Mars Training Ship 2: The Boys
The Mars provided a naval-type training for up to 400 young teenage boys. Despite its bad boy reputation, none of these boys, with possibly the odd exception, had ever been convicted of any crime, their only wrong-doing perhaps being truanting from school. The majority were what we would now call ‘at-risk’ boys: they were from poor backgrounds, from broken homes, were orphaned, homeless or destitute, and were hopefully being rescued from the life of crime which they might otherwise enter. The boys were sent to the Mars between the ages of 12 and 14 (in later years age 11), and did not stay beyond the age of 16.
The naval training, under the supervision and leadership of the ship’s captains, former captains of the Royal Navy, provided a good grounding in seamanship, and indeed many of the boys went on to follow a naval career, some in the Royal Navy but many more in the Merchant Navy.
Other skills were also developed and the boys were given training in woodwork, metalwork, shoe-making, tailoring and gardening. In the early years of the twentieth century it was becoming apparent that in the new century there would be less need of skills in seamanship, but more need of practical skills. Workshops were set up on shore at Woodhaven, where the boys were able to develop these practical skills. These workshops were built and fitted out by technical master Richard Burns assisted by some of the boys, and were completed in 1908. Many items made by them were sold locally, and there are still numerous tea trays, chess boards and other items made by the boys still in existence. Kitchen gardens were laid out too: hence the present-day street name Mars Gardens. The vegetables produced were used on board ship, and the surplus sold. There was a strong emphasis on music, and the Mars had healthy musical groups, including pipe band, brass band and choir.
The boys were strongly disciplined, especially in the earlier years, and the discipline was helped by the use of the ‘tawse’, the leather belt widely used in all Scottish schools. While on board the boys were always known by their number and not by their name. it was a hard life for the boys but, as Linda McGill accurately points out in her book The Mars Training Ship (1996), life ashore for these boys at that time would not have been any better.
A fine gymnasium was fitted up on board ship and a swimming bath constructed at Woodhaven pier. In 1871 a schooner Lightning was purchased and was used on the North Sea to give the boys sea-going experience. It was replaced in 1881 by the brig Francis Molison, donated by the widow of the Executive Committee’s first President. Each year the Francis Molison made a trip around the coast of Britain, and the change of routine which this voyage provided was much looked forward to, as was, for the same reason, the annual summer camp at Elie. From 1899 onwards the boys had a five-week visit to Elie, where they were billeted in a disused granary beside the harbour. Although later on the boys travelled to Elie by train, at first they walked there, camping en route, and Jim Martin remembered eating raw vegetables stolen from fields on the way.
Treats for the Boys!
On the whole the boys were very well thought of in the immediate neighbourhood. Because of their good behaviour on shore there were many requests for performances by bands and choir, and also for gymnastic displays. Such onshore excursions were hugely enjoyed by the boys as they also provided a much appreciated change of routine. It’s pleasing to know that for many years the Newport Club sent their huge supply of the previous month’s magazines to the Mars. These would no doubt prove of great interest to all. After helping to clear stones from the Wormit Golf Course in 1912, the boys were rewarded wit a £5 donation to their amusement fund.
Over the years the Mars had several patrons who provided occasional treats for the boys. These treats might take the form of an outing somewhere, the provision of small Christmas gifts, or some entertainment or other. Needless to say these treats, in whatever form, were much enjoyed by the boys.
For more images of the Mars, please search our archive.
Grateful thanks to Gordon Douglas for his assistance with these pages on the Mars.