National Nautical School
The Training Ship Formidable came in to being in 1869 after several Bristol businessmen petitioned the Admiralty to lease them an ex Naval Vessel for the training of young boys as Seamen.
They had been concerned for some time that there were a lot of Street Arabs, or Urchins who were not doing themselves (or society) any good by following the sort of lifestyle which seemed to be their lot if they remained on the streets. Eventually, HMS Formidable was leased to the group of businessmen led by a Mr. Henry Fedden. The vessel was towed around to Portishead in the Bristol Channel, and anchored about four hundred yards off the pier there. When she first arrived there, she was the centre of much local attention, and excursions were organised by the committee in order to raise the money (about £3.000) that had been needed to convert her for use by the boys, and to tow her to Portishead from Sheerness.
The ship was opened by the Reverend Charles Kingsley, author of "Westward Ho", and the first boys went aboard in December 1869. The school could cater for up to 350 boys at a time. Life aboard was hard, and traditional Naval Discipline was practiced.
The ship lay at anchor for the next thirty years, when a very strong gale damaged some of the timbering, and made further life on board quite risky. Plans for a shore establishment were drawn by a Mr. Edward Gabriel, and the National Nautical School was built on a magnificent sloping site overlooking the Bristol Channel, and about two miles from Portishead Village.
Early in 1906 the first boys moved in to the new school, and in May of that year, it was officially opened by HRH Princess Christian of Schleswig-Holstein. At first the boys slept in hammocks in the four dormitories, then beds were put in there, and the number of boys reduced to 52 per dormitory.
As on the ship, boys between the ages of 10 and 15 were accepted for training. Not all boys trained for sea, nor did all boys go into the Royal Navy. Many boys went into the Merchant Navy.
All sorts of boys were sent there, some from the courts, and some from orphanages. There were even some "Voluntary" boys there.
Until the age of fourteen, boys attended regular academic school classes. After the age of fourteen, they were moved up into Seamanship Classes. Not all boys went in the Merchant or Royal Navies. Many went into "civil" careers and jobs.
Whilst the Training School was a ship, I have records which show that at least 41 boys between the ages of 11 and 15 died there from one cause or another, some from drowning. Once the "ship" became a shore establishment, the mortality rate mercifully decreased so that between 1906 and 1929, some 15 boys died there. In 1941, 2 boys died, one from illness, and the other death was the result of an accident.
At some time in the thirties, the school came under the auspices of the Home Office. I went there in 1938 as an 11 year old boy. I left there in March 1942 at the age of fourteen years and seven months to join the Merchant Navy. I was still in (academic) school classes, and had never attended a Seamanship class. By 1942, the minimum age was at about thirteen. By the fifties, the minimum age was fifteen, and I believe it went even higher in the years before the school closed in 1983.
At some stage between the 1960's and the time it closed, the "Bristol" was dropped from the establishment's name, and it became known as the "TS Formidable".
The school was closed, and the last boys moved out in 1983. The site languished for a year or two and was badly vandalised. Eventually, a Developer bought the site, but because the building is a "Listed" building, it can't be pulled down completely, and the developer had to preserve the magnificent façade of the building which faces the Bristol Channel. It has now been converted into luxury flats that sold at one time at prices ranging from £40,000 to £150,000 each. The development is known as "Fedden Village".
The monies gained from the sale of the school were vested in "The Portishead Nautical Trust". The Trust aims to: ".relieve and assist young people under the age of 25 who suffer deprivation, poverty, financial hardship or difficulty, parental neglect, lack of control or other misfortune." At the discretion of the Committee, funds can be made available for worthwhile causes that will further the interests of young people.
There is no doubt that the "Formidable" played an important role in the social and historical development of the Bristol area. It became the receptacle for the "Street Arabs and Urchins" of Bristol, In doing so, it performed a two fold job in helping to clear the streets of these children, and later providing (at least a partly trained) labour force for the then burgeoning British Royal and Merchant Navies.
Surviving records of BTS Formidable and the National Nautical School have been deposited at the Bristol Record Office.
The Formidable Nautical School, Portishead, 1906.