Today is the eleventh of November, a full one hundred years since the end of the First World War. The sacrifice of millions will be honoured up and down the country, which offers us a chance to reflect on this war – the so-called war to end all wars – and the change that has happened over the subsequent century. This post honours the memory of one person who lost their life in the First World War: William Turner. He can’t be found in the history books, for his life was one of millions. But for me, he holds a special place. I came across him when reading the family history that was researched and created by my aunt Janet. In 2014 I wrote an article that focused on William and his story titled ‘The Naval Career of William Turner’. In many ways the story is unremarkable, but that is why it is special: it is a story played out by millions who lived their lives before playing their part in the First World War.
William Turner was the brother of my great-grandmother, Alice Rollings (nee Turner). Their childhood was a tumultuous one: by 1890 they were both abandoned and living in Cornwall, three counties away from their place of birth in Wiltshire.
The details of their childhood are hazy. William was born in 1875, whilst Alice was five years younger, born in 1880. We know of their mother – Emily Turner – but little more. What is for sure is that by the 1891 census they were left to their own devices. Alice was aged ten and living in St. Clement’s orphanage in Truro[i], whilst William was aged fifteen and living relatively close by on a boys training ship named H.M.S. Ganges anchored in Mylor, Falmouth.
Training ships had long been used, stretching back to the second half of the eighteenth century. In the 1760s and 1770s the Marine Society recruited boys and young men for the Royal Navy for use during the Seven Years War against France. By the late 1800s, many of the southern ports had training ships.[ii] Plymouth had H.M.S. Implacable; Portsmouth H.M.S. Illustrious; and Falmouth, a much smaller port, had H.M.S. Ganges.
The history of H.M.S. Ganges is a fascinating one. It was built at the Bombay Dockyard, designed to be a copy of H.M.S. Canopus; this itself was the ex-French ship ‘Franklin’ that fought at the famous battle of the Nile in 1798 when Lord Nelson outsmarted Napoleon Bonaparte. Building began in 1819 and it was launched on 10 November 1821. It was 196 ft long with a breadth of 52 ft, carrying 66 guns. The ship saw service in the West Indies (1823-1824), South America (1826-1829), the Mediterranean (1831), and off the coast of Syria (1838). In 1828, it helped to quash a mutiny against the emperor of Brazil, Don Pedro, later becoming flagship of the Pacific Squadron from 1857-1861. It returned to the U.K. having sailed over 60,100 miles in the space of three years. By 1865 it had arrived in Devonport to be converted to a boys training ship. It was used in this format for more than one hundred years, from 1865 to 1976, covering many locations, including Falmouth, Harwich (1899-1905) and Shotley (1905-1979).[iii]
Onboard the Ganges William was expected to find discipline, as well as the obtaining of training in ‘naval life, skills and discipline’.[iv] Boys joined the ship at the age of eleven or twelve, and usually stayed until they were sixteen. Such ships were seen as essential in the implementation of good manners in society. In 1904, a Central Poor Law Conference heard a paper read by Mr Geoffrey Drage on the virtues of training ships:
…the life is a healthy one for the boys, their physical development is carefully attended to, their education from an intellectual point of view is adequate… More than all, the so-called stigma of pauperism is removed, and the boys are sent out into the world with a profession of national utility… The advantages of the Navy as a career can hardly be over-estimated.[v]
However, life onboard these training ships was undoubtedly hard. As one historian states: ‘Discipline aboard the ships was strict and the birch often used to enforce it. Food was limited in quantity and variety – biscuit, potatoes, and meat were the staples, with occasional green vegetables’.[vi] Such conditions provoked a scandal involving the Ganges when in the 1860s reports of harsh and brutal treatment led to an investigation from the Admiralty. The result of this led one wardroom steward – Joseph Stribling – to take his own life by shooting himself. He had written to the Admiralty complaining that ‘the abuse and tyranny to which we are being subjected is unbearable’. Commander Stevens was promptly removed from his command due to a report stating he ‘had given punishments which were not laid down in the training regulations’.[vii] Fortunately, this was before William’s own training in the 1890s.
