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George Wells, Able Seaman

January 26, 2012
by the gentle author

There is a training school down Limehouse way,
Where we get bread-and-scrape three times a day.
Ham and eggs we never see,
We get brick-dust in our tea,
And we are gradually fading away!

To Able Seaman George Wells, the modest cluster of buildings next to St Anne’s Church, Limehouse, will always be his training ship, and even today it still sports a cheery enamelled British Sailors’ Society sign as evidence of its former identity.

In 1938, fourteen year old George – a former sea scout from Dover – became a temporary East Ender, training here at the Prince of Wales Sea Training Hostel for Boys for just six months. Yet such was the intensity of this formative experience that George recalls it vividly seventy-five years later, even as he approaches his ninetieth birthday. “I suppose there’s not so many of us chaps left that remembers it?” he suggested to me when I paid a call upon him this week.

“I was fourteen years and five months old when I went up to Limehouse on 3rd January 1938. I always wanted to be in the Merchant Navy. I wanted to see the world and I knew that merchant ships went to many more places than the navy.

You walked into the main entrance where there was a bell and an ensign that you always saluted. You didn’t linger there, you walked straight through. On the left was the secretary’s office and on the right was the Commodore’s office. The two instructors were called Jack Frost and Freddie Painter, Jack was on the port watch and Freddie was on the starboard. They taught us everything to do with boatwork and navigation – signalling, semaphore and morse code – and things you could do with ropes. You had to be able to recite all thirty-two points of the compass from N to NE and back again.Your life depended on it and, if you couldn’t do it, you’d get horrible jobs to do.

We lived in dormitories at the top of the building, sleeping in iron bunks. You were given a horsehair mattress but no sheet, two blankets, one pillow and a counterpane. We got up at six in the morning and you folded your blankets with the pillow on top and the counterpane over it, like a pudding in the middle of the bed. We wore white duck trousers and a blue sailor’s top, plimsolls in winter and bare feet in summer. We would have a mug of tea and then we had to go out onto the signal deck – as we called the yard – for muster, where we were allocated jobs and between us we did all the cleaning. I remember they found one boy had a dirty neck on parade and he was put on report. He was taken below deck and stripped and washed by his fellows, and his skin was pink when he came back. When “Rigging, up and over!” was called, we had to run up the rigging and down the other side. One of us was chosen to be the “button boy,” he had to stand upon the very top. It was scary but we were young and when I got to sea they said, “Go aloft, you’re used to it.” because they knew where I had trained. I was given two pounds and seventeen shillings per month when I started with the corps.

Instructions continued until five daily and then we had homework. Two sideboys were on duty all day to attend the door. Saturdays and Sundays were the only days we were allowed out, and I learnt about the East End. We took the tram down to Tower Bridge, you could pick up girls there, but you had to be back by five. There were no cooks on Sunday, so we ate cold meat, pickles and mashed potato, plus trifle made of bread and jam with jelly and custard on top. We went out into the West India Dock, where we had a whaling ship and a gig. We used to learn to row in the dock, but it was a bit much pulling against the tide in the Thames. We had to carry sixteen foot oars on our shoulders, they were heavy when you got there.

It was very competitive. We had boxing matches under the big tree. It was known as “Grudge Day.” If you had a disagreement with someone, you informed the instructor and they put you in the ring together. They were all different sizes. I remember this big chap Wellham from Norfolk, he caught me with a bad one and split my eye open. Since I was appointed Chief Petty Office, everyone wanted to have a go at me and I’ve still got the scar under my eye from it.

The most embarrassing thing was when you were sent to have baths in the basement and then jump into the cold swimming pool. Captain Faulkner and his wife used to come and supervise us, but then he left and his wife – the matron – she stayed to watch us. All of us young boys in the buff, we had to go and stand in front of her. I think she enjoyed it more than we did.

Most of us were under fifteen, at fifteen you could go to sea. You were sent. The shipping companies funded the school to provide them with boys. I was actually on board my first ship, the Capetown Castle when I had my fifteenth birthday. It was a new ship, one of the biggest cargo ships afloat at 22,000 tons. Of the eight deck boys, there were two of us from the school, me and Alf. It was exciting. We left Southampton, we were going along the Channel and the officer said, “You’ve done signals. Call that ship over there and ask what it is.” It was the SS Beacon Grange, and it sent back the message “Capetown Castle, Bon Voyage!” I’ll never forget the first ship I spoke to on my first night at sea.

