At the start of the 20th Century Britain needed at least 10,000 boys to receive pre-sea
training to meet the requirements of the Royal and Merchant Navies. The Training
Ship 'Mercury' was one of over thirty pre-sea training establishments founded during
the Victorian period to meet this need. These ranged from fee-paying training ships
for prospective officers in the Merchant Navy to reformatory ships for juvenile delinquents
who mostly joined the navy as seamen or stokers. 'Mercury', however, was the only
privately owned establishment training boys for both the Royal and Merchant Navies.
T.S. 'Mercury' was founded on the south coast of England in 1885 by Charles Hoare.
Charles was born in 1847 into a wealthy London banking family and went on to become
a senior partner in the business. In addition, as well as being a patron of the arts
and a friend of the Prince of Wales, he was also an exceptionally keen sportsman.
He played cricket at county level and was a well known Master of Foxhounds. Furthermore,
he was a keen yachtsman and it is probably this latter interest together with his
charitable interests that were major influences on him founding the 'Mercury'. In
those days boys could get sea training in one of two ways. Firstly, if a boy's parents
were wealthy they could pay the full fees to an appropriate training ship. Alternatively,
if their circumstances were dire enough, a local authority may pay their fees or
they may be sent to one of the reformatory ships. Charles Hoare's intention was to
address those that fell between these categories by providing free (or nearly free)
schooling and nautical education to boys between the ages of 12 (when compulsory
schooling ceased) and 15, which was the minimum age for enlistment in the Royal Navy.
The school was initially housed in the barque "Illovo" (which had been renamed 'Mercury')
and was moored at Binstead on the Isle of Wight. It was aboard this ship that the
school went on its one and only cruise. 'Mercury' set sail for the Mediterranean
in 1888 and wintered in Villefranche on the Cote D'Azur returning safely in March
In 1892 'Mercury' move to the River Hamble near Southampton. In conjunction with
this move, land ashore had been acquired and the beginnings of the shore based element
of the school started.
In 1908 Charles Hoare died and the 'helm' of 'Mercury' was taken over by his friend,
the famous scholar and cricketer Charles Burgess Fry. Beatrice Holme Sumner had helped
Charles Hoare found the school and had worked alongside him throughout those early
years. CB had, in fact, been married to Beatrice since 1898. As a result, CB and
Beatrice ran the school together from then on with Beatrice taking a prominent role
until her death in 1946 (CB died in 1956).
The original ship was supplemented in 1914 with H.M.S. President which, at the time,
was a Naval Reserve drill-ship moored in West India Docks, London. President had,
in fact, been launched as the sloop, H.M.S. 'Gannet' in 1878 and was one of the generation
of 'Down Funnel, Up Screw' ships. She had served with the Royal Navy and seen action
in the Red Sea during the war in the Sudan. She had been loaned to the school by
the Admiralty following an inspection of 'Mercury' by the then First Lord of the
Admiralty, Sir Winston Churchill and was towed to the school by the battleship, H.M.S.
"Queen". Illova was finally sold in 1916.
Even though the ship really only acted as a dormitory for the school (the boys slept
in hammocks), she became a central and key part of 'Mercury'. She was, in fact, its
heart. In the winter she was bitterly cold. For example, in spite of the later addition
of so-called 'central heating' it was still not uncommon for boys to find ice on
their hammocks when coming aboard at night. But conversely, on a warm summer's morning
there was nothing better than to wake up and see the river reflected in the roof
above and to hear the sea gulls. It would be true to say that in the winter 'Mercury'
had the appearance of a Gulag whilst in the summer it resembled a holiday camp.
Following the deaths of Beatrice and CB, the school continued under the guidance
of Commanders Bradby and Hoyle. After training over 5000 boys, it was Commander Hoyle
who had the misfortune to have to oversee the closure of the school in July 1968
due to the economic realities of the modern world. In fact, the era of the training
ship was over as, within a few years, most of the other similar establishments also
closed. Throughout its 83 years the school enjoyed the encouragement and interest
of members of the royal family, eminent politicians and distinguished naval officers
including Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten of Burma who was president of 'Mercury'
for the last two decades of its existence.
The school was prominent in the lives of the local people. The boys in uniform were
an everyday sight around Hamble and the local villages. In particular, the T.S. 'Mercury'
band was a favourite for local carnivals and fetes. Also, they could hardly miss
the so called 'hulk' on their lovely river. Certainly the corrugated iron topping
given to President in its 'drill ship' days did little for the graceful lines of
the former H.M.S Gannet or the River Hamble.
H.M.S. President was returned to its rightful owners and after many years of uncertainty
eventually found a home at the Historic Dockyard, Chatham where she can be seen today
(as H.M.S. Gannet) restored and open to the public. Her very existence today is due
mainly to her association with 'Mercury' and the way she was kept in a state of hibernation
on the River Hamble from 1914 until 1968. However we should not forget those dedicated
individuals who kept up the good work in those years of uncertainty following the
school's closure when the ship languished in Portsmouth Harbour looking for a benefactor.