Little is known of conditions for boys on the ship during its time at Mylor, although one contemporary account does provide some light; written by a boy who joined in 1898: H.J. Austin. He wrote of a harsh regime, poor food and severe punishment for all the time he spent on board. The routine he describes was waking up at 6 a.m.; scrubbing decks at 8 a.m., then breakfast with a little sugar and a slice of dry bread (twice a week there would be a piece of well-boiled fat pork to be spread on the bread); by 8.45 a.m. muster on quarterdeck for divisions and prayers. Dinner would be prepared by the boys, consisting of little more than meat and potatoes; final service would end at 6 p.m., by which point the evenings were then the boys own. The weekly routine included ‘sail drill every Monday morning, kit or hammock inspection on Thursday morning followed by a ‘make and mend’, Saturday ‘clean ship’, watch on deck doing the holy-stoning, watch below cleaning the mess-decks all ready for Rounds’.[viii]
Of staggering amazement is the number of deaths that occurred during the ship’s thirty-three years at Mylor, including 54 boys and 9 of the ship’s company. The cause of death included illness: measles, scarlet fever, influenza, typhus, cholera. Like the workhouse, disease spread like wildfire. In a similar training ship – ‘The Cornwall’ on the Thames in 1903 – seven boys contracted typhoid due to sleeping on unwashed and infected blankets bought from army hospitals.[ix] Other deaths connected to the Ganges included incidents of learning how to swim, of rumoured suicides due to the poor conditions, as well as one slightly confusing verdict given by a coroner: ‘the deceased met his death by the visitation of God.’[x] There were other incidents, including the circumstances of William Spooner’s death. Aged only 16 years on 20 August 1871 when part of the rigging gave way while they were doing sail drill, struck on the head and died instantly. In the same year that William was onboard the Ganges, in September 1891, poor Thomas Lobb (who had only been on board four days) got up in the middle of the night to use the toilet and went over the side of the ship: his body was found a week later.[xi]
Photo of a boy from HMS Ganges
By 1899, the declining number of boys joining the Ganges led to the decision to move the ship to a more populated area (such as Harwich in Essex). By this time the ship had become part of local life, leading to petitions organised by local councils. Previously, in 1870, the local mayor and M.P. got in touch with the admiralty when the ship was removed for refitting to Devonport, such was the panic that it might not return to Mylor. They had cause for concern, as the ship was involved in the community: in the summer months the boys played cricket and football against local teams, whilst they also got involved in the local regatta, sometimes providing concerts onboard the ship.[xii] However, this time there was no positive outcome. It was the end of a lively and – as can be seen – rather infamous part of local life in Falmouth. But for William, it was just the beginning of his service in the Royal Navy.
He would serve in the Navy for a decade during the 1890s. This was the period in which the British Empire was the most powerful in the world; the oceans were patrolled by British ships that went to every continent. Never had the statement ‘Britannia Rules the Waves’ been more appropriate. It is thanks to the navy records that an image can be built of Will. He was five foot and five inches tall, with grey eyes and light brown hair. He also had a tattoo consisting of a wreath, crossed flag, crown and pierced heart. At the start of the twentieth century he was discharged from the navy; at this time he would have been in his mid-twenties. During the First World War he enlisted in the British army. His sister Alice was informed that William died at the Battle of Verdun in 1916. So far, further research on William’s time in the army has proved unfruitful.
Little is known of what happened to William in these intervening years. It is stated that he visited his sister, Alice, at her residence in Penpol, Cornwall. In April 1900 she married William John Rollings, and the couple would have six children together. The last child, Ella Verdun, was so named in honour of William’s memory.
HMS Ganges Association (2013) ‘HMS Ganges circa late 1800s’, available at: http://www.hmsgangesassoc.org/cmspage/7/hms-ganges-circa-late-1800s (Accessed: 01 December 2013).
Harwood, Bob (2001) ‘HMS Ganges at Falmouth’, available at: http://www.godfreydykes.info/gangeswebsite/www.hmsgangesassoc.org/node/218.html (Accessed: 02 December 2013).
Higginbotham, Peter (2013) ‘Training Ships’, available at: http://www.workhouses.org.uk/trainingships/ (Accessed: 01 December 2013).
[i] St. Clement is situated southeast of Truro, in the valley of the Tresillian River. By 1895, the urban part of the parish was incorporated into Truro, whilst St Clement Orphangae had been part of the Truro Workhouse Union many decades earlier.
[ii] Higginbotham, 2013 [online].
[iii] HMS Ganges Association, 2013 [online]. The advent of steam power meant naval crews became smaller, and demand for boys steadily declined.
[iv] Higginbotham, 2013 [online].
[vii] HMS Ganges Association, 2013 [online].
[viii] Bob Harwood, 2001 [online].