Ancestry UK

Training Ships 'Chichester' and 'Arethusa', Greenhithe / Upnor, Kent

In 1866, Lord Shaftesbury, a philanthropist and campaigner for the rights of children, promoted the idea of a naval training ship for homeless boys in London. Shaftesbury persuaded the Admiralty to loan a redundant 50-gun frigate called the Chichester. The ship was fitted up by Messrs. Money Wigram & Sons of Blackwall and moored on the Thames off Greenhithe. On 18th December 1866, the ship received its first intake — 50 boys from a children's refuge at Parker Street near Covent Garden. The ship was managed by the Committee of the National Refuges for Homeless and Destitute Children (later known as 'Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa').

The Chichester, 1867.

First fifty boys admitted aboard the Chichester, 1866.

The first Commanding Officer was the recently retired Captain A.H. Alston who although a devout Christian was a stern disciplinarian. Other staff included William McCarthy as Chief Officer, Mr Phillips as Schoolmaster, and Messrs Wm Samuels and J Marsh as Instructors — all lived on board and worked a seven-day week. Mrs McCarthy, the Chief Officer's wife, was awarded £20 per year for teaching the boys how to cut out and make their own clothes from material supplied by the Naval Yard at Deptford. However, both she and her husband were dismissed for drunkenness in January 1868.

An early task was teaching the boys to swim, although sadly there were several instances of boys falling overboard and drowning. To help with this problem, a barge was moored to the head of the ship and filled with water to act as makeshift swimming pool. By the end of the first year nearly 200 boys had undergone training on board. Of the 42 who had moved on: 21 entered the Merchant Navy, 9 entered the Royal Navy, 7 returned ashore, 1 became apprenticed to a tailor, 2 had drowned, and 1 had died of fever.

Training on the Chichester include work in: compass and lead, knotting and splicing, sail-making, knowledge of all running gear and parts of ship, reefing and furling sails, and rowing and steering, not to mention time spent in swimming, cooking, carpentry and tailoring.

The ship was given a small yacht, the Dolphin, as a sailing vessel which was replaced in 1870 by a pinnace. On September 8th, 1870, the pinnace was cut in two by a steamer, the Cormorant, with four Chichester lads losing their lives. The boys were named as William Wyatt, Alfred Read, William Bell and George Lowing.

One bureaucratic problem that afflicted training ships was that the Royal Navy refused to accept anyone not in possession of a birth certificate. Many of the boys had no idea of their parentage let alone a birth certificate. Lord Shaftesbury managed to persuade the Admiralty to waive this rule for Chichester boys, provided they declared their age and agreed to serve for a specified period.

Increasing friction between Captain Alston and the ship's governing committee over matters such as his being allowed to have a wine cellar on board, led in April 1869 to his being called upon to resign. However, Alston persuaded all the ship's instructors to depart with him to positions on the Cumberland, an Industrial Training ship, based at Greenock on the Clyde.

The ship had strict rules about use of the birch as a punishment — birchings could only be administered by the Captain and up to a maximum of 24 'cuts'. The birching scale ranged from 24 cuts and dismissal with disgrace for any act of gross indecency or immoral behaviour, to 12 cuts and dismissal for stealing, and 6 cuts for being in an improper place. Absconding earned 12 cuts, although a second offence brought dismissal from the ship.

Food on the ship was limited in both quantity and variety. The daily dietary scale for many years comprised:

  • 1lb Soft bread
  • 8oz biscuit
  • 7oz fresh meat
  • 8oz potatoes
  • 3/4oz cocoa
  • 1/8oz tea
  • 2/3oz sugar

plus occasional green vegetables and twice-weekly rations of pea soup and rice, and treacle pudding as a treat on Sundays.

In 1868, a Home or 'Depot' was established at 100 East India Dock Road where up to a dozen boys awaiting placement on merchant ships were lodged, so as to be ready to leave as soon as a vacancy was found. A shipping Agent, Mr Joseph Scouler, also lived at the premises. Rather than being paid a fee for each boy placed, as was often the case, he was paid a fixed annual sum and tried to secure berths with good companies and masters. When setting out for their first voyage, each boy was provided with:

2 serge shirts
2 singlets
2 striped cotton shirts
2 duck jumpers
3 duck trousers
1 pair drawers
2 pairs half hose
1 pair boots
1 oiled suit and wester
2 cloth caps
1 pilot jacket
1 belt 1 comforter
1 towel
2 combs
1 set of tins, needles, thread etc.
4lbs soap
1 bag
1 rug
1 pair blankets
1 bed

Mr Scouler also helped the boys on their return from a voyage. The Home was subsequently relocated to 2 Bisterne Place, Preston Road, Poplat. In 1884, the boys were paying 11 shillings a week for their board and lodging there.

