HMS Ganges Association
1866 - 1899
The history of H.M.S. "Ganges", as far as any
ex-Ganges boy is concerned, commenced on the 20th of March in 1866
when the paddle tug "Gladiator" towed this great wooden wall ship
in between the twin headlands of Pendennis Point and St. Anthonys Head into
the Carrick Roads at Falmouth in Cornwall. The ship was moored in St. Just
Pool, a short distance off a small Naval Dockyard, about two miles above
Falmouth at a place called Mylor. It was here, a tradition that was to last
for 110 years of training young boys for a service career in the Royal Navy,
Before we return to the Ganges, it would be as well to explain the need for training ships in the mid 19th Century. Prior to this time Britain had a very small standing Navy and in times of conflict, ships were manned largely by the use of impressment and Quota Men and once the need for them was over, they were put back ashore and the ships de-commissioned.
With the ending of the Napoleonic War of 1803 - 15, impressment was no longer used and the Lords of the Admiralty in their wisdom decided that with improved conditions and pay, men could be offered continuous service in the navy with a pension after a fixed number of years. This was introduced in 1852 and with the need to maintain the numbers of seamen it was decided to set aside five of the laid up wooden ships, convert them for training purposes and position them in various harbours around the country.
Boys between 15 and
17 years were then asked to volunteer for a career in the Royal Navy, spending
at least a year onboard one of these training ships prior to joining the Fleet.
They were expected to be fit and to be able to read and write, so very few were
accepted that were 'volunteered' by magistrates 'to make a man of you'.
Three thousand, five hundred boys were required each year, so this was no light undertaking by the powers that be.
The boys were to be trained in seamanship and gunnery, which in those days meant sail, mast and yard drill as well as the usual knots and splices and boat handling.
Gunnery included handling muzzle-loaded guns, field guns, rifle drill and hand to hand weapons such as the cutlass and boarding spikes.
Schooling was not forgotten either and some sea going experience was included when the boys were embarked in sailing brigs for a short period.
Here then was the start of the intense training that we are all
familiar with, to make boys fit and able to go to sea in the Fleet and to take
their place in any ship's company.
These high ideals however, did not unfortunately, get off to a very auspicious start as far as the "Ganges" was concerned.
H.M.S. "Ganges" was one of the five ships chosen
to be converted into a training ship, but not without some objections because of
her layout, these however were ignored and once again she sailed, this time for
Devonport to be converted.
She arrived at Devonport on the 5th May 1885 and on the 1st January 1866 orders came into effect transferring 180 boys from aboard the training ship "Wellesley" at Chatham to the "Ganges".
The last Commander of the "Wellesley", Commander Frederick H. Stevens became the commanding officer of H.M.S. "Ganges".
The ship, duly converted to accommodate
500 boys, arrived at Mylor on the 20th March 1866 to commence her new role and
enter into the history of the Royal Navy.
To start with, recruitment was very poor, the local boys were not joining in any great numbers and it was then that reports of harsh and brutal treatment occurring aboard the ship were brought to the notice of the Admiralty.
A letter written by a wardroom steward, Joseph Stribling, serving
aboard the ship was received at the Admiralty complaining that 'the abuse and tyranny
to which we are subjected is unbearable'.
He went on to give details of a birching that had been inflicted on two local boys, alleging that the birch had been pickled in brine beforehand to make the punishment more cruel.
He also threatened to write to the newspapers but he obviously sent a copy of the letter to the Army and Navy Gazette almost immediately.
The steward, obviously under some stress once his letter became public knowledge, beset by his treatment onboard and being harassed by creditors, shot himself on the 5th June whilst on night leave.
The Admiralty ordered Captain Tremlett, the Senior Officer of training ships,
to proceed to Falmouth to preside over a board of inquiry and discover whether
there was any truth in the allegations.
His ensuing report found that "strong feeling exists on shore against Commander Stevens in consequence of his having recently birched the boys Edward Earle and George Finch, which punishment is considered to have been very unjust; the parents of these boys are residents of Falmouth. The mother of the former is a fish woman who came to me on my arrival to beg that I would remove her son from the Ganges."
The Report found against the allegation that the birch had been pickled but nevertheless, the incident had aroused a great deal of anger on the shore. The Report went on 'immediately afterwards, (the birchings), Mrs. Finch went down to Mylor yard armed with a bludgeon and in hopes of finding Commander Stevens with a view to chastising him. She was in a state of great excitement from drink. Whilst there, the boys (i.e. the new recruits) arrived. She was most violent and by her representations induced the boys to return home.'
Captain Tremlett's report found that Commander Stevens
had given punishments which were not laid down in the Training Regulations and
had also prevented his ship's company from taking due leave.
Consequently it was reported to the Admiralty that 'Commander Stevens has shewn himself unfitted for the command of a training ship'. Both he and the First Lieutenant were removed and Commander F.W. Wilson was appointed in command of H.M.S. "Ganges" on the 24th July 1866.
