The Navy League

Wallasey's Sea Training Home

The former Royal Navy training vessels which were moored in the River Mersey are well recorded in both word and pictures on the internet. These were once 'wooden walls', sailing ships which had served in the fleets of Victorian Britain and looked very much like the ships in which Nelson had achieved his famous victories.

Perhaps best remembered was HMS Conway on which many future Royal Navy officers received their first introduction to nautical life. A similar establishment was HMS Indefatigable, a charitable institution founded in 1864, which provided to train boys in poor circumstances to become merchant seaman, while the Akbar was a reformatory ship for protestant boys and the Clarence served a similar purpose for Roman Catholic 'Young Offenders'. The Clarence suffered the fate of being burned down to the waterline by its inmates in January 1884!

Navy League Map

Perhaps less well remembered was the sea training establishment based on land in Liscard. Wallasey, and which was known by all, locally, as 'The Navy League'. Firstly, it has to be to be discovered what exactly was meant by 'The Navy League', this term was recalled in as applying in the 1940's to 'The Navy League Sea Cadets', and while Sea Cadets were, and still are, well known, quite what the 'Navy League' part of the 'Homes' title meant, was still a mystery.

The Navy League grew out of a perceived need for promoting and advocating a strong British Fleet. In the Victorian reign imperialist tendencies were more pronounced in several countries, including Germany and other European 'Great Powers'. In Britain there was a firm belief in this country's status as world peace keeper and upholder of a superior Empire. In 1894, a series of newspaper articles set about raising the awareness of the importance of the sea to Britain and a reaction to these was the formation of the British Navy League with the purpose of lobbying the Government to maintain Britain's lead over other countries so far as naval power was concerned, and in particular to increase the number of 'Dreadnought' type battleships being built in order to keep ahead of naval construction in Germany.

Navy League Morning Prayers Navy League Gun Crew

At the same time, Britain's mercantile marine was easily the largest in the World, and with particular importance locally, fully one seventh of all the world's shipping was registered in Liverpool. Commentators lamented the fact that Britain's demand for seamen was so great that suitable crewman were not available in sufficient numbers from 'home grown' sources and as a result foreign seaman were having to be employed, while, at the same time, large numbers of potentially useful British youths were unemployed due to their lack of suitability for a sea going life.

It was against this background that The Navy League, with its dedication to keeping Britain's superiority in both the Royal Navy and the Merchant Marine, decided to set up a shore establishment to train these boys for a sea going life, with an emphasis on the discipline necessary for both services, and where better than on Merseyside, the home port to so many British ships.

The Navy League decided to set up its Merseyside training establishment in Liscard, Wallasey, and chose one of the 'mansions of old Wallasey' for the location of the sea training school. 'Clifton Hall', in Withens Lane, had been built in 1844 and had, for many years been the home of a succession of wealthy local people. Many had these has close connections with the sea going life of Merseyside, being shipowners or otherwise being involved in the maritime commerce of the port. One of the last of these was a Captain John Herron who was at one time Chairman of the Wallasey Local Board and after whom one of the Wallasey's Council's Mersey ferryboats was named. After the death of Captain Herron, his son sold Clifton Hall and approximately five acres of surrounding land to The Navy League for £28,000. A foundation stone was laid on the 18th October 1902 by Lord Strathcona and the 'Lancashire and National Sea Training Home For Poor Boys' was opened on the 2nd October 1903, although the 'poor' was dropped in 1916.

Navy League Presentation

The homes were originally intended for poor homeless boys between the ages of thirteen and sixteen who had to be of good character and conform to the physical standards laid down. Friends of the Navy League could donate £25 to endow a hammock at the home , but some donated £500 for a hammock for ever. There was an impressive list of sponsors of the establishment and donations and gifts were frequently welcomed. In addition to Clifton Hall, which became the home of the Captain Superintendent, a number of buildings were erected in what had previously been the grounds of the house. Some of these additions were built over a period of time but as it fullest extent the campus consisted of, besides Clifton Hall, The Liverpool Navy League Home, The Cheshire >>>

Home, The Hertfordshire Navy League Home, The Sir Alfred Jones Memorial Home, The Heath Harrison Technical Instruction Wing, and The SirAlfred Read Gymnasium. Instruction was given to the boys in Mathematics, Science, Geography, English, History, Seamanship, Boatwork, Signaling, Rule of the road at sea, Wood and Metal work, Physical Training, Boxing, Swimming and outdoor sports. As can be imagined, with a large complement of boys, much of the space was devoted to dormitories, and in its later years, after the 'Navy League' had left Wallasey, and when the buildings had been adapted for use as a Further Education College, 'Old Boys' would visit and locate their former 'bed spaces' in the classrooms.

