Launched in Chatham Dockyard on the 1st July 1848, HMS Mars was an 80-gun, four deck man-of-war. In the 1850s she was a supplier in the Crimean War (1855 – 1856), and later became a screw steamer commanded by Captain James Newburgh Strange R.N in 1859. On the 17th August 1869 HMS Mars was lent for use as a training ship and was moored in the River Tay at Woodhaven harbour, Fife.
The idea of HMS Mars as a training ship grew from the Ragged School Movement, whose aim was to provide an education to homeless or destitute children. Some of the boys were also sent because they were caught stealing; often foodstuffs such as bread or grapes. In September 1869 she was officially certified as an Industrial School Ship. Training Ship (TS) Mars -as she was then known – could accommodate 400 boys at any one time. When the boys entered the ship they were assigned a number, which is how they were referred to for the duration of their stay. Even the boys would address their peers by these numbers, rather than their names. Upon their admission to the Mars, the boys were washed and given haircuts as well as placed in a ‘watch’, which was a group of both juniors and seniors. The boys were normally admitted between 10 -11 years old – though there is a record of a 9-year-old on board – and they were discharged when they turned 16. As the only ship in Scotland to welcome Roman Catholics, many of the boys who lived on board TS Mars came from Glasgow and the surrounding areas.
The day started at 5.30am with deck scrubbing, breakfast and prayers, before attending school on board the ship. The Mars boys were taught English, Mathematics, and Geography and after lunch they studied practical subjects such as shoe repairing, tailoring, wood and metalwork, and seamanship. School finished at 5pm, after which the boys could enjoy leisure time until lights out at 9pm. The boys would sleep in hammocks down in the orlop deck, with one blanket in summer and two in winter. They had Sundays off and every summer the boys would spend time at a camp in Elie, Fife.
Music played a large part in the boys’ lives. There were three bands on board TS Mars: brass, pipe, and drums. Places in the bands were highly coveted as they travelled across Scotland and England to perform, attending various events such as openings, fetes, highland games and flower shows. Bands were also a great recruitment tool for TS Mars, with the boys marching through cities such as Edinburgh, Perth, and Aberdeen in their naval uniforms. Playing an instrument was a useful skill for the boys to learn as they could join army and navy bands after they left the ship.
The main goal of TS Mars was to have the boys admitted to the Royal and Merchant Navy, meaning the boys led a highly regimented life with the ship run on Admiralty lines and strict punishments. However, they were attended by doctors and dentists, and were comparatively well fed. Being on board also meant the boys were less likely to catch diseases and infections found in the streets. However, the demand for this type of training ship diminished after the First World War and the introduction of probation. In 1929, the Admiralty found TS Mars to be un-seaworthy and, on the 27th June the same year, the ship was towed to Thos W Ward Inverkeithing to be broken up. Between 1869 and 1929 TS Mars housed over 6,500 boys.
The Sons of Mars runs from 20th June until the end of October 2019.
Blog Post by Louise Hurrell, HMS Unicorn Volunteer