** boys in the military: England

Boys and Youth in the Royal Navy

boys in the Royal Navy
Figure 1.--Boys in the Royal Navy were trained aboard ships until the mid-19th century when the Navy began operating training ships moored in port. Here boys seeking to become able seamnen were trained. This photo was taken aboard the 'H.M.S. Warspite', one of the training ships. This photograph was taken in 1893. At the time quite young boys could still join the Navy. The boys are taking part in a rifle drill. Ordinary seamen in the early-19th century were commonly barefoot, in part because of the need to work the sales and rigging. By mid-century this had brgan to change as sail gave way to steam power. By the time thos photograph was taken, Royal Navy sailors wore shoes, but the boys on the taining ships were barefoot. We believe this was a matter of tradition.

Both boys and youth commonly served on Royal Navy ships up to the early 19th century. This varied over time. During the Napoleonic Wars the British Government hugely expanded the Royal Navy. Captains were desperate to fill out their crews. But even in less desperate times boys and youths served on the ships. We are not sure just how many boys would have been on a ship. This would have course varied with the size of the ship. We suspect that most ships had some boys on the crew. This included both enlisted men (ratings) and officers. The boys serving as enlisted men commonly filled a range of duties, including cabin boys and powder monkies as well as helping out with as variety of other duties while learning the trade oif being a sailor. Cabins boys were essentially personal sevants for the captain and ranking officers. Powder monkies help load the ships gins. Their small size and nimbel fingers made them particularly useful in the cramped gun decks. There were also boys among the officers. Officers begun their naval carrers as midshipmen. Until the 19th century there were no naval traing schools for either ratings or officers. Boys at age 12-14 years of age served on asctive durt vessls learning to be officvers. This continued through World war I. Prince George (the future George VI) served as a midshipmen before World War I. We think he was about 13-14 years old.

Enlisted Personnel (Ratings)

Boys seeking to becone able seamen through the early-19th century commonly joined the Navy at ages 10-12 years. Younger boys were less common. This was not unusual. It is about the age that boys began their working lives. I am mot sure when the Royal Navy first issued regulations on the ages of boys joining the service. Boys seeking to become able sailors were drawn from the lower classes, rimarily from port cities where the fpopulastion was familiar with seafaring. Boys in rural communities generally followed their fathers and worked on farms. The boys involved had various motives. Some may have heard romantic tales about the sea amd sought adventure. Some may have come from busive homes. Others masy have gotten in trouble with the law. During the Napoleonic Wars some may have neen pressganged, but this was not usually necessary. Boys served in various functions on ship. They may have been cabin boys, serving as officers sevants or working for other individuals including boatswain, gunner, carpenter and cooks. They were trained aboard ship where they learned to tie knots and all the tasks seamen were expected to know. They may have been given assinments in the rigging or in time of battle served as powder monkeys or bringing water to the gun crews. They were important to the gun crews and their small size was an advantage in the tight quarters. The boys joining a crew were essentially apprentices. After they worked on board for about 5 years, they became able seamen and were entitled to a wage and prize money from ships seized from the eneny. In the mid-19th century the Royal Navy first instituted a training program, using old ships moored in port that were no longer seaworthy. The Royal Navy operated these training ships for about a century., We are not sure when the Royal Navy stopped accepting pre-teen boys, but it was apparently in the early 20th century. I recall a TV documentary interviewing one of the three HMS Hood survivors. He mentions hoe proud he was to join Hood and recalls waiting until his birthday to sign up for the Navy. I can't' remenber the age though. I think it was 15, with his parent's permission.


Boys seeking to become officers joined a crew at about the same age, generally 11-12 years of age. These boys may have come from naval families or were younger sons without prospect of inherirtance. They were know as midshipmen and ensigns. They had some education and the capitain took on the responsibility for their edcation. They received instruction in navigation and sailing which was needed to pass examinations given by the admiralty to advance in rank. Their training was also conducted on ship until the 19th century when naval schools were estanlished. Young teenagers served on Royal Navy ships as midshipmen as late as World War I. The future George VI was one of them. The Royal Navy accepted 13 year old cadets up to at least 1946, Admiral Sir Sandy Woodward tells us that he went to Dartmouth aged 13 in 1946. [Woowward] His book is about his experiences as Battle Group Commander in the Falklands War of 1982. It also gives a bit about his earlier career. He went to sea as a cadet aboard a training cruiser at the age of 17, then as a midshipman aged 18 on a proper posting. That would have been in 1950-51.


Woodward, Admiral Sir Sandy. One Hundred Days.


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Created: 10:08 AM 3/18/2010
Last updated: 6:41 PM 3/28/2010