The English Poor Law and Training Ships in the Nineteenth Century

TrainingShipThe Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 meant that more and more paupers were forced to enter workhouses, since outdoor relief was essentially eliminated. This increase in admissions meant that workhouses were overflowing, and the Poor Law Board needed to find places to house all of the new admissions. One way that they accomplished this was by sending pauper boys to training ships. These ships were generally moored on the Thames, and the unions near the area could send their pauper boys to live on the ships once they reached the age of twelve, with the option to remain on board up to the age of seventeen.[1] This was extremely helpful to the over-crowded workhouses of London. On board the ships, the boys learned how to wash and mend clothing (essential for sailors) and how to keep their personal areas clean.[2] They learned to make sails and ropes, to repair the sails when they ripped, and other skills necessary for sailing and rowing. The boys were also expected to complete ordinary schoolwork and to learn to swim.

Essentially, these training ships prepared the boys for entrance into the Royal Navy or to join merchant ships, which would (it was hoped) prevent them from being a burden to the Poor Law system for their entire lives. Training ships fulfilled two necessary aims in the nineteenth century: to house the large number of pauper children who were a burden to the government, and to provide skilled sailors to the navy. It was generally agreed upon by the government that the training ships provided excellent care and schooling for the boys, and that keeping them out of the workhouse (but also off the streets) was mutually beneficial.

Several training ship were specifically aimed at pauper children, including the Goliath and the Exmouth.[3] The Goliath, operated by the Forest Gate School District from 1870-1875, could house a maximum of 500 boys.[4] She was moored off Grays town, and was an 80 gun, two-deck wooden ship. On board, each boy was given his own hammock and was expected to maintain a cleanly and professional environment. While life would have been difficult, it is generally accepted that living on the workhouse training ships was less terrible than life in the mainland workhouses.[5] The Goliath tragically burned in 1876, completely destroying the ship and killing 23 of the people on board.[6] After the Goliath burned, she was replaced by the 90-gun sailing ship, Exmouth.[7] This ship, too, could house 500 boys who would otherwise end up in the workhouse. The cost of housing the boys on the ship was calculated to be about half of what it would cost on land, so it was very appealing to send children to the ships as soon as they turned twelve.[8] Likewise, it was a very good way for boys to learn skills that would help them get jobs later on, which was much more attractive than spending their whole lives within the walls of a workhouse. In an article in The Spectator, it was made apparent that the boys who had been on The Goliath were not pleased to be forced back to the workhouse, and were looking forward to returning to the new ship once she was fitted.[9] Letters to the Editor of The Times suggest that most people were very accepting and pleased with the use of training ships for poor law boys. In fact, they were regarded higher than local schools, as shown in this letter to The Times:

 I would point out that there is one establishment which has entirely escaped censure-in my opinion, deservedly so-vir., the Exmouth training ship, an old wooden frigate, on board which about 600 boys live and are educated. If 600 boys can be healthily and successfully trained on board the Exmouth, I can see no self-evident reason why a school on the Surrey Downs with equal number should not be equally successful.[10]

Not only did the Poor Law Board want to send boys to the ships, the boys themselves as well as their parents were very happy with the situation. This would make sense, considering the stigma of entering the workhouse.[11] Training ships were valuable assets to the Poor Law Board, and it can be assured that they helped many young boys find jobs outside of the workhouse and were a benefit to nearly everyone involved.



[1] Phil Carradice, Nautical Training Ships: An Illustrated History, (Stroud: Amberley Press, 2009).

[2] Carradice, Nautical Training Ships.

[3] “Thames Training Ships,” The Times, 11 June 1877.

[4] “The Goliath,” The Times, 11 October 1871.

[5] “The Goliath,” The Times,  11 October 1871.

[6] Carradice, Nautical Training Ships.

[7] Sir Allan Powell, The Metropolitan Asylums Board and its Work, 1867-1930,  (London: Metropolitan Asylums Board, 1930), 54.

[8] Carradice, Nautical Training Ships.

[9] “The Burning of the Training Ship Goliath,” The Spectator, 1 January 1876.

[10] Robert Headley, “Children Under the Poor Law,” The Times, 7 Jan 1897.

[11] Norman Longmate, The Workhouse, (London: Maurice Temple Smith, 1974), 167.

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6 Responses to The English Poor Law and Training Ships in the Nineteenth Century

  1. Julie Taylor June 4, 2016 at 10:42 pm #

    Very interesting as I just found out my ancestor who was in Hackney workhouse was sent to the Exmouth.

  2. April Squires August 10, 2018 at 11:04 pm #

    Hello! What a find! I was searching information on sail mending aboard ships in the 19th century and came across your article. It’s remarkable because I’ve been researching the Poor Laws, orphans, and the Royal Navy for a story I’m writing. And you have integrated these subjects for me!
    Can you recommend a source that might have sail repair techniques used in the mid-late 19th century?

  3. Gill Rogers November 20, 2018 at 2:24 pm #

    A really interesting article, thank you. My grandfather, William Wickham served on the TS Exmouth. William’s stepfather thought it would be an excellent place for him, although it’s not clear if he was forced to go or admitted as part of the Workhouse scheme.
    I have a couple of documents with conflicting info regarding his time on board, making it difficult to know what’s accurate.

  4. Kerry Hall March 5, 2020 at 1:36 pm #

    This is fantastic information, as I have found out my ancestor was sent to the Exmouth at 12 years old in 1876. I’m trying to confirm if he was a foundling, but I’m struggling to find any records, Would anyone know how I might be able to find out more information as I’m now based in America so everything will need to be online access? I seem to have exhausted the info available on unfortunately.

    Thank you again for this information

    • Brian Cowper June 21, 2020 at 2:23 am #

      My grandfather was a foundling and sent to the Exmouth in about 1903 at age 13. I have tried everywhere to find how he ended up there and how he was named. An email to the director of the foundling hospital museum suggested that I may never know.

      • brenda simpson April 28, 2022 at 1:00 am #

        my 2nd cousin was sent to the vangard aged 13, (according to records, some children from the north of england were accepted, sent when he turned 13 and left 14 months later, when he joined the merchant navy, awarded 1914-18 merchant navy medal.
        He joined willingly, mother and 3 siblings entered the workhouse in 1909, mother very sick and died in the hospital in 1909. Father killed in 1915.
        Requests for information not answered. This information provided from records kept by the workhouse, no further information available as to what happened to child readmitted in 1912 aged 6.

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