HOW HARD a life was it aboard the Training Ships Cumberland and Empress which were anchored in the Gareloch from 1869 for 54 years?
Opinions have differed in recent years, with written accounts of the hardships of being a boy living aboard contrasting with positive views from relatives of pupils and staff.
The two former naval vessels anchored off Kidston Point looked after boys with and without parents, and were certainly not — as often suggested — floating ‘borstals’.
They were given a good education with a view to serving in the Royal Navy or the Merchant Navy, had a number of bands which played onshore at local events, and took part in various sports.
They wore smart pseudo naval uniforms, and the ship’s chaplains ensured that they received regular and proper religious education.
Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s daughter who lived for much of her life at Rosneath Castle, and local dignitaries presented prizes at the annual prizegiving ceremonies over the years.
But for those who transgressed the strict code of conduct, punishments were harsh — including the tawse and the birch.
The training vessels were run by the Clyde Industrial Training Association, formed for that purpose in 1869.
The first of the two was the Cumberland, built in 1842 at Chatham, a 2,214-ton two-deck 70-gun man o’war, 180 feet long, which served until 1889 when it was destroyed by a fire started by some disgruntled boys.
She was replaced by the 3,318-ton Revenge, built in 1859, 245 feet long, and renamed Empress, which served until the venture ended in 1923 and she was decommissioned and sold.
At the peak 400 boys lived on board. In all some 6,000 boys spent time on the Cumberland or the Empress, and 1,500 served in the armed forces in World War One.
The Dumbarton Herald of 23rd February 23 1916 carried a story on MEDALS FOR “EMPRESS” BOYS. It reported . . .
"Four members of HM Forces who received their early training in the Empress Training Ship have been awarded naval or military honours. Petty Officer Albert Jarvie gained the Distinguised Service Medal, and Sergeant William Brown, 1st Gordons, was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Bandsman J McArthur and Company Quartermaster-Sergeant AG Douglas have also received the DCM.
"Bandsman McArthur, 3rd HLI, joined the Empress in 1900 and was discharged four years later, joining the Army in 1907. For conspicuous bravery at Neuve Chapelle and at Ypres he was highly commended and for his devotion to the wounded under fire at Richebourg, where he was himself wounded, he received the DCM.
"Quartermaster-Sergeant Douglas, 2nd Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, received the DCM for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty on May 10th, 1915, at Hooge, when in temporary command of a company, all the officers of which had been killed or wounded. He successfully held his ground, although he knew the trenches on his left had been vacated.
"During this time he was exposed to a heavy enfilade and shell fire. On several occasions he gave a splendid example of courage and coolness to all under his command."
There were, however, a number of fatalities for various reasons, and this has been the subject of recent research by local men John Birch, Craig Osborne, and Helensburgh Heritage Trust chairman Stewart Noble.
They have looked at the memorials in Rhu Churchyard and Helensburgh Cemetery — although some of the names on the Helensburgh gravestone are no longer legible — and also local death records.
They have come up with a list of what must be the great majority of the fatalities. Sad and moving though the list is, it does paint an unforgettable picture of a very tough way of life.
Named in the death records for Cumberland boys buried at Rhu:
James Forrester, died 14.5.1870, age 14, fall from main rigging. Both parents deceased.
James Wilson, d.29.11.1872, age 16, inflammation of bowels. Parents not known.
John McEwan, d.03.09.1873, age 14, stoppage of bowels. Father deceased.
John Dowie, d.21.02.1874, age 14, congestion of brain.
Henry O’Hara, d. 14.07.1875, age 15, drowning. Father deceased.
Patrick Campbell, d. 01.09.1875, age 13, fall from main masthead. Father unknown and deceased.
James Bowie Smith, d. 21.06.1877, age 14, died in Helensburgh Hospital of chronic brain disease. Parents not known.
John Herret, d. 02.05.1878, age 16, heart disease. Father deceased.
Alexander Weir, d. 10.06.1878, age 13, inflammation of bowels. Mother deceased.
John Buchanan, d. 03.08.1878, age 14, fall from main top. Father not known. On the death record for Rhu he is recorded as Buchanan or Ferguson.
William McLean, d. 07.04.1885, age 13, abcess in leg, blood poisoning. Parents not known. (It has been suggested he was buried at Helensburgh).