The intention was that once they had reached the requisite age, the trainees would be placed in either the Royal Navy or with a shipping company of Britain's Merchant Marine. For example, Hertfordshire had sent 67 boys to the School for training up to the end of 1914. Out of this number 13 had entered the Royal Navy, 2 joined the Royal Navy School of Music, 24 went into the Merchant Navy, 7 were taken away from the School as unsuitable and 21 were still undergoing training.

Navy League and Instructors

The list of subjects quoted above gives an idea of the regime which prevailed at the School and given that the instructors were ex Navy personnel, there would be no doubt that discipline would be strict. The need for discipline would be very necessary for those who would go to sea, in both, the Royal Navy and the Merchant Service. A series of photographs, taken at the time for a national magazine shows not only indoor instruction in the classrooms and workshops, but also such activities as gun crew drill and bayonet practice. Religion, still very much a mainstay of society was not neglected and Church Parades, to the nearby St. Mary's Church was a regular feature.

The boys of 'The Navy League' were a well known presence in Wallasey. The establishment maintained a fine 'silver band' composed of some of the boys themselves. This often took pride of place at various local events and prominent amongst these were the Gala Day and Tattoo which was a great event in the summer. As many of the boys did not have families the Home invited neighbouring families to come along. Deck chairs would be placed for people to sit and watch the events. A local resident recalls pillow fights over water, a 'slippery board', rather like 'walking the plank' and a greasy pole. At the end of the afternoon prizes would be given to the winners by the Commander, who dressed in full uniform complete with sheathed sword. Of course, the band, attired in naval uniform, played throughout.

Navy League Band

Nautical activities played a large role in the life of the boys and none more so than the traditional naval discipline of rowing. There was scope for practice on the waters of the nearby docks, or on the River Mersey itself. The school had an eight oar gig, which beat everything in sight, including the Indefatigable. In the Report of the Indefatigable for 1939, it was stated that 'A cutters race against the Lancashire & National Sea Training Homes was won by them'. (The Liscard boys). In tune with the nautical theme, on the Drill Ground there had been built a scaled down sailing ship with a mast to enable the boys to practice climbing and sailwork.

The Homes continued to provide training throughout the years, a report in 1917 showed that out of a total of 497 boys, 195 went into the Royal Navy and 302 into the Merchant Service. During the 1920s and 1930s, the trainees were a very visible presence in Wallasey but by the end of the 1930s, war clouds were beginning to gather. The boys had to dig up land at the back of the Homes so that air raid shelters could be built. Air raid precautions were practised and early in the war a large bomb fell near to the gymnasium and one of the dormitories and of course the risk of loss of life to the boys was too great to contemplate by allowing them to remain in Wallasey. Following the air raid the Officer in Charge sent all of the boys to their respective homes and they were recalled in October 1941, not to Wallasey, but to Ravencrag, Howtown, near Penrith. The officers reported back to Ravencrag, with the exception of the Cheif Officer who stayed at the School in Wallasey to receive boys en route to the Royal Navy or the Merchant Navy Shipping Pool.

By 1943 it had been decided that a merger of the Lancashire and National with their old rivals, the Indefatigable would be beneficial. As with the other training ships in the Mersey, the Indefatigable School had been evacuated, in their case, to Ruthin.

The joint school, after the war, re-convened at Plas Llanfair in Angelsey The Wallasey premises passed into the hands of Wallasey Corporation who intended to re-open it as a Further Education College. During surveying operations it was found that Clifton Hall, the former nucleus of the School, was riddled with damp and it was subsequently demolished. Some of the School buildings shown in the old photographs also disappeared, but enough was left of the establishment for 'old boys' to identify familiar locations. Following a recent reorganisation of Further Education, the Wallasey site was declared surplus to present day requirements and all of the buildings were demolished. Today there is no evidence of the Hall, or of the School but memories remain of a now long vanished part of Wallasey's history.

by John Saville
'The Making of Seamen' by Norman W Howell, 1997
'Almost an Island' by Noel E. Smith
'The Old Mansions of Wallasey' by J.S. Rebecca
Personal recollections - Noel. E. Smith, Harry Nickson and Dr. Peter S. Richards.

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