Diving into Traces Edition 12, contributor Sarah Luke explores the life of schoolboys of the Nautical School Ship Vernon.
In April 1880, 140 years ago, schooling became compulsory in New South Wales for six- to 14-year-olds. Out on Sydney Harbour, beside Cockatoo Island, the Nautical School Ship Vernon was not impacted by this change in the slightest.
Not for reasons of neglect or abuse – but for the simple reason that for boys who had been taken onboard the fearsome ship, academic lessons had been enforced from its inauguration back in 1867. Here, truancy was impossible.
The Nautical School Ship Vernon, and its replacement – a mark of its reforming successes – the Sobraon, were products of the 1866 Industrial Schools Act. Under this piece of legislation, it became a crime for a child to be jobless, homeless or neglected by their parents (if they had them). A youth under sixteen could be arrested for reasons of merely ‘wandering’ or sleeping in the open air – they would be taken to court and then conveyed to the ship permanently moored in the harbour beside Cockatoo Island.
The idea was to collect neglected children – often orphans – from Sydney’s slums, rescue them from their lives of selling matches or watercress, or theft, by teaching them how to look after themselves onboard the ship. Thus, vicious, criminally minded children, would be made into moral, law-abiding adults.
For such a transformation, a strict timetable was required to keep everyone in order.
Sleeping in neat rows of hammocks, the boys – in their hundreds – would turn out at five o’clock in the morning. Their bedding would be lashed up, and taken out onto the main deck to air in the sea breeze.
In small divisions, they would be told off in turn to begin their washing. This was done in iron tubs on the main deck, with several boys to each. To make matters even colder, the ship’s washdown parties would then be piped, and the deck would be washed by half of the cohort, while the other worked at clearing the various decks. The pump boys in charge of the seawater were often not too careful to avoid splashing their friends, who were provided with a half coconut husk each to scrub the deck.
Breakfast – oats, warm milk and bread with butter – would then be piped and all hands would retire, stiff but grateful, to the mess.
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The boys make use of the recreation ground on Cockatoo Island, as their pet emu watches on. NSWSRA, NRS-4481-2-[4/8624]-810, N.S.S. [Nautical School Ship] Sobraon – recreation ground