Clyde Industrial Training-Ship Empress

By on Oct 19, 2016 in Clyde Industrial Training-Ship, Clyde River and Firth, Cumberland, Empress, Flying Foam, Flying Spray, Gareloch | 6 comments


 Towards the close of 1868, a number of philanthropic Glasgow gentlemen came together to try to address the problems in the city with “destitute boys found homeless and parentless in our streets.” The organization was called “The Clyde Industrial Training-Ship Society,” and it had the object of the establishment and maintenance of a training-ship on the Clyde, under the provisions of “The Industrial Schools Act,” for boys coming within the meaning of that Act. The training-ship would provide the necessary instruction for lads who had a liking for the sea and, when they took up employment, improve the character and efficiency of merchant seamen. They applied to the Government for a suitable ship and set about raising the funds to bring the ship to the Clyde and convert it to its new purpose.


The Government provided the Cumberland, a three-decker built at Chatham in 1842 and she was brought to the Clyde in May, 1869 to lie off Row in the Gareloch. Over the summer of 1869, the Society spent £2,800 raised through subscriptions and two bazaars to provide accommodation for the education and training of 500 boys. There were already 120 on board Cumberland when the inaugural meeting of the Society was held there towards the end of September. The weather was poor with heavy rain and Mr John Burns provided the steamer Racoon to take the bulk of the attendees from Greenock to the ship. Other steamers arrived from Helensburgh and Row.


Cumberland on the Gareloch

The Cumberland was under the command of Captain Alston, R.N. The boys were aged between 11 and 14. The Society had the charge for “the reception and training of boys who through poverty, parental neglect, or being orphans, or who from any other cause are left destitute and homeless and in danger of being contaminated by association with vice and crime—such boys being admitted, fed, and clothed, and instructed daily in Christian faith and practice from the Holy Scriptures.” Other boys could be sent for a charge of 5s. per week, although it was claimed that actual costs were in excess of this figure.

The Duke of Argyll provided ground ashore, near Ardencaple Castle for recreation and use of the boys and also a supply of water. The boys were drilled in a variety of areas including seamanship and the operation of the two guns on board. Discipline was strict with the birch used for major offences, the tawse and bread and water rations for other offenses. The education extended beyond reading, writing and arithmetic to include such subjects as music—the band gave public concerts and drew attention to the positive aspects of the enterprise.


Physical exercise with Indian clubs and dumbbells

On the morning of Monday, February 18, 1889, Cumberland was set on fire. There were 390 boys on board—10 of the complement were on leave—together with Captain George Deverell, R.N. who was then in command together with his wife, daughter and two maid-servants, and eight other staff. All were able to escape without injury although all belongings and the ship’s stored were lost. The Captain’s Newfoundland dog was also lost.

The fire broke out at midnight in the tailors’ store-room in the lower decks amidships. Straw mattresses were stored there and it was alleged that these mattresses were deliberately set on fire by some of the youths who had gained access to keys to the room. The fire spread rapidly, and defeated the crews who had manned the pumps but were hampered by the heavy smoke. The boys were well drilled in lowering the boats and all were accommodated between the launch, three cutters, the galley, a gig and the dingy. The boys were transferred to the training brig Cumbria which was used for summer cruising and was moored nearby.

The hulk of Cumberland was sold and scapped.

Four boys, James M‘Vey, William Lewis, John Rankine, and Jacob Napier were suspected of setting the fire and taken into custody. A fifth, Daniel Cowan was later added. James M‘Vey had run away a fortnight before but was captured near Bowling and returned to receive 12 strokes of the birch and Rankine was described as troublesome. At the subsequent trial, the boys pleaded not guilty and accused each other. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty against Cowan and not proven against the others.

Almost immediately, application was made to the Government by John Burns for another ship. They were offered H.M.S. Pembroke but this was not suitable and H.M.S. Revenge, built in 1859 was accepted and handed over on March 10, 1890. She was renamed Empress, and the cost of conversion to accommodate 400 boys was around £5,000.


Empress landing stage where the boys were a magnet for local girls

There was almost a repeat of the arson in October 1892 when four boys attempted to set fire to the ship. At their trial in December, they pled guilty.

In 1899, the Clyde Industrial Training Ship Association, as it was then called acquired the schooner, Selene, built by Robert Steele & Co., Greenock in 1864. She was used for summer cruising for the boys and was well known on the Firth until the Empress was closed.


Empress with the bow of Selene


Selene off Holy Isle on the Clyde

The boys’ day began at 6 a.m. and the lights out was 8:30 p.m. Food was adequate with porridge and bread for breakfast and potatoes and a little meat for the main meal. Milk was rarely available. Boys were allowed ashore under supervision and were generally well turned out. There was a landing stage where the ships boats came ashore.

For a time around 1902, Empress was joined on the Gareloch by H.M.T.S. Cleopatra where trainees for the Royal Navy were learning their trade.


HMTS Cleopatra

By 1923, the Clyde Industrial Training Ship Association could no longer justify the expense of running the ship compared with training on land. Consequently, at the annual meeting in June that year, the Empress was closed down. Towards the end of March in 1924, she left the Gareloch in tow of the Flying Foam and Flying Spray for Appledore in Devon where she was broken up.


Empress under tow to the breakers


  1. Harold Petersen

    November 4, 2016

    Post a Reply

    My father Hans Peter Petersen was an Empress boy , sent to the training ship by his father because he played truant and wouldn’t go to school,it was a hard life and not as some put it a good and happy life , one of his shipmates like so many before him was taken from the streets because he was homeless and also had one hand missing , it was the making of my Dad it set him a life in the Merchant service and on his first main voyage , aged only 15 , he sailed around Cape Horn on a fully rigged sailing ship, as a young man he was awarded a medal for showing bravery and saving the lives of some of his mates when his ship S.S.Sheerness was sunk off the Tuskar rock , southern Ireland, he remained very strict towards his family, we think this was because of his time on the ~Empress, he unfortunately died quite young when he gave up the sea and became a waterman on the Clyde, he was killed in an accident while carrying out his duties

  2. Colin McKenzie

    January 6, 2017

    Post a Reply

    I understand my Grandfather John James McKenzie was on the Empress in 1901 and likely some time either side of that. The Scottish Census has him on a detainees list for the Empress for that year.

    I am trying to find out more about his years on the Empress and would like to try to get a copy of his Certificate of Discharge.

    Can anyone point me in the right direction.

    Thank you

    Colin Stuart McKenzie

    • valeman

      January 27, 2017

      Post a Reply

      Colin: It was a hard life and the personal stories that have come to the fore are touching and sometimes tragic.

  3. Thank you Valeman. My grandfather died when I was just 12 and never spoke much of his past. Family lore suggests he ran away to sea at a young age, came to Australia before WW1 and joined the Royal Australian Navy. I have only recently found out about his time on the Empress.
    Do you know if there is anywhere I can search the records about the Clyde Industrial Training Ships. I would dearly like to know what period he was there for.
    Unfortunately after leaving Scotland as a young teenager he never returned.
    I will be in Scotland in 2018 and would like to find out as much as I can about the Training Ships and particularly my grandfather.
    Thank you

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *