Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Boy Sailors During the Age of Nelson and Napoleon

by M.M. Bennetts

Anyone who has thrilled to the dramas of naval derring-do such as Horatio Hornblower or Master and Commander will have observed that on the British ships of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there were a great many boys--often as young as 12--serving aboard His Majesty's Ships.  

Indeed, it had been a 12 year old boy who had saved the day and the general (in this case, Sir Francis Drake) back in 1578 after a fracas with natives near the Island of Mocha.  So boys, working their way up the ladder, as it were, proved a common feature of the English navy from its beginnings.  And they were called 'Younkers'.

The eighteenth century saw a great rise in charitable institutions which were often founded to enable the poorest of London poor to climb out of the gutter and provide for themselves in a legitimate trade.  In 1756, The Marine Society was just one of these ventures--others included the Foundling Hospital and the Royal Hospital School.  At the first meeting of the founders, held at the King's Arms Tavern in Cornhill, they met to approve "A Plan of the Society for contributing towards a supply of Two or Three thousand Mariners for the Navy."

They began an Entry Book for Boys on 5 August 1756.  In this document, they recorded all the pertinent information they received about the boys, their age (if known), whether they had parents or were fatherless, their place of abode.  They also used the term 'friendless' which was in their eyes a worse condition than being an orphan.

The next meeting of this Society stated their aims:  "John Fielding having procured 24 boys for sea service, they were all clothed by the Society...Order'd that 10 of said boys be sent to Admiral Broderick and 14 to Capt. Barber of the Princess Royal at the Nore and that each boy shall have a Testament, Common Prayer Book, Clasp Knife and a printed list of their Cloths."

In 1756, of course, Britain was on the brink of entering the Seven Years' War.  During that period of time, the Royal Navy's manpower requirements rose swiftly--from 10,000 men to 80,000.  Moreover, there was an endless need for servants aboard ship, for cabin boys, loblolly boys, carpenters' mates...

Indeed, the Society launched a massive newspaper campaign to recruit:  "All stout Lads and Boys who incline to go on board His Majesty's Ships, as servants, with a view to learn the duty of a seaman, and are upon examination, approved by the Marine Society, shall be handsomely clothed and provided with bedding and their charges borne down to the ports where His Majesty's Ships lye, with all proper encouragement."

By 1772, the Regulations of the Marine Society were including a great deal more information about the boys they received.  There were columns in which to note if a boy was 'good' or not so good; some are recorded as having 'little or no guard against temptation', while others are said to be 'abominably corrupted [by the] most wicked company, in the most wicked parts of these kingdoms' or 'hardened in iniquity'.

Still, the Marine Society was offering these boys, described by the magistrate John Fielding as "numberless miserable, deserted, ragged, and iniquitous pilfering Boys that at this Time shamefully infested the Streets of London" a new life, one which included an education of sorts leading to a lifelong trade, steady rations, safe housing and a kitbag which included a felt hat, a kersey pea jacket, two worsted caps, waistcoat, shirts, trousers, three pairs of drawers, and a pair of shoes.  It seemed a good deal for many.

And over time, as the Society grew along with the need for more boys to feed the ever-expanding British naval workforce, magistrates, beadles, parish officers, aldermen and bishops all came to use the Society's provision as one option for criminal youth--a positive choice as opposed to the Gallows--which boys were then referred to, unsurprisingly, as Scape Gallowses.

But what of young teenage officers?  The midshipmen?  For the call of the sea wasn't just heard by those on the streets, but also by the middle-class sons of merchants, doctors, lawyers, yeoman farmers, all up and down the land for whom the navy promised adventure, dashing careers, promotion, and enrichment through limitless prize money.

Many, such as the small 12 year old boy, a son of a Norfolk clergyman, who would become Admiral Lord Nelson in time, would go to sea courtesy of a relation or patron, a serving captain perhaps--someone who had position and influence in the navy and who would take them under their wing, providing them with a classroom at sea where they would learn all the necessary skills and tools to--one hoped--eventually pass their examinations and rise above the post of Mid-Shipman.

For others of the gentry classes, there was the necessity of a good naval education at one of many institutions such as the Portsmouth Naval Academy, founded in 1729, which was open to "the Sons of Noblemen and Gentlemen, who shall not be under thirteen years of age nor above sixteen at the time of their admission."

And it was here, at these Naval Academies, that one can see the breadth of the education required for a young man who hoped to succeed in the navy of Nelson's time.  It was an immensely broad plan of education, requiring no less than two years' study:  "It being intended that the Master of the Academy shall instruct Scholars in writing, arithmetic, drawing, Navigation, Gunnery, Fortification and other noteful parts of Mathematics, and also in the French Language, Dancing, Fencing and the exercise of the Firelock."  

But that wasn't all, for the Academy also required that boys engage in a whole range of technical training which they would need as potential naval officers, including, "The Description and Use of the Terrestrial Globe, Geography, Chronology, Spherics, Astronomy, Latitude, Longitude, Day's Work, and Marine Surveying."

Two of Jane Austen's brothers attended the Portsmouth Academy.  Francis Austen enrolled there in 1786 at the age of eleven, and he was a model student, going to sea two years later.  His brother, Charles, who was sent to the Academy in 1791 was not so assiduous in his studies, and he did not leave the Academy until he had served the full term of his work there, in 1794 when he was sent aboard HMS Daedelus.  Both of Austen's brothers would in due time become admirals.

Interestingly, however, the Portsmouth Academy also had its detractors, many of whom considered it, "a sink of vice and abomination, [which] should be abolished..."  And it finally closed its doors in 1806, although many other such institutions--such as the Naval Academy at Chelsea--carried on, providing unequalled training for a future within the wooden walls.


M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early 19th century European history and the Napoleonic wars, and is the author of two novels, May 1812 and Of Honest Fame set during the period.  A third novel, Or Fear of Peace, is due out in 2014.

For further information, please visit the website and historical blog at www.mmbennetts.com 


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