By Julie Brumby, Leeds Beckett University

Reformatory and Industrial Training School ships developed in the nineteenth century as a response to concerns about juvenile crime. Reformatory and Industrial schools were being established on land, and these schools had problems with finding employment for the youths when they left.

At this time England was a maritime country with a constant need for sailors. So the idea arose to borrow an old wooden ship from the Admiralty, fill it with juvenile delinquents and train them to be sailors. The boys would be educated as well as being taught a trade, so they could earn an honest living rather than returning to crime. The isolation of being moored out in a river also provided the total removal of the boys from their corruptive environment, family and friends.

In the nineteenth century, there were four types of training school ships, two of them intended for ‘criminal’ youths. The first training ships were established by the Navy; these were for ‘good’ boys, often from wealthy families. Then there were Reformatory Ships, for boys who had been convicted of a crime. These boys had usually offended more than once, were aged about 12 to 16 years old and sent on board for up to five years.

Next were the Industrial Training ships, these boys had been before a magistrate but not convicted of a crime. Often younger than the Reformatory boys, they might have been sent on board for sleeping rough, having no means of support or living in a house of ill repute.

The final type of ship was the training ship. These ships were for poor boys, but those of good character. They had not committed a crime or been before a magistrate and often were orphans whose father had been a sailor.

The reformatory and industrial ships were usually big old wooden man-of-war ships. As shipbuilding improved and moved to steam power, many of these old ships were laying unused in the docks and so were re-used as training ships. The ships were moored in one place and generally did not move, although the Southampton at Hull moved into dock for the winter.

The boys followed a busy timetable which included every day six hours of industrial training and three hours of education. All ships gave the boys lessons in basic reading, writing and arithmetic. More advanced boys could learn geography and history. Religious instruction was also important, with prayers every day and many of the ships allowed the boys to attend church on Sundays. Industrial training was the main focus of learning. The boys were taught skills all sailors would need, such as knotting, net and sail repairing, rowing and furling a sail. Most of the ships had a smaller vessel so the boys could have practical experience of handling a boat.

There were three reformatory ships and ten industrial training ships in the United Kingdom. If a boy was committed to a reformatory ship he had to first serve time in prison – usually 14 days. From 1899 the initial gaol term was abolished, and boys could be sent directly to the reformatory ship. Boys would be sent straight to an industrial training ship, although they might go to the workhouse first while arrangements were made to transfer them.

Reformatory and Industrial Training Ships in the United Kingdom

Reformatory Ships
Akbar River Mersey, Liverpool1856
Cornwall River Thames, London1859
Clarence River Mersey, Liverpool1864

Industrial Training Ships

WellesleyRiver Tyne, South Shields1868
Southampton River Humber, Hull1868
Cumberland/EmpressHelensburgh, Glasgow1869
FormidablePortishead, Bristol1869
Mount EdgecumbeSaltash1877
ShaftesburyRiver Thames, London1878



If you find an ancestor on a school ship, various records can be used to trace their lives further. The surviving records vary for each ship, some such as the Southampton have very few. The archive where the vessel was moored is the best place to look for records. A search through the National Archives can indicate which archives hold records for each ship. Some records include entry registers which show why the boy was admitted to the ship, his age and length of sentence.

While the Home Office funded the ships, they were independent and run by a committee. There may be committee minutes in the archives which give useful information about life on the ships. Other records may include punishment books, school books and financial accounts. The newspapers are a valuable source of information and it was often reported when a boy was sent to a training ship.

There might be criminal records for a boy sent to a reformatory ship. Another indication might be seen in criminal records after – some records list all crimes a man did and might include that he had been on a ship.

The criminal register for Luke Cafferty shows his full criminal history. He started with two minor offences for stealing tobacco and stealing rum when he was aged thirteen, for each he was sentenced to 12 strokes of the birch. When he offended again in 1881, stealing tobacco, matches and two pipes, he was sentenced to 21 days hard labour and five years on the reformatory ship Clarence. His records show the ship did not reform him and he had another sentence for stealing and was sent to Preston Prison 21 times for drunkenness or assaults between 1880 and 1891. (Criminal Registers, 1791-1892,

George Charlton was aged 15 when he was found guilty of stealing a set of harness in 1880. He pleaded guilty to larceny by a servant and was sentenced to 14 days hard labour and five years to the Reformatory Ship Akbar. (Criminal Registers, 1791-1892, Sometimes it might indicate a boy was sentenced to a reformatory and not specify it was a ship – John Locke was found guilty of obtaining goods by false pretences in 1889. He was sentenced to 10 days hard labour in prison then to be sent to a reformatory school for five years. He is on the Akbar on the 1891 census (Criminal Registers, 1791-1892 and 1891 census, both

The Industrial training ship boys are unlikely to have criminal records before the ship, so their evidence of being on the ship would be from newspapers, census or entry registers.

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