Memories of childhood and RCNS

Ian Devine


BIRTH MOTHER 1933 - 1936

I was born in Edinburgh in 1933 to a children's nurse who was unmarried. She was born and brought up in Inveraray in Argyllshire, Scotland. She was twenty-six years old when I was born and I was her first child. In 1933 there was no state help, and her parents turned her out, it must have been very difficult for her. 

I obviously do not remember my first weeks or months after I was born. I was probably between two and three years of age when I clearly remember being severely beaten, I was maneuvering myself around and around table legs, to avoid a very wicked and vicious beating. These beatings happened on numerous occasions, they stick in my mind as my earliest memory. I have never forgotten the pain and distress I felt. I have no recollection of the reason for the beatings. Soon after one of these beatings I was put into a car and given a banana - both cars and bananas were scarce in 1935/36.

On 6th August 1936, aged 3 years and 3 months, I was taken to a Dr. Barnardo's home in London where I was left, but I have no memory of this first time in the orphanage.

Me aged 3 years at the orphanage.

THE FOSTER HOME 1936 - 1946

On 9th September 1936, aged 3 years and 4 months, I was sent from Barnardo’s in London to a foster home in Suffolk. The first house I lived in was a tiny two-bedroom farm worker’s cottage down a long country lane and several miles from the nearest village. Soon after I was fostered there, we all moved to one of the 'Parkinson houses'. These houses were slightly bigger than the farm worker’s cottage and had three bedrooms. The house was very cold. There was no running water; it had to be fetched in buckets from the stand pump in the village. We had no electricity, we had gaslights with mesh mantels that made a hissing noise as they burned and they gave off a dull yellow light, not a white light like electric lights.

The newer house was still very small. It housed the foster parents in one bedroom and in the second bedroom, as well as me, there were two other Barnardo's children, plus on a regular basis the foster parent’s twin grandsons. In the third very, very small bedroom, my foster parent’s daughter and her husband (parents of the twins) often stayed.

The foster children all slept in one room in a large double bed, some at the top and some at the bottom. If one child wet the bed, we all got wet! Over the ten years several Barnardo’s children came and went. I was the one constant and in the end, the only foster child there


Just before my 13th birthday, my foster mother was diagnosed with throat cancer - many years of walking around with a woodbine cigarette in her mouth had finally caught up with her. The cancer was well advanced and in a very short time, she was being fed intravenously with a tube and a funnel.

In less than one month from the onset of her illness, my foster mother called me to her bedroom, she asked me to kiss her on the cheek and said, "please be a good boy". I went downstairs and within ten minutes, her daughter who was nursing her informed me that my foster mother had died. I remember walking into the garden and crying and sobbing and I could not understand what I would do, nobody came to console me or tell me that they felt sorry. I was just left on my own. My 'Nana' had been the only mother I had known for ten years of my life and I was not considered as part of the family - I was just 'the Barnardo's boy'.

When my foster mother died a local businessman, Ben Cooper made enquiries at Barnardo's about fostering or adopting me. I believe that he wanted to ensure that I had a safe home and security. The Barnardo's organisation did not see it that way. They had the experience of many children being exploited by people taking them in when they were of working age, fourteen or so, and making them work for nothing. With no family to look after the child’s interest this was easy to do. Fear of this meant that the Barnardo’s organisation would not allow any child to be fostered or adopted if they were over 8 years of age. They obviously had no idea how hard I had been made to work as a child.

A few days after my foster mother's death, her daughter informed me that I would be returning to Dr. Barnardo’s home. 'Returning?' I had no memory of being in a children's home. In my mind my home and my family were those of my foster parents and this village was where I belonged. Three days later, in a very distressed state, I was taken to the railway station to be met by a Dr. Barnardo's representative. I remember being on the station and screaming at my foster mother’s daughter "please don't send me away, please let me stay” but to no avail. I was forcefully put on to the train to Woodford Garden City in Essex.    

