Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/The school frigate, the Akbar


Frigate Akbar as Reformatory.jpg

Up the Mersey, in the Sloyne, far above the Liverpool docks, there is moored off the Rock Ferry, a bluff old frigate bereft of guns, but with all its rigging standing. It forms a strong contrast to the trim and warlike aspect of the noble new ship, the Nile, which floats hard by in all the beautiful symmetry of its lines, and the dignity of its quiet strength.

What is its grim neighbour, the Akbar? It is clearly no longer destined to “brave the battle or the breeze.” A quieter and yet a not inglorious destiny is hers. She is now destined to convert the denizens of our jails, and of the lanes and cellars of Liverpool, and train them for the sea. She is, of all our Reformatories, the most hopeful.

Having hailed a boat at the landing stages, we soon arrived alongside her starboard gangway. A cluster of boats, of all sizes, belonging to the ship, are moored there. We ask for, and at once receive admission from the young “look-out” man of the watch, and are speedily met and greeted with a hearty welcome from Captain Fenwick, R.N., the superintendent.

The entire ship is devoted to the training and accommodation of the lads, and the berths of the officers. These consist of Captain Fenwick, the chaplain, the boatswain, Mr. Perkins, and the schoolmaster and five men. There is also a carpenter, who has a large shop in the forecastle. We found about 130 lads, nearly all of them previously convicted criminals, the average number being 144. They are taught every department of elementary seamanship such as lads are capable of learning. These are chiefly furling and loosing the sails, reefing, making gaskets and sinnet, heaving the lead, drawing and knotting yarns, rowing, sailing, and carpentering. In addition to this they make all their own clothes. They have made, in last year, 976 pieces of clothing, 180 pairs of new shoes, and 276 pairs have been repaired; and have also made 18 sea-chests, besides 3 tons of oakum. The chief labour is that of rowing. They are freely entrusted with the boats, and row constantly, and they have to fetch all the water, a distance of two and a-half miles, daily.

This is real work, and tough work too. Exercise of thew and muscle is the very marrow of reformation. I believe that the actual good done by Reformatories is to be accurately tested by this single criterion. Bodily indolence and Paphian habits are the features of thiefdom, and nine-tenths of these lads were not only thieves, but reared as thieves. They have never learnt the full use of any portion of their limbs but their fingers. It is ludicrous to see—especially when they first arrive at Reformatories—what girlish habits they have; and, in a great measure, the habits of effeminate girls. They give themselves up as about to die on slight illnesses; are wholly unable to bear pain or endure physic, and wrap themselves up and shrink from the cold, for which they seem to have an extra hatred above the ordinary preference of the rest of Anglo-Saxon mankind for foul over fresh air. Their sensitiveness and jealousies are keen in proportion to their effeminacy. But so also are their sympathies and affections. Though his discipline is strict, it is upon these that Captain Fenwick relies as the fulcrum of all the other agencies of reformation. They give the lever its whole power. As a pleasing proof of this, Captain Fenwick being overdone lately with his work, had been absent for about three months to recruit, but returned scarcely recovered. The boys crowded round him, expressed the most intense delight at his return, and volunteered a promise that they would give him no trouble whatever if he would stay with them; and he says that the whole establishment kept their word and behaved unexceptionably.

The state of discipline appeared to be excellent. The chief offences to be coped with, are want of perseverance, recurrence to their own listless habits, and an intense love of chattering together on all occasions. Insubordination rarely shows itself, and is very easily put down by firmness without recourse to force. On one occasion seven new boys came in from another reformatory, and were soon after found in the forecastle comfortably smoking their pipes, a forbidden luxury.

“Hollo!” shouts the boatswain, “what’s the rig here? This won’t do.”

“What won’t do? We are only a havin’ a bit of a smoke.”

“But I tell you that won’t do here—so avast at that.”

“We smoked where we come from, and we shall smoke here.”

They all seven puffed on with increased vigour, with a dogged look, and that in their eyes which boded no good for discipline.

“Put those pipes down this moment.”

The scowls and puffs continued unabated. The boatswain saw it was now or never. The result of the experiment would be no secret. The discipline of the ship was at stake. The boatswain is a strong, broad-chested, resolute man, not given to dally with emergencies. In one moment a well-aimed blow from his clenched fist tumbles the spokesman wrong side upwards, pipe and all, into the corner. The other six, at first taken aback, bristle up, waver, look fierce, think twice, and put down their pipes.

“Now, mind—no more smoking,” and the boatswain left them to their own reflections on the discipline of the Akbar.

They gave little trouble in future.

It seems to be the habit of reformatories to pass their worst coin on one another. An overgrown “juvenile” was pointed out, who came with a high reputation for his pious propensities. He was obedient and of the devoutest demeanour, but was shortly afterwards found to be very immoral.

There was once a mere conversation touching mutiny. The matter was made known to the superintendent, who ordered the whole band likely to have been at all affected, to appear before him, and addressed them nearly as follows:

“I hear you have been chatting about mutiny. It will perhaps be as well to think twice before; you try it. It is quite true that we have no fire-arms or cutlasses on board, because we don’t want them, or mean to use them: but the moment your mutiny begins, a signal from us brings a couple of gigs full of men-of-war’s men from the Hastings, with their coxswains and cats, who will at once administer two dozen to each of you mutineers to begin with. Now, go back to work, like good lads, and let us hear no more of mutineering.”

