This feature, originally published in Sea Breezes October 2012 issue, was credited incorrectly when originally published on the website. The writer was, of course, Captain Alan Bridger, a past and hopefully future contributor to the magazine. Humblest apologies to the Captain. - Online Ed
In 1862 the first HMS Worcester was handed over by the Admiralty as a training ship establishment, preparing officers for the Royal and Merchant Navies of our country.
This followed the success of the initial trial of HMS Conway three years earlier. At about this time ships officers were often uncouth and not exactly gentlemen in the accepted manner of the day. A system of employing better suited personnel in positions of responsibility was needed, pre-sea training in navigation, seamanship, as well as science, the arts, and languages brought about the introduction of “Conway,” then “Worcester”. Both full rigged 3 masted vessels.
At various sites around the Thames area the training on HMS Worcester continued until 1968, when, due to the decimation of the British flag, and the lack of demand for trained officers, (indeed, training had ceased as flags of convenience were sought by all and sundry) the Thames Nautical Training college, HMS Worcester, (then sited at Greenhithe in Kent), was closed.
During the 106 years three ships carried the name “Worcester”, the final one a purpose built training vessel (ex TS Exmouth). The standard of the training received had become recognised by the Marine World as producing a more educated, better class of officers. Well trained, respectful, with high leadership potential. Many by now well known, indeed some famous names were Worcester cadets. Two went to the Antarctic with Scott. I was one who is not well known, famous, or even worthy of fifteen minutes of fame. A perpetual backbencher then, and still the same now!
My introduction to the ship was in error on my first day. It was April 1950. Wearing my brand new uniform I and a group of other cadets were taken from the shoreside causeway in a large motorised boat. On arrival at the ship side, two gangways led upwards. A queue formed to climb one of them. I chose the other, quite deserted. Big mistake, for that gangway was reserved for the captain and senior officers! A form of punishment followed of course.
For two years I was ill fed (rationing was still in force), regularly beaten by cadet captains for some small misdeed or other (a minority were sadistic bullies), scrubbed wooden decks until they shone, and made to climb the rigging of the 3 masted Worcester, (and the Cutty Sark’s which floated alongside). All with no safety nets! As the ship was a recognised small public school, and a paying one at that, many a doting parent sweated over the demand for fees to pay for all this.
The officers were all ex Navy or Merchant Navy and were impartial to any abusive punishment meted out. They also had their favourites amongst the cadets. These were used to feed them information, often warped or wrong. It couldn’t happen today. Beating and caning are forbidden. Health & Safety would have closed the ship down. I took it all and ignored the treatment, I’d already seen it worse in my young life.
By arrangement with that famous Greenhithe shipping company, Fred Everard (Yellow Peril), I was also allowed to make a five week summer voyage to Sweden & Denmark as a working crew member on one of their ships, not having a home to go to for summer leave. I was knocked into shape, and metamorphosed from a fifteen year old cheeky, disliked, and callow youth, into a respectful, civilised, well mannered seventeen year old ships apprentice, ready for anything the future threw at me. I did not leave with any honours, but was, and still am grateful for what I had become.
I signed indentures with a small shipping company nobody had heard of and landed on my feet. Unlike most shipping organisations of the day (including Royal Mail, P&O, Ellermans, Blue funnel, Shaw Savill, RFA, etc) they treated me well, not as cheap labour, but as one of a large family. With decent human beings as senior officers, I slotted in quickly, leaving the UK and not returning for five years!
So my training was a success, as will the majority of ex cadets admit. I was a 3rd Officer in two years (acting uncertificated), Senior 2nd officer on a 1,000 passenger ship at the age of 22, Chief officer two years later, and in command years earlier than others of my generation.
On leaving the ship every cadet who had served the required amount of terms was invited to join the Old Worcester’s Association, and this old boys club is still going strong. Also we have the Old Worcester Yacht Club, and members are allowed, by permit, to fly the blue defaced Worcester ensign.
2012 is 150 years since the first Worcester started training cadets. Because training stopped in 1868, there are very few ex cadets now still at sea. The last entry of cadets would have been born in, or about the year I left (1952) making the youngest around 60 years old!