School Uniform: English Naval Schools

Figure 1.--These naval cadets were photographed during the World War I era at Shotley Barracks. Note the one boy at the right wearing a blue rather than the white uniform. The boys look to be about 15 years old. Shotley Barracks was used to train teenage recruits threiugh the Inter0War era. The training ship 'HMS Ganges' was moored there.

Surprisingly there have been relatively few actual naval schools. British seamen were traditionally trained aboard ships in a kind of on the job training. Young boys might serve as a ship's boy. Future officers would serve as endsigns. Schools in the modern sence are a much more recent development. The navy in the 19th century operated "naval training ships" (even though most of them were on land) rather than physical schools. The first real school was launched at Osborne, the home built for Queen Victoria by Prince Albert in the 1840s. Their son Bertie, the future Edward VII, did not like Osborne and donated it to the nation after his mother's death. A portion of the estate was turned into the Osborne training facility. Interestingly, Victoria and Albert's graet grand sons, the future Edward VIII and George VI, attended Osborne as cadets, living in dormortories that were once their greatgrand parents' stables. The best known British naval school is Darthmouth.


Surprisingly there have been relatively few actual naval schools. This is surprising considering the importance of the Royal Navy. Army based military schools like Sandurst were well estanlished. British seamen were traditionally trained aboard ships in a kind of on the job training. Young boys might serve as a ship's boy. Future officers would serve as ensigns. Schools in the modern sence are a much more recent development. The navy in the 19th century operated "naval training ships" (even though most of them were on land) rather than physical schools. Many were quite decrepite and run down.


We notice a variety of terms used in associated with boys erving in the Royal Navy. We have been collecging definitions explaining these terms as we attemp to compile a basic description of the boys seeving with the Royal Navy. Here are some terms to help understand the grading and status of the boys.
Apprentice: Boy aged 16 to 18 trained in technical skills at the Dockyard Schools to become an artificer (plumber).
Boy: As rated (after World War II known as a 'Junior'). These were boys between 14 and 18. On a boy's 18th birthday he automatically became rated as an Ordinary Seamen and was subject to the Naval Discipline Act as applicable to adult seamen. The age range varied over time.
Boy 1st Class: A boy aged 16 to 18 under training who had served for between 9 months and 18 months rated as Boy 2nd Class, shown sufficient proficiency in seamanship and accumulated at least one Good Conduct Badge (the requirements varied between training ships). His rate of pay was increased on being promoted.
Boy 2nd Class: A boy aged 15 to 17 rated as such on entry to a training ship of the Royal Navy. Such entry was conditional on a boy being of adequate physical height, weight and medical fitness and who possessed evidence of being of 'good character'. The boy's parents or guardians would sign a declaration that the boy would serve in the Navy for a minimum period (usually 12 years). Some of the boys in the photogra[phoc record look youngwer than 14 years, but boys did not mature as rapidly un the 19th and ealy-20th century as they do today.
Boy 3rd Class: A boy aged 14 to 18 who served either as a Domestic (waiter, steward) aboard the port flagships or as a junior clerk or storekeeper in the ports. He would be eligible for entry to a training ship as a Boy 2nd Class if he met the physical requirements. The majority of such boys were enlisted from homes in the ports and were not wholly resident on ships or in the dockyards.
Cadets: Boys aged 13 to 15 enlisted to become officers and trained on HMS "Britannia" moored at Dartmouth.

Individual Schools

HBC has noted references to several British schools with naval traditions over time. Some of these schools were to train officers. Others were to train ratings (enlisdted men).

Darthmouth Naval College

The best known British naval school is Darthmouth. Interestingly, the only results comibng up on an internet search is the American Dartmouth College. A HBC reader reports that Darthmouth College overlooking the River Dart was completed in 1905, with facilities for approximately 400 Cadets above the old school for officer training. Traditionally students paid 75 pounds for tuition fee, except for the sons of Army, Navy and Marine officers who were admitted for a 40 pound annual fee. Both Osborne on the Isle of Wight and Darthmouth on the south coast of Devon were established by Jacky Fisher. Fisher also reduced the role of the rotten and vermin infested 19th century training ships that were used as training vessels moored on the Dart river, by establishing these institutions. Pervious to this the cadets were given 18 months of training on the old wooden vessels and then sent to sea, offering very little in training of modern warfare. Cadets now spent two years at Osborne studying basic skills and general academics, followed by two more years at Darthmouth, where they specialized in advanced naval sicence and mechanics.