Cumberland boys buried at Helensburgh were:
Robert Neill, d. 25.12.1879, age 14, died in Helensburgh Hospital of liver and stomach disease. Parents unknown.
James McIntyre, d. 19.04.1880, age 13, died in Helensburgh Hospital of pulmonary consumption (TB) age 13. Father William McIntyre, Joiner, mother deceased.
Joseph Rodgers, d. 10.08.81, age 14, died on CTS Cumberland of tubercular lung disease aged 14. Father unknown, mother in Ireland.
Thomas Deans, d. 23.02.1882, age 15, died in Helensburgh Hospital of pulmonary consumption. Parents unknown.
John Greer, d. 02.09.1882, age 15, died in Helensburgh Hospital of glandular disease of the bowels. Parents John and Catherine Greer.
Walter Olliver, d. 09.05.1883, age 14, died in Helensburgh Hospital of pthiasis pulmonalis (TB). Parents unknown. On the death register this name is spelt Oliver.
Daniel McNicol, d. 17.01.1884, age 12, died in Helensburgh Hospital of meningitis. Parents Daniel and Jane McNicol.
Robert Greer, d. 16.03.1887, age 13, died in Helensburgh Hospital of probable brain abscess. No father known.
George Andrew McArthur, d. 04.07.1887, age 13 died in Helensburgh Hospital of pneumonia and meningitis.
James Bowers, d. 14.03.1888, age 13, died in Helensburgh Hospital of pneumonia.
Empress boys and staff buried at Rhu were:
Joseph McLauchlin, d. 26.05.1891, age 15, drowned after being dragged overboard by letting go of the wrong ‘fall’ of a davit on board. Body not found.
Alexander Grant (Hospital Attendant), d. 01.09.1892, age 49, ruptured aneurism of aorta.
Alexander McAllister, d. 29.08.1893, age 9, drowned. Parents not known.
James Hossock, d. 13.10.1897, age 13, pneumonia and heart disease. Mother not known.
John McCarthy, d. 09.11.1898, age 13, pneumonia. Mother deceased.
Walter Anderson (Sick Nurse and Pipe Major), d. 08 or 09.11.1899, age 33, drowned.
John Black Fyfe (Assistant Schoolmaster), d. 08 or 09.11.1899, age 21, drowned.
John Fyfe and Walter Anderson were drowned trying to get back to the ship from Rhu pier at night in rough water. Mr Fyfe’s body was found close to Kidston Park. Mr Anderson’s body was not found.
James Sanford Cochrane, d. 03.03.1904, age 11, peritonitis, reported by Ebenezer James Betts, officer. Parents deceased.
Andrew Whyte, d. 04.03.1904, age 14, drowned.
The Scotsman reported Andrew’s death on April 11 1904 and stated that he fell from Empress on April 4 in an accident and his body was found near Rhu pier. On the death register this name is spelt White.
Clifford Lamont, d. 09.01.1905, age 14, cerebral effusion. Mother not known.
William Bain, d. 04.07.1905, age 14, injury to foot, abcess, septicaemia.
Empress boys buried at Helensburgh were:
Robert McKenzie, d. 06.08.1890, age 15, died in Helensburgh Hospital of cerebral meningitis and pleurisy.
William Jack, d.04.10.1890, age 14, died in Helensburgh Hospital of compound fracture of left thigh sustained in an accident.
James Clark, d. 20.02.1891, age 13, died in Helensburgh Hospital of pulmonary consumption. No parents.
William Morrison, d. 20.03.1892, age 15, died in Helensburgh Hospital of cardiac disease. Parents deceased.
James McLennan, d. 29.03.1892, age 15, died in Helensburgh Hospital of septicaemia.
William Lyons, d.28.05.1892, age 11, died in Helensburgh Hospital of tubercular meningitis. Mother deceased.
James Williamson, d. 20.05.1893, age 13, died in Helensburgh Hospital of tuberculosis. Father unknown, mother deceased.
John James Anderson, d. 08.04.1897, age 14, died of tuberculosis in Helensburgh infirmary.
James Higgison, d.20.07.1905, age 15, died in the Victoria Infirmary of tubercular peritonitis. Parents deceased. Cemetery records show he is buried in lair A East 3 37.
