Boys in the Military: England

British boys drum corps
Figure 1.--Boys continued to serve in British military units as late as the 1890s. This Drum Corps was photographed in the 1880s by William Lawrence. Notice the checerboard motif on the caps. This may be a Scottish regiment.

Boys were still recruited by British military units at the turn of the 20th Century. Boys had always been recruited for military service and this comtinued to be the case in Ebgland through the 1890s. Life was still hard for the majority of the population througout the 19th century. Most Britons still lived in the country side where they had to work lng hours for very poor pay. In the growing cities, factory and mine work was the lot ofvthe barely literate working class. The militarywith all of its rigors was appealing for working class boys. It offered regularvhours and pay and a chance for trael and adventure.

The Royal Navy

Royal Navy ships included both men and boys. The boys included both lower class boys learing to be ableseamen (ratings) and boys from middle and upper-class families learning to be officers. Boys seeking to becone ablke 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 vasrious 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, We are not sure when the Royal Navy stopped accepting pre-teen boys, but it was apparently in the early 20th century. 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 academies were established at Osborne and Dartmouth. Young teenagers served on Royal Navy ships as midshipmen as late as Works War I. The future George VI was one of them.

The Army

British Army battalions generally had a few boys. Some of the boys learned to play a musical instrument and marched with the band. Others worked asaprentices under skilled tradsmen to learn trade important to the unit. Trades such as cobbler and tailor were examples. The Pioner Seargent might also use a few boys. He had a section of men responsible for all the building repairs, such as the barracks. Thy had to be familiar with bricklaying, plumbing, carpentry, and other trades. Most of the boys by the late 19th century served in the Drum Corps. The Army after stopping the enlistment of boys in 19??, developed various youth progrmas such as the cadets and the Boys' Regiment.


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Created: January 23, 2000
Last updated: 9:09 AM 3/18/2010