BARNARDO’S 1946 – 1949


On arrival at the orphanage in Woodford Garden City, where I was unaware that I was to stay for only three weeks, I remember very clearly being taken through a dormitory where there were rows and rows of black babies in small cots. I was totally surprised by the number of babies and the fact that they were all black. It was the first time that I had ever seen a black baby. Now I realize that they were the result of wartime relationships between black Americans and English girls.

I was assigned to a female member of staff and taken to the dormitory where I would be sleeping. I was also taken to the dining room where I would have my daily meals and I was shown to the bathrooms where I was told to strip off and have a shower. I did not have a clue what she was talking about; I had never seen a shower before. She then patiently showed me the controls and how to regulate the hot and cold water. I vividly remember my first shower it was like heaven - to come out of the shower feeling so clean and smelling so sweet. Even though we only had carbolic soap. It was also the first time I had sat on a flush toilet and used proper toilet paper. To me this was a whole new experience, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. I would constantly ask the staff at various times of the day, if I could go and take another shower.

Somehow, all these new experiences gradually helped me overcome the grief I felt at the loss of my foster family.

I was only at Woodford Garden City for three weeks. During these three weeks, I was given the option of learning a manual trade, that of a carpenter, builder, plumber, electrician etc, or I could train to join the merchant navy. One of the masters was a very nice man who had lost all his fingers on both hands. I was amazed at the things that he could still do. He could even fill his smoking pipe and strike matches on a matchbox to light his pipe. One day he sat me down and said, "I want to give you some advice". He said, "The best thing you can do is to go to sea and get to travel the world free of charge - join the merchant navy”.

Taking his advice, I asked if I could go to the Barnardo's naval training school to learn to be a sailor. Still aged 13 I was taken down to Poole, Dorset to a seafarer’s training school run by the Barnardo's organisation - Russell Cotes Nautical Training School.


On arrival at the training school, I was surprised to see that all the male members of staff wore naval officer’s uniform at all times. They were very smart and with their military bearing, instantly commanded respect.

I was immediately sent to the clothing store to be kitted out with the school uniform. I was issued with calico underpants - the first time in my life that I had worn underpants! I also received short navy trousers, a square collared sailor shirt, blue jumper, sailor’s hat and shoes and socks. All second hand, but very clean and smart and new to me.

Having been kitted out, I was asked to stand in line with the other new recruits. I remember standing there in a daze, thinking how my life had changed in three short weeks. I was in a daydream; I was totally unaware of the petty officer boy screaming, “Stand up straight”. Suddenly and without warning, I was punched heavily in the gut and I fell to the floor, writhing in agony and crying and trying not to be violently sick. The petty officer boy screamed at me again “stand up before you get some more”. I got to my feet - holding my stomach and trying hard not to cry again. I was in absolute agony; I did not know what to do. I was screamed at again and quick marched off to the dining room, known by all as the mess room, which we had to use at all times for our meals. I was shown to a place at a table, which would be my regular position for my daily meals.

I had to stand behind a long bench seat and in front of me were a metal bowl and a metal plate, with buttered bread and jam. The whole school was instructed to say grace. I shut my eyes, as I had always been taught to do and when I opened them again there was nothing on my plate. That one experience taught me never to shut my eyes when praying at meal times, nor at any time when there was food involved. I had to stay until the meal was finished, then I was taken to a large house where I was to meet the housemistress and the house mother, both were not old, as my foster mother had been. They were probably in their early forties. The house was large with two dormitories, a large recreation room, a large bathroom area, and private quarters for the staff. There were four of these houses, Howard, Johnston, Arranmore and the senior house, Broughton. I was in Arranmore.

The housemother gave me my school number that was 109. It rhymed with Devine and later on, the other boys constantly referred me to as ‘Divine 109’. I was given a locker for my clothes and allotted a bed space. The rest of the house residents had arrived back by this time. We were all taken into the washroom. My number 109 had been put on a shelf on one side of the washroom and I had also been allotted an aluminum cup and a toothbrush. We were all told to strip off to the waist and wash our hands, face, and neck, and then line up in front of the housemistress. The housemistress then inspected our hands, back and front, and for some reason, our elbows. Special attention was given to the cleanliness of our fingernails.  We were all issued with a small amount of pink toothpaste powder and told to clean our teeth.

