Friday, May 2, 2014

Boy Seamen in the British Royal Navy

If you had ancestors or other relatives who served in the British Royal Navy as "boy seamen", the book Band of Brothers:  Boy Seamen in the Royal Navy, 1800-1956 might be of interest.  It discusses the institution of boys entering the navy at a young age and the training and indoctrination they experienced.  This book was published in 1996 (see full information at the end of this post), but I only came across it recently at a seller of military books with a table at a World War I seminar.

Boy Seaman was an actual "rating" (somewhat similar to a rank) in the Royal Navy until 1956, when "three centuries of tradition" ended.  This should mean, in theory, that boy seamen existed as early as roughly 1656, but the author, David Phillipson, actually discusses only as far back as the 18th century.

Phillipson asserts that the induction process and training of young boys in the Royal Navy did not substantially change over the course of more than a century and a half.  It is difficult to gauge the accuracy of this claim, as two thirds of the book (the final two chapters) is the author's own reminiscences of his time as a Boy Seaman.  The first three chapters, which include quotations from some boys of earlier periods, also include several of his own memories and observations.

The first chapter ("Wooden Walls") focuses on the background of Boy Seamen and their earlier (informal) incarnation, "servants."  Most boys joined the navy for better economic opportunities, in times when only the oldest son in a family could expect to inherit, though a good number came from families with long seafaring traditions.  The rest of the chapter gives information about and quotes from boys through the early 1830's.  The second chapter ("Boys in the Victorian Navy") covers the period when Boy Seaman became a more codified position in the navy.  It does have material on the Victorian era, but also significant amounts of the author's comments on his own experiences.

Chapter 3, "The Dreadnoughts", is about the training schools that were established to teach young seamen their jobs.  Quotations range from 1824 to 1907, along with more of Phillipson's own commentary.  He makes an historical error at one point, claiming that 1904 was "from the closing years of Victoria's reign", when she actually died in 1901.  Chapters 4 and 5 are entirely Phillipson's descriptions of his experiences in the Boy Seaman training regimen.  I was surprised at his low opinion of Royal Marines.

As a warning, this book is British through and through, which might make understanding some of it difficult for American readers.  Beyond naval slang ("Navalese"), Phillipson regularly employs British slang, spelling (some of it nonstandard), and punctuation.  Even after rereading some passages multiple times, I at times was at a loss as to their meaning.  My overall appreciation for the information in the book, however, is still very high.  It includes an adequate index, but I wish the names of the boy seamen whose writings were quoted had been marked as such.

David Phillipson, Band of Brothers:  Boy Seamen in the Royal Navy, 1800-1956, Thrupp, England:  Sutton Publishing Limited, 1996.  New and used copies appear to be available through several sellers on and

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