John Simpson, d. 09.02.1909, age 14, died of acute appendicitis in the Victoria Infirmary. Cemetery records show his burial in lair A East 3 37.
William Birnie, d. 13.11.1910, age 12, died of scarlet fever in local authority hospital, Helensburgh . Mother deceased. Cemetery records show his burial in lair A East 3 37.
Thomas Scott d. 31.03.1912, age 13, died in Victoria Infirmary of acute appendicitis. Mother deceased. Cemetery records show his burial in lair A East 3 37.
Thomas McMurray, d. 03.07.1913, age 15, Died of pneumonia and meningitis in the Victoria Infirmary. Mother deceased.
David Boyd, d. 09.08.1914 age 14, died in the Victorial infirmary, Helensburgh, of tubercular disease of the abdomen and general tubercular disease. Mother deceased. Cemetery record shows burial in lair A East 3 34.
John Wyles Orr, d. 07.06.1915 age 16, died in Dumbarton Joint Fever Hospital from tuberculosis.
John Walker, d. 26.04.1916 age 14, died in Dumbarton Joint Fever Hospital from tuberculosis.
Jeffrey Wright, d. 26.04.1916 age 12, died in Dumbarton Joint Fever Hospital from tuberculosis.
Albert Edward Rodgers, d.15.07.1916, age 15, died in the Victoria infirmary of septic poisoning, meningitis. Parents deceased. Cemetery record show burial in lair A East 3 35.
Robert Miller, d. 19.05.1917 age 13, died in Dumbarton Joint Fever Hospital from tuberculosis.
Robert Forsyth, d. 01.10.1917 age 16, died in Dumbarton Joint Fever Hospital from tuberculosis.
James Reid Shepherd, d. 26.11.1920, age 13, died of osteomyelitis and pneumonia in the Victoria infirmary.Cemetery record shows burial in lair C South 23.
John Gilmour, d. 24.11.1917, age 14, fracture of skull. Cemetery records show he is buried in lair M3 09.
George Crosier, d. 13.09.1919, age 15, accidental fracture of the skull, died at the cottage hospital Rhu. Cemetery records show he is buried in lair M3 09.
Officers buried in individual graves in Rhu:
John Paterson (Schoolmaster on Cumberland for 17 years), d. 28.06.1888.
Joseph W.Hatherley (Naval pensioner served on Cumberland for 17 years), d.11.12.1890.
John Munro (Chief Officer on Cumberland and Empress for 14 years), d. 10.2.1891, age 57.
Richard Taylor Broad (Naval Instructor for 20 years), d.25.05.1895, age 67, cause not known.
John Motion (former Sergeant Major in the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders, one of Sir Collin Campbell’s ‘Thin Red Line’ at Balaclava, Drill Instructor on Empress), d.19.09.1911, age 82.
There is some confusion about the deaths of staff members Walter Anderson and John Black Fyfe.
The uncertainty over the date suggests perhaps that it happened unnoticed at night. The accident was reported in the Scotsman on November 10 1899.
The two men were seen on Row (now Rhu) pier about 10.30pm and it is thought that they set off for the ship in a punt.
It was not realised that there had been an accident until the upturned punt was picked up off Kidston Park the following morning.
Shortly afterwards Fyfe’s body was found on the shore 100 yards west of Kidston Park. Anderson’s body was not found.
The water was rough that night, and later there were some reports of cries being heard around midnight.
Another body never found was that of Clarence McCulloch, d. January 1913, age 12, a new boy who had only been on board the Empress for two weeks.
The Scotsman of January 7 recorded that he was attempting to escape.
Cries of distress were heard on board a yacht moored between the Empress and Row pier and a boat promptly lowered, but there was no trace of him.
He had taken a lifebuoy which was later found on the shore.
In total around 110 boys died — possibly a few more allowing for missing records — and death records have been found for all but 27.
Most of the boys died in Rhu and their deaths are registered in the records for the parish.
Some boys will have died outside the parish, for example in hospitals in Greenock or Dumbarton, and these records have not yet been searched in detail.
The most common cause of death, probably well over half directly or indirectly, was infectious disease, and TB was particularly common.
The second most common cause was accidental death — drowning and falls in particular — and 22 such incidents are recorded.
- Photos by Craig Osborne.