Once all ablutions had been completed, all members of the house were allowed into the recreation room for the early evening. The recreation room was furnished with a full sized billiard and snooker table and also a table tennis table. There were many board games and card game such as chess, monopoly, dominoes and snakes and ladders. I sat watching for a while and I quickly noted the routine - the first four boys into the recreation room would grab either the billiard table or the table tennis table. Others had to put their names down on a list; most boys were keen to play the first winner at either of these tables. The games would go on all evening and sometimes the best players would remain on the tables for the whole evening. I practiced a lot through the years, and excelled as a table tennis player. I was also considered good at snooker.

When bedtime was called we were all taken to the dormitory where I was shown my allocated bed space. I was instructed to take all my clothes off and put on a large calico nightshirt which already had my number embroidered on. The rest of my clothes were to be taken away to also have my number embroidered on - this even included my socks. We were lined up at the foot of our beds, the next instruction was to move to the side of the bed and fold the day covers back. This done, we were instructed to get down on our knees and get into a position to pray. The housemistress said the evening’s prayer in a loud authoritative voice. When the prayers were finished we were instructed to get into bed immediately. The housemistress then walked to the doorway of the dormitory and said, "No talking. Lights out ". A bugle sounded for lights out. I soon found out that there was a punishment for talking after lights out. The offending child or children would have to stand in front of an open window for at least one hour. This was the routine for every evening and every day regardless of the weather. I had been used to the discipline of my foster father and I never talked after lights out - that is to say, I had learned never to get caught talking after lights out! Some boys who did get caught were distraught and crying from the cold well before the hour was up, but they were ignored and not pardoned until exactly one hour had elapsed.

One or two of the younger boys still had problems with wetting the bed. Whenever a wet bed was discovered by the housemistress, the boy would be stripped off and marched to the bathroom where he was put in a bath of cold water and scrubbed with a yard brush. This was brutal. Most of the offending boys wept uncontrollably.

Each morning we were awakened by a bugle call, which was called, Reveille and each morning all the boys of the house were given cleaning tasks. The 'tasks' were divided up into the number of rooms we each had to clean, the dormitory, the recreation room area, the landing, the staircase and the washrooms.

After the cleaning chores, we had to wash our hands and face and clean our teeth. We were returned to the dormitory and had to make our beds. All the beds in the dormitory had to be exactly the same. Each bed had to have the blankets and sheets precisely folded and laid in a 'sandwich' formation at the head of the bed. We then had an inspection by the senior petty officer boys. If the beds were not deemed neat enough or uniform enough, the petty officer boy would strip everything off the offending bed and throw the lot across the floor, down the length of the dormitory. The offending boy then had to retrieve the bedding and start from scratch again. There were a number of mean petty officer boys who would throw a boy’s bedding for no reason other than spite. I soon learned to make my bed with precision and avoid eye contact with the petty officer boy on duty.


My first house-cleaning job was with six other boys dusting and cleaning the dormitory floors - all floorboards. Two pieces of blanket for kneepads and large dusters were handed to me. I was then told to get on my knees on the floor and get in line with the other boys. We then had to move the dusters from left to right in timed coordination. The petty officer boy would stand behind us with a broom handle calling out left, right, left, right. If any boy failed to keep in time they were whacked hard, sometimes several times, across the buttocks with the broom handle.

During the week, polishing was relatively straightforward, as the dusters would slide backwards and forwards very easily. On Saturdays this was a very different story as one boy had to go ahead of the line of polishers and put a heavy covering of Ronuk floor polish on the floor before we started. Ronuk polish was a very sticky mass of polish, which made it difficult for the dusters to slide left and right until the polish was finally rubbed well into the floorboards. We had to continue left, right, left right, until a high shine appeared on the floorboards. We worked in sections at a time. We were not allowed to stop until the whole of the dormitory floor had been brought up to a very high gloss.