In 1873, following a donation of £5,000 from Lady Burdett-Coutts towards, a second ship was established. For this role, the Navy contributed the Arethusa, an wooden frigate which could accommodate staff and 250 boys. The Arethusa, built in 1849 had seen action in Crimea and was the last British ship to go into battle under sail. She took up position at Greenhithe and was officially opened on 3rd August, 1874, by the Earl of Shaftesbury and Baroness Burdett-Coutts.

From The Times — 6th July, 1877.
—On Wednesday a numerous company assembled at Greenhithe to witness the distribution of prizes to the lads of these two vessels. A few months ago the boys in both ships were among the homeless and destitute in the streets of London, but the training they have received has enabled them creditably to pass several examinations in nautical knowledge and in various branches of handicraft. The prizes were distributed by Lord Shaftesbury on the upper deck of the Arethusa. Mr W Williams, the secretary of the National refuges, presented the reports of the commanders of both vessels, and these were of a most satisfactory character. The Arethusa had sent 20 lads to the Royal Navy and 141 to the Merchant Service in the course of the year; the Chichester had sent 17 to the Royal Navy and 135 to the Merchant Service, making a total of 313. The report of Mr. T.H. Withers and Mr. A.P. Clark, nautical examiners, referred especially to the promptitude the lads had displayed when dealing with an imaginary case of "fire" on board the vessel. While the examiners were inspecting the boys the fire-bell rang, and in the short space of 1 minute and 20 seconds the pumps were throwing at least four tons of water per minute, showing that if an accident did occur the boys were fully able to cope with it. After the prizes were distributed, addresses were delivered by the Rev. T. Shore, Admiral Sir W. King Hall, Admiral Phillimore, Admiral Wellesley, and Mr. W. Hubbard. Lord Shaftesbury, in response to a vote of thanks, said he was sure he expressed the feelings of all present in congratulating Captain Walter, Captain Boxer, and Mr. Williams upon the complete success of the Arethusa and Chichester.

The Arethusa, c.1900. © Peter Higginbotham

Sectional Plan of the Arethusa. © Peter Higginbotham

Originally, Arethusa boys were known on board only by their number — when they met up in later life, none of them knew each others' names! This custom continued until 1927, after which time boys were referred to by their surnames.

The Arethusa, c.1900. © Peter Higginbotham

The Arethusa schoolroom, c.1900. © Peter Higginbotham

The Arethusa dinghy and crew, c.1900. © Peter Higginbotham

Arethusa post-boy and carpenter's mate, c.1900. © Peter Higginbotham

The Arethusa — filling coal baskets, c.1900. © Peter Higginbotham

The increase in the use of steam power led to a fall in demand for naval crews and an increasing difficulty in placing boys from the training ships. As a result, it was decided in 1889 to dispose of the Chichester. Her place was taken by a 83-foot twin-masted gaff-rigged schooner which took over the Chichester name and was used as a sailing tender for training boys in seamanship and handling sails.

Arethusa Compass Instruction, c.1910. © Peter Higginbotham

Arethusa Knotting and Splicing Instruction, c.1910. © Peter Higginbotham

Arethusa Physical Drill, early 1900s. © Peter Higginbotham

In 1911, the ship's Captain Superintendent was Commander E. A. Martin, R.N., and there was accommodation for 240 boys. Protestants only were admitted, and had to be between 13½ and 16 years of age, and of good character. The only payment required was one inclusive sum of £15 for each boy between the ages of 13½ and 15 years, and £10 10s. for each boy from 15 to 16. The requirements as to minimum height were as follows:

13½-154ft. 8 in. (without boots.)
Over 154ft. 10½in. (ditto.)

All boys had be prepared to go to sea, and by 1911, out of the 8,500 who had passed through the ships, 1,500 had joined the Royal Navy, 6,000 entered the Merchant Service, and 1,000 had joined the Army, Royal Marines, and other services.

As was usual with training ships, the Arethusa had its own boys' band. For some members, the musical training involved led to a later career as a naval bandsman.

Boys leaving the old Arethusa, c.1916. © Peter Higginbotham

Thomas Goodman served on the Arethusa and Chichester from 1896 to 1898. His discharge certificate is shown below, folowed by a transcription of its text. The rear of the certificate notes that Thomas was also awarded the 'Arethusa Knife' - the top passing-out award.