Between March and July only 90 boys had joined the ship, but as the clamour died and the memory of this unfortunate episode faded the numbers of boys joining rose gradually and there were no less than 478 boys under training by the end of the year.
Little is known about the life of the boys aboard the ship during her 33 year stay at Mylor, only one account of a boy joining H.M.S. "Ganges" is available to us today and H.J. Austin who joined the ship in 1898 wrote of a harsh regime, poor food and severe punishment for all the time he spent on board, was it ever thus, yet he finished his service as a Yeoman of Signals.
The routine he described
has a familiar ring to it, called at 0600, lash up and stow your hammock, a mug
of ki without milk or sugar and wash in cold water on the upper deck.
Scrub decks until 0800 then a breakfast of tea with a little sugar and a slice of dry bread.
On two mornings of the week a piece of well-boiled fat pork would be issued that could be spread on the bread.
At 0830 it would be 'Clear up Decks' and at 0845 muster on the quarterdeck for Divisions and Prayers.
Instructions followed, with a 'stand easy' at 1030 and a half slice of bread, until dinner at 1200.
The boys had to prepare their own food but being little more than meat and potatoes this would not have been much of a chore, apart from being carried out under the eye and guidance of a badge boy.
After dinner back to instructions until 1600 and tea, followed by evening quarters at 1700 being dismissed about 1800.
Their evenings were then their own.
The weekly routine included sail drill every Monday morning,
kit or hammock inspection on Thursday morning followed by a 'make and mend',
Saturday 'clean ship', watch on deck doing the holy-stoning, watch below cleaning
the messdecks all ready for Rounds.
Austin wrote nothing about Sunday's apart from not having to scrub decks, but no doubt there were Divisions in their best uniforms and a Church Service.
The boys bathed when it was their part of ship's
turn, wooden tubs filled with cold water on deck at 0630, winter and summer with
only a small canvas wind screen for protection and a small coarse towel to dry
The boys were paid the princely sum of sixpence once a week, unless of course they had money stopped for losing something of their eating utensils.
A bumboat came alongside every Thursday afternoon, weather permitting, selling packets of sweets or pieces of bread pudding at a penny a time to the ever-hungry boys. They used to send home for postage stamps as the bumboatman accepted them as legal tender.
The boys learnt to swim in a bathing tray that was secured
alongside the ship.
It was 3ft. 6ins. deep at the shallow end and 7ft. at the other, and of course, covered in barnacles.
The instructors supported the boys in a canvas harness with a rope to each side and with their usual method of tuition, eased the ropes away once the boy was out of his depth. Austin said he learnt to swim in three lessons!
This is all that is known of life aboard H.M.S. "Ganges"
apart from what is shown in the ship's books, but by reading the newspapers of
that time, both the boys and the ship's company engaged in many of the community
During the summer months they played cricket and football against local teams, entered all the Regattas in the vicinity and laid on sports days that were well supported by the local population.
A band was formed onboard and many concerts and entertainment's were given in nearby towns comprising not only music but also singing and short one or two act plays.
In short, the ship and her company became part of the community in work, play and also tragedy, helping out many times when ships were in distress in Carrick Roads and fighting fires ashore which seemed to occur quite regularly.
The ship was removed to Devonport occasionally for necessary
repairs and refit and on one of these refits in 1870, a rumour started that the
ship would not be coming back. This caused great concern and it wasn't until the
Mayor had contacted the local MP and he had had words with a Minister that the
rumour was scotched.
So in just a short number of years it can be seen that from a very poor start, the ship had become not only part of Falmouth but also very much part of West Cornwall. One can imagine then the concern in 1899 when the Admiralty decided to remove her from Mylor, and after refit, send her to Harwich.
The number of boys joining the ship had been declining for some time
and recruiters were having to go further afield, so the decision was made to
move the ship closer to the more populated areas and to provide a base for a
more permanent establishment.
The local councils arranged petition after petition to the Admiralty to retain the ship at Mylor, but it was all in vain, because on the 27th August 1899, H.M.S. "Ganges" slipped her moorings in St. Just Pool and left the Carrick Roads for the last time.
Unfortunately, when the ship departed 54 boys and 9 of her
ships company remained behind forever.
They had all died during the 33 years that the ship was at Mylor and most of them were buried in the graveyard attached to the church of St. Mylor, which was adjacent to the dockyard.
There has been a church on this site since the 5th century, built on land sloping down to the waters edge with at one time a marsh to one side, until it was drained in the construction of the dockyard. The present church is Norman in origin, and in 1866, another parcel of land on the high side of the graveyard was consecrated and this became a naval cemetery where most of the boys from the "Ganges" lie today.
By 1872, thirteen boys had died and been buried in this plot, so it was decided to raise a memorial to them, and from its design, to those who would follow them. The memorial is an eight-foot stone obelisk, set on a granite plinth which at one time had some form of ironwork around its base but this was taken for salvage, no doubt, during one of the two world wars.
