Talk on Training Ships

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HHT-Birch-29.01.14-wA CHANCE meeting in the graveyard of Rhu Church led to a villager researching the Training Ships Cumberland and Empress.

John Birch, who lives in Cumberland Terrace, met ex-Provost Billy Petrie in the graveyard, where some of the staff and pupils of the ships are buried — and their chat inspired him to find out more.

The ex-Provost, an honorary member of Helensburgh Heritage Trust, was in the audience at Helensburgh Tennis Club on Wednesday evening to hear Mr Birch reveal his findings in the Trust’s first open winter talk of 2014.

The ships were moored in the Gareloch off Kidston Point from 1869 for 54 years.

The first was HMS Cumberland, after which Cumberland Avenue in Helensburgh and the much older Cumberland Terrace in Rhu were named.

Built in 1871, Cumberland Terrace is a two storey building like a row of cottages.

It was owned at one time by the Clyde Industrial Training Ship Association and used for officer accommodation and to provide a small hospital, and is now all privately owned.

Mr Birch and his wife live in one of the properties which was formerly the home of ship’s tailor John Laird.

The Cumberland, built in 1842 at Chatham, was a 2,214-ton two-deck 70-gun man o'war, 180 feet long, with three masts, and had a crew of up to 620 men.

In March 1854 she sailed to the Baltic Sea as war with Russia was imminent — the Crimean War. Cumberland was involved in the attack on Bomarsund, Finland, in August of that year.

In 1869 she was taken over for use as a training vessel by the newly formed Clyde Industrial Training Ship Association.

The Association had the object of providing for the education and training of boys who, through poverty, parental neglect, or any other cause, were destitute, homeless, or in danger from association with vice or crime.

Originally, boys were trained for entry into both the Royal Navy and the Merchant Service. However, after the Royal Navy decided to accept only boys of good character, the training became more orientated towards the Merchant Navy.

In 1889, the Cumberland was destroyed by a fire, allegedly arson by five of the boys, sold for scrap, and replaced by the Empress, a wooden battleship originally known as HMS Revenge.

Mr Birch said that the wreck was sold at Robert McTear’s Auctioneers in Glasgow for £1,770, because of the value of the scrap metal.

The 3,318-ton Revenge, built in 1859, was 245 feet long and had a complement of 860 men.

Her previous roles had included Flagship of the Channel Fleet in 1863, Second Flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet in 1865, and Flagship at Queenston (1873), as well as coastguard duty at Pembroke and Devonport.

Under the name of Empress she served as the Gareloch training vessel until being sold off in 1923 with, at the peak, 400 boys aboard.

Mr Birch was introduced by Trust chairman Stewart Noble, who also proposed the vote of thanks.

  • John Birch (left) and Billy Petrie are pictured. Photo by Donald Fullarton.