PortCities London

Training ships on the River Thames

Life on board 2

Gun drill of the Marine Society’s boys.
View full size imageGun drill of the Marine Society’s boys on board the Warspite. © NMM

Strict discipline

Life onboard a training vessel was hard, with very little time off. Special permission had to be requested to leave the ship. The boys even slept in hammocks on the lower deck.

The schools were run along naval lines and discipline was stricter than in an ordinary school. The senior boys were allowed to use their rope's ends - a single rope lash - to maintain order among the younger boys.

Corporal punishment continued well into the 20th century. Up until the 1930s, the Captain of the Arethusa could administer strokes with a birch for various misdemeanours:

  • 24 strokes for an act of gross indecency or immoral behaviour
  • 12 strokes for stealing
  • 6 strokes for being in an improper place.

The only changes made to this were in 1937: no boy under the age of 12 could have more than six strokes and the punishment had to be witnessed by several other officers!


Training ship 'Warspite' (1893).
View full size imageThe mess deck on the training ship Warspite (1893). © NMM
Although life on board was regimented, the boys were well fed and cared for. The dietary allowance was very liberal, with the Marine Society’s promotional booklet, Training Ship Warspite, boasting that 'a marked increase in a boy’s growth and weight is generally the result of Warspite feeding and training'. A typical meal would consist of pea soup, meat potatoes and bread.

On Sundays, treacle pudding was allowed as a treat. Such provisions and the lure of training for a career at sea encouraged boys from poorer backgrounds to join the schools.


Marine Society apprenticeship indenture.
View full size imageMarine Society apprenticeship indenture. © NMM

Once the boys were aged 16 and had completed two years' service on board the Worcester, they would sit a final examination. The exam included both 'ordinary' topics, like mathematics and English, and also seamanship. Two thirds of the marks had to be gained in order to pass the examination.

If the cadet was successful, he would gain a Worcester Board of Trade certificate, which allowed him to deduct one year from the standard four years’ merchant seaman apprenticeship. After three months on board the Warspite, boys could be drafted into the Royal Navy, and they could join the Merchant Navy after one year.

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