It is inscribed on the side facing the sea, 'ERECTED BY THE BOYS OF H.M. TRAINING SHIP GANGES JANUARY 1872', and just below it, a foul anchor was sculptured. Every boy's name has been carved into the stone, together with his rating and the date of his death.
Most of the
inscriptions have 'died' alongside the date, but four have the word killed and
For instance, William Spooner aged 16 years was killed on the 20th. August 1871 when part of the rigging gave way while they were doing sail drill, he was struck on the head and died instantly.
Thomas Lobb, he had only been on board four days when he got up during the night, presumably to go to the heads, when he went over the side on the 8th September 1891, his body was found a week later.
These details are known because inquests were held and consequently reported in the newspaper, but of the other 46 boys no details are known.
One must assume that they died because of illness, this was the age when measles, scarletina and influenza could be fatal, even typhus and cholera was common in the surrounding areas.
It is unfortunate that the Coroner's records for all of this period, which could have given the cause of death, are missing, but one wonders however, whether or not they would have cast any light on the subject.
For instance, an inquest held on "Ganges" G.I., Samuel Boynes, who collapsed and died on the stage during a concert in Redruth, brought in the verdict 'the deceased met his death by the visitation of God'!
Much has been made that many boys on the "Ganges"
committed suicide because of the conditions onboard, but this is hearsay and
no written evidence has yet been seen.
The only mystery that has arisen is that only 53 boy's names are on the Memorial when the burial records show that 54 boys died.
William Terry, 2nd Class Boy, died on the 29th July 1870 aged 15 years, yet his name is not inscribed on the memorial, why not? Is it possible that he did commit suicide, was buried outside the confines of the graveyard?
Detailed examination of the "Ganges" log might give us a clue but I rather suspect that we would only find him marked D.D.
In July 1994, the Cornwall Division was formed and gradually took over the duty of scrubbing down the memorial and trimming around the area. At the 1994 Remembrance weekend and again at the 1995 Reunion, the Division told Solent that they were prepared to take over the renovation of the memorial as we were concerned at the continuing encroachment of crematorium stones. The graveyard was being used again for the internment of ashes and the stones were approaching close to the memorial and would soon preclude us from putting in a path. The site is on a slope and on a November morning could be very slippery and muddy so it was intended from the start that a hard-standing around the Memorial was required and a path leading to it was needed. Solent eventually transferred some funds to Cornwall in the September, so a plan was drawn up and submitted to the Church Council for their approval for the hard-standing and a path. At a subsequent site meeting our proposals were approved with the exception that the path had to be shortened, as there were graves across the proposed line.
We immediately made a start around the Memorial, digging out on the high side and filling the lower, and digging out the line of the path. The fill was retained by tanalized timber boards, as were the sides of the path. The areas were then covered with builders plastic to deter the weeds and then 100mm of granite chippings were laid on top. Here at least, was a level and dry footing ready for that years Remembrance Day.
Since then of course, much more has been carried out to improve the appearance of the Memorial and also the surroundings. Small anchors were fixed to each corner of the granite plinth and connected with chain. The lettering is being re-painted and re-cut where necessary, heathers' planted around the base and the whole scrubbed once or twice a year. The hard-standing was enlarged on the high side with a retaining wall constructed of paving stones. The ship's badge was painted on one of the stones and subsequently dedicated to all those who have crossed the bar since 1905. A flowering shrubbery has been established above the wall and several of the surrounding yew trees have been removed to allow more wind and sun to get to the site. With the initial path having to be curtailed because of the graves, another path, 30metres long, was laid at a lower level and a flight of steps constructed up to the site so now it is possible to walk from the church to the memorial dry-shod.
Two recent additions to the site have been the donation
of a bench, made from the timbers of the old "Ganges" when she was
broken up and a seat donated by the Parochial Church Council. These are a
welcome addition as this is now a quiet and pleasant place to sit and is
continually being visited during the summer months by tourists.
A small noticeboard has been erected giving a brief history of the ship, the memorial and the Association. Each year small improvements are made to the surrounding areas, making this a place from just somewhere to stand on a wet November morning to a permanent place of Remembrance to those Ganges boys who have gone before us.
This work has so far cost £1750 with £240 remaining in the fund; £950 of the fund came from Solent Division, the remainder coming from donations made by the Association, the Slop Room, Divisions, Cardiff Friday While and individual members. A donation was even received from the great great grandson of a boy who trained on the "Ganges" in 1872. Members of the public have dipped their hands into their pockets when we tell them what it is all about. None of this could have happened however, without the marvellous support that members of the Cornwall Division have given and continue to give to the renovation and maintenance of the Memorial. Mention 'Work Party' and they are there, even the ladies have played their part, the sight of them filling wheelbarrows when we had 9 tons of granite chippings to lay will be remembered for a long time.
Compiled by Bob Harwood (1947) email@example.com,
Cornwall Division, April 1999.
Revised February 2001.
All comments and inaccuracies are entirely the authors.