Believe it or not, this old Navy ship was moored at Portishead in the Bristol Channel, and used as an industrial school specialising in training boys for sea-faring careers.

As well as sending young offenders to reformatories, the magistrates who sat at these courts could also send young people to industrial schools. These were for younger offenders who were considered less serious but in need of intervention to stop them falling into a life of crime. Young people under 12 could be sent to an industrial school as an alternative to prison. Those under 14 could be sent there for begging, being found wandering and homeless, for associating with ‘known thieves’, or those whose parents ‘couldn’t control’ them. While the courts certainly wanted to control apparently disruptive young people, they were also concerned to remove young people from extreme poverty, neglect and abuse.

The Formidable took boys for all of these reasons. Indeed, in some instances, it appears that boys were keen to go! In March 1880, 11-year-old James Dickens appeared in court for stealing old newspapers from his father. This was not his first time, and according to his father, James had ‘repeatedly said he would do anything to get on board the Formidable.’ Whether James was as happy with the outcome of his case we don’t know: he was sentenced to 14 days imprisonment and five years at Kingswood Reformatory (featured in banner image).

HMS Formidable at Sheerness 1850 before she became a training ship in 1869. Royal Museums Greenwich

‘Popularity of the Formidable’, The Bristol Mercury 3 March 1880


Written by R. Wallis Jan 2022

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