We used to go round the Cape on the mail run, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, London. We carried wool, hides, chick peas, wine and fruit. And once we picked up crates of marmalade oranges from Madeira, so pungent they had to be kept stacked on deck. Next year – when the war came – we switched over to troop carrying. Starting as a deck boy, I became an ordinary seaman, then a sailor then an able seaman and a gunner. I stayed with the Capetown Castle until 1946, and I quit at twenty-three because, already, I could see the way the mercantile industry was going.

When I went to sea, I knew I could do it. You had responsibility at an early age in those days.”

Once the war began, the training school moved up to Norfolk, terminating its brief period in the East End. George married three times and enjoyed a very successful career as Supervisor of the three hundred workers at Newhaven Harbour, until he retired in 1986. After being empty and squatted for years, the buildings in Newell St were bought by the squatters and divided into homes with only minimal alteration to the buildings.

As you walk through these atmospheric rooms today, the worn floors and old staircases are reminders of the former life that was here. And if you go down to basement, an old sign that reads “British Sailors’ Society” greets you on the stairs. You will find the swimming pool in the cellar is still there too and was used by all the residents of the street until quite recently.

The Sea Training School in Newell St still stands largely unaltered today. The crown over the front door has gone, but the coloured enamel sign above advertising the British Sailors’ Society remains.

The Sea Training Hostel  in Limehouse with St Anne’s in the background.

Sea cadets show off their acrobatic skills in Limehouse.

George’s membership card for the Old Boys’ Association as given on graduation in June 1938.

The motto was – “British boys for British ships.”

Daily Routine

6:30am  Turn Out: wash down decks etc.

8:00am  Breakfast: make up bunks.

9:00am  Parade for inspection: daily prayers.

9:15 to 10:45am  Instruction in signalling: physical jerks and organised games.

10:30 to 10:45am  Stand easy: boys have bread and cheese, etc.

10:45 to 12:30pm  Instruction in seamanship: boat pulling, washing clothes, etc.

12:45pm  Dinner: boys have meat with two vegetables and pudding every day. One day each week fish instead of meat.

2:00pm  Parade for kit inspection.

2:10 to 3:30pm  Instruction in seamanship: making and mending kit, kitbag making and other useful subjects.

3:30 to 3:45pm  Stand easy.

3:45 to 4:30pm  Instruction as above.

4:45pm  Tea.

6:30 to 7:30pm  Instruction in swimming, lectures, gymnastics, etc.

9:00pm  Turn in – 9:30pm Light out.

Sea cadets scale the rigging in Limehouse.

George graduated as the top top student in June 1938 just before his fifteenth birthday.

The Duchess of York visits the Sea Training Hostel in 1934.

Candidates for admission to the hostel must –

1. Have excellent references as to character.

2. Be between the ages of fourteen and a half and sixteen, and be able to swim one hundred yards.

3. Obtain the Board of Trade Sight Certificate for both form and colour vision. This certificate can be obtained at the Board of Trade Mercantile Marine Offices in London and chief seaports.

4. Have passed a Medical Examination certifying that they are sound and strong and in all respects physically qualified for employment in the Merchant Navy.

5. Be at least five feet one inch in height

In the selection of boys for admission to the Hostel, the orphan sons of sailors have prior claim.

Fees –

Orphan sons of sailors will be trained free of charge.

Boys from Society’s Sea Cadets Units and sons of sailors at a minimum of five shillings per week, but they should pay more if possible.

Boys not from Units and who have no claim on the Society, not less than ten shillings per week.

On parade at Limehouse with the canal in the background.

The pool in the basement at Newell St, Limehouse where George had the embarrassing experience,

The Capetown Castle

Pals on the Capetown Castle. Front Row – George Wells, Monty Dolan, Alf Everett. Back Row – Jumbo Jingles, Paddy Crawte, Les Harman, Ted Lane, Will Amy.

The Capetown Castle

Alf Everett & George Wells, best pals – Southampton 1939. George later married Alf’s sister.

On Capetown Castle during World War II, George stands on the extreme right.

George’s  Sea Training Society Old Boys’ Association badge.

George Wells, Able Seaman.

With thanks to Cynthia Grant and Prince of Wales Sea Training School for their assistance with this feature.