Osborne Naval College

The first real school was launched at Osborne, the home built for Queen Victoria by Prince Albert in the 1840s on the Isle of Wight off the southern coast of England near Portsmouth. Their son Bertie, the future Edward VII, did not like Osborne and donated it to the nation after his mother's death. A portion of the estate was turned into the Osborne Naval College. Interestingly, Victoria and Albert's great grand sons, the future Edward VIII and George VI, attended Osborne as cadets, living in dormortories that were once their greatgrand parents' stables. Cadets received their initial training beginning at about age 13 at Osborne. Afterwhich addirional studies were completed at Dartmouth. Eventually training was phased out at Osbourne and in 1921 Dartmouth became the naval colege. A famous English play was based in an actual incident at Osborne and has been made into movies, The Winslow Boy. The play is based on a father's fight to clear his son's name after the boy is expelled from Osborne Naval College for stealing a postal order. We notice quite a few reports of illnesses at Osborne, including rheumatic fever. Both Prince Edward and Albert when they were cadets, Edward in particular was quite ill. Another noted cadet was Jack Llewelyn, one of the five Llewelyn Davies brothers (George, Jack, Peter, Michael and Nico) that inspired J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. Jack described his 5 years at Osborne as horrendous.

Royal Hospital School--Ipswich

The Royal Hospital School near Ipswich, a school with strong naval traditions, costumes its boy choristers in a sailor-suit style outfit. This is the only English choir that HBC knows of that wears a sailor suit type costune. The Royal Hospital School was founded in 1712 to educate the sons of seafarers. It is owned by the Crown Charity, Greenwich Hospital, which itself was founded in 1694 by William and Mary, to care for seafarers and their families.

Old Royal Naval College--Greenwich

Greenwich Hospital on the River Thames was established in 1694 by Royal Charter for the relief and support of seamen and their dependants and for the improvement of navigation. William and Mary a naval hospital at Greenwich for the sick and handicaped resulting from the wars with France's expansion minded Louis XIV. Sir Christopher Wren planned the hospital and it is an English archetectural treasure of some importance. The Navy also operated the important observatory at Greenwich and of course the site of longitude zero. In 1869 the Hospital was closed, and in 1873 the complex of buildings became the Royal Naval College, where staff officers from all over the world came to train in the naval sciences. In 1998 the Royal Navy left Greenwich

Royal Navy School

The Royal Naval School (RNS) was established in Camberwell, London (1833). It was formally constituted by Parliament in the Royal Naval College Act (1840). It was a charitable institution, established as a boarding school for the sons of officers in the Royal Navy and Royal Marines. It can thus be described variously as a charitable public, military, and boarding school. The sons of naval officers might not be reduced to abject poverty with the lass of a father, but the family would have in many cases been unable to aford secondary education leading to an officers's appointment in the Royal Navy. It was also one of a range of steps in professionalizing the training of Royal Navy officers. Previously officers and ratings (enlited nen) were largely trained aboard Royal Navy ships. It was established along the lines of a public (elite secondary boarding) school with a miliitary twist. This can be seen with the uniform with included an Eton jacket and collar. The Navy constructed a monumental purpose-built school building designed by the respected architect, John Shaw Jr. The new building was constructed at New Cross/Lewishan in south-east London (close to Deptford and Greenwich), both areas with strong naval connections. The new building was opened (about 1844). The school outgrew the building and relocated to Mottingham (1889). The building continued to be used at a school. It was purchased by the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths for 25,000. It was re-opened by the Prince of Wales (July 1891) as the Goldsmiths' Technical and Recreative Institute (july 1891). It was more commonly known as the Goldsmiths' Institute. It became the main building of Goldsmiths College (1904). It was bombed by the Luftwaffe during World war II. The Royal Naval School remained at Mottingham until it closed (1910). That building is today occupied by Eltham College. The Royal Naval School is notable for the number of its graduates who achieved prominence in military and diplomatic service. A memorial to those lost invarious conflicts is located in Goldsmith's College.

