Sunday, 12 January 2014

Lost at sea?

As one of the comments left during the Midwinter Blog Hop confirmed, families being forced apart in times of hardship was not uncommon. When Charles Gabriel Baker died in Australia in 1868 (read his story here) and his wife Susan returned to England, their four sons were separated. The youngest, Frank Chittenden Baker was only 3 years old and stayed with his mother but the other boys were sent to different orphanages and schools.

Later records suggest that Frank and his brother Harry Morris, two years older than Frank, remained in contact in later life, but the whereabouts of the two elder brothers is still not clear.

I found the eldest brother, Charles Alfred Baker (known in the family as Alfred) on the 1871 census, 3 years after the tragedy, aged 12, listed as an inmate of King Edward's School, in Godalming, Surrey. His place of birth was recorded as Stevenage, Hertfordshire, though the family were actually living in Lambeth at the time. He was baptized at St Mary's the Less, as his father taught music at the school there. Whether his mistake was because he'd been too young when the family moved to Stevenage to genuinely remember where he'd been born or whether he had other reasons why he'd given Hertfordshire as his place of birth, is impossible to say.

King Edward's School was originally founded in 1553 and was known as Bridewell, after Edward VI gifted Bridewell Palace to be used to house destitute children in London. Initially the school provided trade and domestic skills to boys, and later girls. Spinning and weaving along with other skills were taught, as well as basic education of reading, writing, grammar and music. It also had a strong naval tradition.

A few years before Alfred joined, the boys' school had moved to Surrey (the girls stayed in London) and was renamed after its original benefactor, though the principles of the school remained.

I was given permission by the school to access their admission book in The Guildhall Library in London. It showed that Alfred had arrived at the school in February 1871, having spent the previous two months working in an ironmongers shop. His character on admission was noted as being "difficult to control", though on a positive note, he was reported as a "good shoemaker".

Alfred's stay at the school lasted two years until he was 15. He was discharged on October 6th 1873 and sent to join the Royal Navy, training on HMS Vincent, in Portsmouth.

Training ship similar to St Vincent (

The tradition for giving orphans and poor boys the opportunity to pursue a naval career dates back to the mid 18th century when the Royal Navy found itself short of volunteers at the start of the Seven Years' War. With the rise in population and an increase in poverty and destitution in the 19th century, there was no shortage of suitable candidates to fill similar roles, at a time when Britain was reliant on its ships for both trade and defence.

Poor Alfred would no doubt have found life hard on HMS Vincent. At the time he became a "trainee", the navy's reputation for excessive discipline, especially with the dreaded 'cat' (cat-o-nine-tails), was notorious. Statistics for HMS Vincent showed that there were 14 floggings on board in 1864, the highest number amongst the training ships listed.

The Cat-o-nine-tails

Concerned at the Navy's poor PR, and perhaps conscious of a recent scandal of excessive punishment of boys aboard the Trident in 1861, the Admiralty appointed Commander Ryder to investigate a year later. In contrast to the increasing discomfort of politicians and reformers, comments and letters from ships' captains to Ryder clearly show that such discipline was considered vital in keeping control of the boys and to ensure the appropriate 'motivation' in their becoming worthy seamen.

Boys on HMS "St Vincent" in 1868
courtesy of Colin Farrell

Nevertheless, Ryder's report did result in discipline being standardised and use of the 'cat' being forbidden on young boys. However regulations only applied to instances of formal punishments. Casual or on-the-spot discipline was not covered and anecdotal evidence suggests the use of alternative instruments of flagellation continued. Would Alfred, once described as "difficult to control" have found himself subjected to such punishments?

To date, I have no information as to what happened to Alfred afterwards. How long did he remain in the Navy? Did something befall him at sea? So far I've not located a death certificate for him.

As usual, as one part of the story is told, there is more is yet to uncover...


Information on discipline in the Royal Navy can be found at World Corporal Punishment Research,

The history of King Edward's School can be found here.


  1. Should it not be 1868 ? on the Photo

    1. Well spotted, Pam! I've corrected it now. Thanks for pointing it out. ;-)