You may also like to read about Captain Shiv Banerjee

17 Responses leave one →
  1. TokyoDon permalink
    January 26, 2012

    Great piece. Wonderful that you can bring this kind of history to life like this.

  2. Michelle permalink
    January 26, 2012

    Thanks so much, this was a really interesting article to read. I can’t believe the expectations they had of 15 year olds back in those days!

  3. Annie permalink
    January 26, 2012

    What an amazing story – can you imagine anyone willing to train like that these days?!
    But it’s what’s made people of that generation tough.

  4. Barry Smith permalink
    January 26, 2012

    Great Story about George, glad that he could remember it all and photo’s do tell a story. I thought we had it tough.
    Barry PWSTS (Dover)1961

  5. jeannette permalink
    January 27, 2012

    bon voyage, capetown castle!
    the photographs are priceless. thank you, and to mr. wells.

  6. joan permalink
    January 27, 2012

    Can’t tell you how much enjoyment this post gave my mum and I. My dad, who would now be 86, (he died 30 years ago) was in the Merchant Navy serving on the Union Castle line throughout the second half of the war. We were having a laugh last night about how he, a renowned couch potato, would have coped with the regime George experienced. I don’t know where my dad trained – he came over from Ireland as a teenager, settling in Dagenham – but this post has spurred my mum to promise to look out his old papers and find out.

    I was also amused to finally see a photo of the commune swimming pool. I can’t tell you how much I wondered about this as a teenager spending a lot of time in Limehouse Library. I knew of its existence but always imagined it as being something much more glamorous! I remember how racy the whole idea of squatting and communal living seemed to me back in the 1970s. The daughter of the Maltese Prime Minister, Dom Mintoff, was squatting in our street and gained some notoriety from throwing horse manure from the public gallery in the House of Commons.

    And I second Michelle’s comments. Can’t imagine my 14 year old being as capable as George.

    Best wishes,


  7. January 27, 2012

    Fantastic Story!

    The photo of the sea cadets – reminds me of that marvellous display the Columbian Navy gave you, when you open the Tower Bridge.

  8. Peter J Washington permalink
    January 27, 2012

    George, Great story indeed, it also makes me proud as an old boy pf the PWSTS (Dover, Cutty Sark 1968) makes me proud to have an association with my forbears, the don’t make like that any longer.

  9. Andy Gale permalink
    February 4, 2012

    Visit the PWSTS Society web site for further information on the Limehouse building and the Prince of Wales Sea Training Hostel

  10. February 12, 2012

    Great story George (PWSTS Dover 1962) training was hard but set me up for my life at sea,and infact set me up for rest of my life.
    Very few 15 yrs olds would put up with it today.

  11. Barry Templeman permalink
    April 24, 2012

    What a story Iwas there in Dover summer of 1955

  12. Paul Wells permalink
    June 4, 2012

    I actually live in one of the houses now on the former site of the school.

    The best informative piece I have seen on the history of this place. Amazing.

    All the best to George. If he’d like to come and have a cup of tea any time it would be great to meet him.


  13. ben martin permalink
    August 29, 2012

    just found out my grandfather served on the capetown castle a steven martin southampton , unfortunatly he died from cancer around 1980.just thought i would google the ship for some images and history,found your story very interesting george many thanks ben martin grandson.

  14. May 6, 2013

    My grandfather, John Herridge, born 1881, attended this school and also trained on the Arethusa and possibly the Ganges. He married my grandmother in 1906 and was an “engine driver stationary” at that time (crane driver on the docks). Although George’s article was after John’s time, it was a very interesting article and gave me some insight into the training he went through.

  15. Ludo Laerte permalink
    November 22, 2013

    I was wandering if you know someone with the name: Alister Milwaine (Chief Steward).
    I don’t know if the name pernounced right.
    He must have been on the ship arround 1962.

    I hope if you could give information about him or how I can find him.

    Thanks a lot

    Ludo Laerte

  16. mark hardy permalink
    March 22, 2015

    My Late father attended the Prince of wales fr0m 1937 and served through the war in the Merchant Navy leaving in the early 1950s.My Brother went on to attend the School in the early 1970s. We have been trying to piece together his MN service record.A good article full of information.

  17. david permalink
    September 28, 2017

    Hi i found one of the badges like georges in a field near brechin in scotland. Trying to find what it was led me here, thanks now i know.

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