Like a Wicked Noah’s Ark – The Nautical School Ships Vernon and Sobraon. By Sarah Luke. Published by Arcadia, an imprint of Australian Scholarly Publishing, Sydney, 2020.
Reviewed by Greg Swinden
As the old saying goes ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’ and this excellent book by Sarah Luke takes the reader back to New South Wales (NSW) during the period 1867 – 1911 and the confronting social problems of orphaned children, burgeoning juvenile crime, inadequate or non-existent parental control, a struggling education system and a colonial Government seeking to take control before it all spirals out of control.
Permanently anchored in Sydney Harbour the nautical school ship Vernon (1867 – 1892), and its replacement Sobraon (1892 – 1911), was the brainchild of NSW politician Henry Parkes who sought a solution to the growing social problems of juvenile crime which was directly linked to poor education and inadequate or non-existent parenting. Part of the overall NSW approach was to create a nautical school ship for boys, in a similar manner to the Worcester in the United Kingdom that trained boys for the Mercantile Marine. Other states including Victoria and Queensland also adopted this method but it was in NSW that the system proved most successful and hence its tenure of 44 years.
For many Sydney-siders of the time the black hulled Vernon reminded them of the English prison hulks of the early 1800s and hence the ‘Wicked Noah’s Ark’ connotation from Charles Dickens book Great Expectations. While many of the boys, some as young as eight, sent to the ships had criminal records others were orphans or those found wandering the streets with no visible means of support or suffering from mental illness. Girls in the same situation were placed in a shore based facility at Cockatoo Island (Biloela). The logic was simple – take the youngsters away from the sources of evil, provide them with proper food, education, clothing and medical care and teach them a trade (i.e. carpentry, tailoring or seamanship) that would be useful in later life. It was intended that with education and skills the boys would become useful citizens and not undertake or return to criminal activities. This book provides many examples of success but equally some notable failures; with some of NSW’s worst criminals and murderers being ex Vernon/Sobraon boys.
The methods used to train the boys are well described with the rewards systems implemented by Captain Neitenstein (1878 – 1896) and continued by Captain Mason (1896 – 1911) proving quite effective (hard work and study bringing more access to sport and leisure activities). The ships band was well known in Sydney for their recitals and some boys later became musicians. Others went on to become notable sportsmen such as rugby league players Clarrie Horder (South Sydney) and William Stirton and Philip Regan who played for Glebe. The swimmer Bernard ‘Barney’ Kieran was a Sobraon boy with several world records to his name before his untimely death in December 1905 from appendicitis. Had he lived he would most likely have attended the 1908 Olympic Games in London. Several boys went to serve in the Merchant Navy and others served in the military in the South African War (1899-1902) and both world wars.
Overall the system worked; but it was expensive and had its detractors. In several cases boys reverted to a life of crime upon leaving the ship, once they had turned 18, and others suffering from mental illness such as schizophrenia were simply in the wrong institution. As to be expected politics played a significant role in the creation, running and eventual demise of the Nautical School Ship and the book is not just about the boys and the ships but the social issues, education, city and country lifestyle and the justice system in late 19th Century NSW. This broad canvas makes A Wicked Noahs Ark a great read and not just for those interested in Australia’s maritime history.
The demise of the Nautical School Ship system in 1911 was seen by many, at the time, as a retrograde step; but newer land based (and cheaper) methods of dealing with poverty induced poor education and juvenile delinquency were enacted. Sobraon was sold to the Royal Australian Navy and in 1912 became the Boys Training Ship HMAS Tingira (a Queensland indigenous word for ‘open sea’) training over three thousand boys for service in the RAN until decommissioned in 1927.
While Vernon and Sobraon are long gone Sarah Luke’s comprehensive and easy to read history of the vessels, their captains, training staff and the thousands of boys (and one girl who disguised herself as boy) who passed through the nautical school ships means this important part of Australian maritime, social, educational and justice system history will not be forgotten.
The role of seagoing nautical training ships has seen resurgence in Australia in many respects since the mid-1980s. The RAN operates Young Endeavour on behalf of the Australian Government and most states also operate sail training vessels (i.e. Leeuwin II, One and All and South Passage) to name but a few. Many of the teenagers and young adults who spend time onboard come from disadvantaged backgrounds and the time at sea gives them an opportunity to move outside of their ‘comfort zone’ and reflect on teamwork rather than self. It would appear that Henry Parkes vision of nautical school ships lives on.