And no more was heard of it. The pattern-boy from —— Reformatory has ceased to be dangerous; though he will never make a sailor.

Music is a great auxiliary to the system. A band has been formed, which plays famously on cornets à pistons, with drums, fifes, &c. They keep perfect time, and play with taste, and even with expression. This acquirement makes them very serviceable in the army, and is indeed forming one of the most expeditious modes of getting the pauper boys in the great District School near Croydon, into lucrative employment. Captain Fenwick has also taught his lads to chant, leading them with an harmonium; and few cathedrals need have been ashamed of their performance of Jubilate or the Magnificat. I was vastly struck by the quiet, decorous, yet earnest demeanour of the lads during the time they were thus engaged. I can readily believe in the effect which music, sacred and secular, must have on the hearts of these children, and how very powerfully it must open avenues to the access of those various kindly influences which Captain Fenwick addresses to their love and confidence.

An Irish boy whose general conduct was careless in the extreme, but who had never committed any great fault since his admittance, or (as far as could be ascertained) told a falsehood, fell suddenly from the maintop to the deck (about fifty feet), and smashed his lower jaw. Instead of crying out in pain, or for help, his first expression, in a voice hardly audible from pain and mutilation, was: “How thankful I am that He has spared my life, and I such a miserable sinner!”

The great advantages of floating reformatories are such as recommend them for general adoption. There is no means so good for thorough industrial discipline, both of a healthy and a useful kind, while the little floating island in which the community lives, powerfully enhances discipline. I wonder that others are not established in the Medway, at Milford, and in the Plymouth Waters, the Humber, &c. There are plenty of suitable hulks for the purpose. The boys, when fit, can be drafted into the Queen’s ships only by special favour, but readily into the army and the merchant service. Some are now on board the Hastings, who were trained in the Akbar. Thus the great difficulty which stands at the further end of all reformatory treatment—how to provide for the reformed cases—has no existence in the Akbar.

The results of the system are thus stated. Since the commencement, in 1856, when boys were first received, sixty-nine have been discharged: of these thirty-one are favourably reported; six are fairly reported: badly reported—relapsed into crime, one: left their ships without cause, seven; but it is stated that five were well and highly spoken of, and have gone to sea in other vessels; a desertion by no means in excess of those of apprentices in the merchant service: nineteen are not yet reported of. This is a fair and, no doubt, a true account, which is much more than can be said of some of the obviously inflated accounts put forth by some other reformatories. Nothing is more difficult than to test the reality of reclamation; but if a lad is fairly launched in life, and goes on steadily for a time, that is a great achievement. If he relapses afterwards, he does so just as any other human being may: and if one half, or even thirty per cent, of the lads benevolently aided, thus far repay the efforts of their benefactors, reformatories are among the most effectual of our public philanthropies.

I observed some aristocratic names among the inmates, such as Stanley, Cavendish, Ratclyffe, &c., and the countenances of many bespoke more than a dash of gentle blood.

The instruction is plain, and suitable to the future wants of the lads, and quite free from the excrescences which often grow on our National Schools.

A great part of the success of the system results from the admirable manner in which the lads are watched at night. Where this is not done, and where they are herded, bedded close to each other in dark rooms, without perfect surveillance, I believe that infinitely more corruption takes place at night than the whole day’s discipline can counteract. The boys in the Akbar are formed into divisions—port and starboard watches—each of these again, is divided into sub-divisions; each of these has a first and second captain over it, selected from the leading names on the tablet of trustworthy boys; and these, together with the assistant purser’s stewards, and the cook’s mate, all are made to rank as petty officers.

These sub-divisions sleep as well as mess together, and form separate little companies, of whom the captain is the head; and he is responsible, to a certain extent, for the conduct of the boys under his charge. They all sleep together in their hammocks, in the cock-pit, which is well-lighted at night: and all night long, not only is there an officer always in command of the watch, but one of the boys parades up and down on each side of the long row of hammocks, having one hour watches, the whole night through. All talking is forbidden, and, what is more, effectually prevented.

The expenses of the establishment are now more than defrayed by the grant of seven shillings per week from the Home Office, per head; the subscriptions and the produce of the boys’ labour, leaving for last year a surplus of about 300l.

On leaving the ship, we were pulled to the Packet Station at Rock Ferry in gallant style by the boys in a handsome four-oared gig. If there was a land reformatory for spade husbandry in the neighbourhood of such reformatories as the Akbar, it would effectually meet the need of all classes of criminal youths, and by thus cutting off the supply of crime in the bud, the good done would be incalculable. It is scarcely possible to overrate the importance of selecting a man of high moral tone, combining pluck and kindness of disposition for the work. Everything depends on the superintendent, for the tone of his personal influence, is everywhere felt throughout the community. No ephemeral amateur zeal, or mere paid service, can effect reformation. I had almost forgotten to say, that the diet must be good. I know cases where it is almost prison fare. On board the Akbar, they give four ounces of meat daily, one pint of soup, with plenty of biscuit, rice, or potatoes. I have small faith in economical philanthropies: the bodily labour required gives appetite, and not to supply it is to generate a low, physical condition, the sure forerunner of moral decline. We must look forward for reimbursement. The prevention of crime is worth a high price: it will be no permanent expense.

Jelinger C. Symons.