Shotley Baracks

Shotley was the location of the famous HMS Ganges, a shore based establishment which trained boy entrants for the Royal Navy. HMS Ganges was one of the old hulks tied up to serve as a naval training vessel. The most famous feature of the HMS Ganges was the lofty mast which boys had to ascend, one brave lad standing on a tiny platform right at the top as "button boy". Shotley is where teenage boys trained during inter-War era. Ted Briggs trained, one of the three survivors of HMS Hood trained there. Shotley is in Suffolk not that far from the Royal Hospital School. HMS Ganges was closed after World War II, although the mast still remains in situ.

Naval training ships

Some naval schools for younger lads, particularly reform schools, were based in old hulks, tied up in port. Also orphanages such as the Arethusa home in Kent. A HBC reader tells us that the Royal Navy establishments were less spartan and generally shore-based. HBC hopes to persue the topic of training ships in Britain. Names we hope to investigate include: Arethusa, TS Mercury, TS Wellesley, Russel Coates school. There were quite a few others dotted along the coast of the Britsih Isles, taking in delinquent youth and transforming the boys into dependable recruits for the Royal and Merchant navies.

Unidentified school

Here we have a school cadet group, but we have no idea what school it is. A HBC contributor weites, "Unfortunately, I can't give you much information on the card because there is nothing on the back. All I can tell you on this one is that it appears to be a group of Naval Cadets who have either just passed an exam or may even be musical (the boy on the far right with a stack of papers gives me these ideas). The photographer was William Cull Pictoral Press Agency of 17 Hamilton Square, Birkenhead. Birkenhead is a piece of land in The Wirral in the northwest of England, which is surrounded on three sides by water and is right next to Liverpool, so it is safe to assume this was taken there." We would guess thatvthe photograph was probably taken in the 1910s. One possibility is that this is a cadet group from a regular school rather than a naval training school group.


HBC is still collecting information on the uniforms worn by naval cadets at military training schools.


HBC has obtained a few portraits of naval cdets which show the uniforms worn by different boys. The portraits provide a good view of uniform changes over time. The uniforms were largely based on the Royal Navy uniforms of the day.

G.B.Simson - (1870s)

This boy is G.B.Simson aged 14 in the uniform of a Royal Navy Cadet. The portrait was taken in Millport, probably during the 1870's. He was assigned to the HMS Britannia which was a training ship for the Royal Navy moored in the River Dart at Darmouth, Devon

Andrew Johnstone - (1900-10)

This CDV shows Andrew Johnstone bout 1900-10. Andrew is a Royal Navy Cadet. The photograph was taken in Shrewsbury, Shropshire.

Prince Albert - (about 1908)

This is another photograph of a young boy in a Midshipmans / Cadets uniform. This is Prince Albert who eventually became King George VI husband to the late Queen Mother. There are also have pictures of his brother David (Edward VIII/Duke of Windsor) in a similar uniform and various other siblings in sailor.

Training System

Some basic information about the Royal Navy training system may be helpful here. Boys began at about age 13 as cadets. At the turn of the 20th century the cadet school was at Osborne. Before Osborne was opened that the training was done on old ships that were tied up in port like HMS Britania. I'm not sure how long the cadet program was. I think it may have been about 2 years. Then they began studying to be midshipman. As the title suggests, midshipman is a training rank--boys preparing to be officers. After shore side studies at Dartmouth, the boys would take a midshipman cruise on actual Royal Navy ships. A midshipman would normally be promoted to Lieutenant, usuallu after about 6 years at sea, 2 of which had to include time in the Navy as a Midshipman or Mate. He would, therefore have to spend much time with ship's master (not the Captain) and the officer of the day learning about navigation, taking sights, (a great deal of math involved here and there were of course no calculators), sails, rigging, ship handling under various sea conditions, spend time aloft learning the jobs of the captains of the tops etc, how to handle the men, give and take orders, small boat handling, gunnery, tactics, how to behave as an officer and much much more. There was an amazing spread of skills for a young midshipman to master or at least begin to master before he could be promoted. Promotion to to Lieutenant required that he 21 years old and pass the appropriate examination, which I understand in those days was oral. Not all midshipmen passed this exam the first time. There are many accounts of midshipmen in their 30s never being promoted or at best not being promoted until many years after they became eligible.


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Created: November 27, 1998
Last updated: 7:18 PM 8/18/2017