from abusive homes. Others may have gotten in trouble with the law. During the Napoleonic Wars some may have neen pressganged, but except for crisis periods like the Napoleonic Era this was not usually necessary. Boys served in various functions on ship. They may have been cabin boys, serving as officers sevants or working for other individuals including boatswain, gunner, carpenter and cooks. They were trained aboard ship where they learned to tie knots and all the tasks seamen were expected to know. They may have been given assigments in the rigging or in time of battle served as powder monkeys or bringing water to the gun crews. They were important to the gun crews and their small size was an advantage in the tight quarters. The boys joining a crew were essentially apprentices. After they worked on board for about 5 years, they became able seamen and were entitled to a wage and prize money from ships seized from the eneny. 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 operated these training ships for about a century. 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 younger teens. I recall a TV documentary interviewing Ted Briggs, one of the three HMS Hood survivors. He mentions how 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. After his training he was surprised and delighted to join the Hood crew. Hopefully our British readers will be able to provide some historical details here.

On-board Training Era (16th-early 19th centuries)

The age of boys joining the Royal Navy, their training and ship-board duties sre little changed for several centuries. Boys seeking to become able seamen through the early-19th century commonly joined the Navy at ages 10-12 years. Younger boys were less common. This was not unusual. It is about the age that boys began their working lives. At the time there was no public school system. And before the Industrial Revolution, many families need the children to supplement the family income as soon as they were able. (The popular perception that the Industrial Revolution caused child labor is a populr myth.) And the Royal Navy needed boys both so they could be trained as future able seamen and because small boys were useful in the cramped conditions on Royal Navy ships. Boys seeking to become able sailors were drawn from the lower classes, primarily from port cities where the population was familiar with seafaring. Boys in rural communities generally followed their fathers and worked on farms. The boys involved had various motives. Some may have heard romantic tales about the sea amd sought adventure. Some may have come from abusive homes. Others may have gotten in trouble with the law. During the Napoleonic Wars some may have neen pressganged, but except for crisis periods like the Napoleonic Era this was not usually necessary. Boys served in various functions on ship. They may have been cabin boys, serving as officers sevants or working for other individuals including boatswain, gunner, carpenter and cooks. They were trained aboard ship where they learned to tie knots and all the tasks seamen were expected to know. They may have been been given assignments in the rigging. This could be rather dangerous and requyired some strength. Thus we are not sure just when this began. In time of battle the boys served as powder monkeys or bringing water to the gun crews. Some may have been used to carry messages. They were important to the gun crews and their small size was an advantage in the tight quarters, especially below deck. The boys joining a crew were essentially apprentices. After they worked on board for about 5 years, they became able seamen and were entitled to a wage and prize money from ships seized from the eneny.

Training Ship Era (Mid-19th - Early-20th centuries)

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 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. This changed the skills required aboard a ship. Small stature boys 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.









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Created: 10:32 PM 3/28/2010
Last updated: 6:34 AM 10/13/2011