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George Wells, Able Seaman

November 1, 2019
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

Their 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.

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. Lesley Spencer permalink
    November 1, 2019

    Great read. My dad was on the Bloemfontein Castle. First Engineer. Lesley Spencer. I believe it caught fire in the Atlantic and it took three days to put the fire out. Scary. He was only 23 I believe.

  2. Paul Loften permalink
    November 1, 2019

    I was twelve years old and had two friends who persuaded me to join the local sea cadets. They gave me a sailors uniform with hat and a bugle. I liked the uniform and the hat but found the rough woollen bell bottomed trousers unbearable and couldn’t find the wind to blow the trumpet whist marching around . I returned the uniform and told them I was going to Texas to join my sister. It was about the only thing that I could think of to get out of it honourably. George had it in his blood it must have been a great life!

  3. November 1, 2019

    My favourite story of all that I have read on Spitalfields Life! “counterpane”!!! Have not heard that word since my days at summer camp as a cadet in the Royal Canadian Sea Cadet Corps (RCSCC Magnificent, named for the aircraft carrier). I wonder if his were blue and white check as were ours? Regardless, Mr. Wells’ training would have stood him in good stead for all his endeavours in life, I have no doubt. Hard work, strict self-discipline, and a good, honest work ethic are, I am sure, hallmarks of this gentleman’s life. Well done, sir, I salute you.

  4. November 2, 2019

    George Wells, Able Seaman had a Wonderful life!! God Bless!!😘🥰😊💖💝💞👼

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    November 3, 2019

    Fascinating story and great supporting material – his report card especially shows how well he did at the training school.

    I would like to know more about his time during the war when the merchant navy were the unsung heroes keeping this country alive.

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