Discharge Certificate for Thomas Goodman, 1898. © Peter Higginbotham

Conduct: Exemplary
Arethusa & Chichester Training Ships

This is to Certify that Thomas, Goodman, 191, who has served on board the above Ships, under my command, from the 15th August 1896 to the date hereof, knows how to reef, and is able to furl small sails. He can heave the lead give the soundings; make all bends, knots, and splices; knows the flags according to the Commercial Code; can swim; pull in a boat, keep his clothes in repair; read, write, and do common arithmetic.

   First Class Petty Officer

   3 Good Conduct Badges.

Given under my hand, on board the "ARETHUSA" at Greenhithe,
      this 15th day of April 1898.

G.O. Moore
Commmander R.N.

On 20th January 1918 the nearby Warspite training ship was destroyed by fire. Its owners, the Marine Society, suggested amalgamating Warspite with Arethusa but this was turned down. The Warspite was replaced by the cruiser Hermione and carried on in competition with the Arethusa. By the late 1920s the Arethusa and Warspite were the only ships remaining at Greenhithe. Despite pressure from the authorities to join forces, they all stayed stubbornly independent.

By the late 1920s, the Arethusa in a poor state and was given notice to quit her Greenhithe anchorage by the Port of London Authority. Eventually, in 1932, a replacement was found in the shape of the Peking, a steel-hulled barque, built in Hamburg in 1911. The vessel was purchased for £6250 and refitted at the Royal Dockyard, Chatham, for use as a training ship at a cost of about £15,000. The new Arethusa was took up a new mooring at Lower Upnor near Rochester and was officially opened by HRH Prince George on 25th July, 1933.

Boys leaving the old Arethusa, 1933. © Peter Higginbotham

The new Arethusa, date unknown. © Peter Higginbotham

Inauguration of the new Arethusa, 1933. © Peter Higginbotham

The old Arethusa was broken up but her figurehead was preserved for permanent display at Lower Upnor.

New Arethusa and figurehead of old Arethusa, c.1935. © Peter Higginbotham

From 1919 to 1935, the President of the 'Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa', as the charity was renamed in 1919, was the Prince of Wales — the future Edward VIII. Over the years, the Arethusa received many visits and gifts from the Prince. His last gift, just before his abdication as King, was the dinghy Prince George.

The dinghy Prince George, 1936. © Peter Higginbotham

The Prince of Wales inspecting Arethusa boys, 1930s. © Peter Higginbotham

At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the inmates of the Arethusa were temporarily returned to their homes, except for 50 of the older boys who were about to enter the Royal Navy. The ship's onshore swimming bath was turned into a dormitory for 100 boys, with covered trenches dug close by in case of air raids. In 1940, the ship was taken by the Admiralty as accommodation for naval ratings, while the boys still on board were evacuated to the Tide Reach Hotel, at Salcombe, in Devon. There they helped with local wartime activities such building a defence boom across the harbour.

In 1955, an ocean-going steam yacht, Glen Strathallan, was bequeathed to the Society for use in the training of boys for the sea services. It was moored on the Thames alongside to the Arethusa.

The Arethusa of 1933 is now an exhibit at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York under her original name of Peking.

In 1972, a decline in the number of boys entering training on the ship, together with the charity's wider financial problems, led to the Arethusa being turned into a floating boarding school. However, this venture did not prove successful and the rising cost of the vessel's maintenance, together with £100,000 worth of urgently needed repairs, led to the decision to dispose of the ship. She was sold in 1975 to the South Street Seaport Museum of New York and restored to her 1911 condition and name, the Peking. In the same year, a new 71-foot ketch was acquired to become the third Arethusa, itself replaced in 1982 by another purpose-built vessel. The Arethusa's on shore buildings were developed into the Upnor Venture Centre.


Note: many repositories impose a closure period of up to 100 years for records identifying individuals. Before travelling a long distance, always check that the records you want to consult will be available.



  • Bailey, Marion Chance of a Lifetime - the Story of the Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa (1996, Dianthus Publishing)
  • Cuthbert, V Where Dreams Come True: A Record of 95 Years (1937, London: Shaftesbury Homes and "Arethusa" Training Ship)
  • Higginbotham, Peter Children's Homes: A History of Institutional Care for Britain's Young (2017, Pen & Sword)
  • Hodder, Edwin The Life and Work of the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, K.G. (1886, Cassell)