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  • Writer's pictureGranny Bonnet

Dr. Barnardo and the Navy

Updated: Sep 24, 2023

Recently Hubby and Ivisited a large Victorian brick and flint house, all that remains now apart from its converted church, of the massive village-like complex that was Watt's Naval Training School at North Elmham, Norfolk.

Built in 1895 in 54 isolated acres bordered to the west by the River Wensum, it lay fifteen miles from the sea but had it's own tiny railway station that made it ultimately accessible to the whole country. The original fee-paying school had not been viable but under the auspices of Barnardo's it was turned into a training establishment for more than 300 orphaned and destitute boys aged between 13 and 16 with the Navy paying £25 for each boy it took on.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1845, Thomas John Barnardo moved to London to train as a doctor but horrified at seeing abandoned children sleeping on roofs and in gutters, he left medicine to set about his life's work of ensuring as many children as possible had the comfort of a home and an education. By the time of his death in 1905, Barnardo's institutions cared for over 8,500 children in 96 locations.

The Naval Training School was the culmination of a vision that Barnardo had had in which he could nurture young lads and educate them. He wrote: Nine and twenty years ago, very early in the history of my own work, it was given to me to see clearly the im­mense importance of the Training Ship as a means of discipline and training for the unwanted youth of our great towns, and also as the very best method of furnish­ing the requirements of our Mercantile Marine and of our Royal Navy...

Barnardo's dream was realised when the redundant County School at North Elmham came on the market and E. H. Watts, of the well-known firm of shipowners, Messrs Watts, Watts & Co, bought the property and after modernising it with heating, electric lighting and fire escapes, gave it to Barnardo's Association.

Formerly opened in 1906 after Barnardo's death. The already operational school trained boys military-style for a life at sea. Classified as a Secondary Technical School, with the technical instruction being nautical, it also offered musical training for boys intending on being enlisted in the Royal Marines or other military bands. With its staff cottages, Principal's house, bakery, water-tower, open-air swimming pool beside the river and cricket pitch, the life sounds idyllic but was pretty spartan and tough. Reveille was at 5.45 a.m., followed by general cleaning of the place and possibly a cross-country run before prayers and a breakfast of bread and dripping and cocoa. At 9.00 a.m. the lads would fall in for inspection by the Captain, before marching off for lessons and drill.

Dinner was served at 12.30 p.m. with the boys falling in for more school and drill at 2.00 p.m At 4.00 p.m. they had a half-hour's special drill training. Tea was served at 5.30 p.m. with recreation inside or out followed by cocoa and broken ship's biscuits before teeth-cleaning with salt-water and a gargle. There were more prayers before last post at 8.45 pm and lights-out 15 minutes later. Any infringements of the rules were dealt with severely and publically, caning on bare buttocks being carried out in front of the school.

The boys wore naval uniform and except in dead of winter, at church or on special occasions when they wore boots, they went about barefoot. Not surprising when their feet needed hardening against climbing rigging and performing aerial duties in all weathers on the huge ship's mast which was rigged outside in the courtyard, and for when they used the semaphore set up on a knoll not far from the buildings.

Undoubtedly the school was a lifeline for many unfortunate children who would otherwise have faced a very uncertain future and until its closure in 1953, gave them opportunities undreamed of and the chance thereafter to see the world. It's a great pity the handsome buildings were demolished, they would have been a tangible reminder of Barnardo's passion to help disadvantaged youngsters as well as doing his duty towards our naval services.

We drove thoughtfully away from the now privately-owned Principal's house, past the little graveyard, up and over the hump-backed bridge spanning the river to cross the rail-tracks of the also redundant Station, leaving behind the little barefoot ghosts of the past when we met the road and joined the 21st century again.

Drill for the barefoot boys

*Sir John Mills, a famous British actor, was born at Watts Naval School, where his father was a master.

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