After one week, each team would be transferred from the dormitory to another area for cleaning. The procedure was the same, working on a rotation system, for the hall stairs and landing, and the recreation area. We all looked forward to the task we considered the easiest option - the bathroom and wash area. There, we were required to hose everywhere down first. The wall tiles were scrubbed with a harsh soap and floor tiles were scrubbed with 'Vim', a gritty powder. All surfaces were then dried and polished until a bright sheen was left.

I found the chores hard, but it was something that all the boys were in together and if one boy slacked, it affected us all. There was a definite feeling of camaraderie even though we had to work in silence and we were constantly watched for misdemeanors. Woe betides any boy who spoke or got out of line or even worse, rebelled. Problems did occur from time to time with new boys, but they soon learned!


Meals were served in the large mess room and complete silence was demanded. One officer, who was in charge of the food store, also controlled all meal times. This officer was disabled, having one damaged leg. He used a walking stick for walking but his other, more frequent use of the walking stick was notorious - if he spotted something being done that he consider wrong, he would either hook the handle end of the stick around the offending boys neck or beat the offending boy with the stick and have him removed from the dining room. The boy would be given no food for the rest of the day. The officer’s demand for utter silence through the whole of the meal was not a problem for me as I had spent ten years obeying my foster father’s order for silence. The food was not good and the portions very small, consequently we growing boys were always hungry.

On a regular basis we were served a horrible yellow soup that we called ‘skilly’. It tasted foul but we always ate it, we were too hungry not to. We would all stand in line by the serving hatch to get served. A bowl of soup was pulled from a hot plate under the countertops and was given one by one to each boy. In turn we would take a bowl to the table where we all waited until everyone had been served. We stood quietly in our place until we were all present and we waited until grace was said, then we could eat. One day a shout went out that there was a rat in the skilly. We were all absolutely horrified and without any preplanning, the whole of the school walked, one by one past the serving hatch and hurled the soup into the kitchen. Within a very few minutes, all the staff rushed to the dining room and we were ordered out on to the parade ground where we were grouped and lined up into our four houses.

As we stood to attention on the parade ground our punishment was read out to us. All evening recreation room activities were cancelled for two weeks, there was to be no leave at weekends for two weeks and the small weekly sweet allowance was also cancelled for two weeks. For two weeks we were also made to constantly polish boots, sweep playgrounds and attend parades.  When we were dismissed from the parade ground, the whole school was made to clean up the mess in the dining hall and in the galley.

Every morning, Monday to Friday, we had to attend assembly in the dining hall; this included all the housemistresses, officers, and the outside teaching staff. Normally the commanding officer would walk into the hall each morning and while we all stood to attention, he walked to the front of the assembled boys and stood behind the lectern. He would remove his hat and say "Good morning to the staff and the boys". We would all reply "Good Morning Sir".

On the morning after the skilly throwing incident. The commanding officer walked in and did his usual routine of saying good morning to the staff and the boys, but this morning the boys, all as one, remained silent, as did the staff!  The commanding officer said, "I will say this once again. Good morning to the staff and the boys” this time only the staff answered "Good Morning Sir". The boys again remained completely silent.

We were all marched to the parade ground, lined up and stood to attention. This time the commanding officer walked up and down the ranks of boys. After some discussion between the commander and the other officers, one boy’s name was called out. He was told to march to the front of the parade. The commanding officer then told the boy that he was considered to be the ringleader of the whole incident and he would be expelled from the school immediately. The boy was then 'drummed out' through the back gates.

I did not know if this boy was the boy who threw the first bowl of skilly or not but he was always loud and boisterous and borderline rebellious. So it was probably him and was probably fair. It also had the 'shock' effect that the commanding officer had intended. We boys had no idea what fate had become him after he left our school. There were no further incidents of this sort during my time at RCNS.

I met this boy some years later in Cape Town, South Africa. He explained that he had been sent to a holding place in London and as he had almost completed his nautical training he was able to get a place on a ship and he became a merchant seaman. I was so pleased to know that he was alright and that his career had not been jeopardised.


If you were a “sporty’ person, every spare moment was taken up with some sports activity. The school had two very large sports grounds. On the sports field we had a lot of track activities. There was a long jump pit, high jump stands, and running tracks. I enjoyed practicing my running skills. I always took part in the school sports day. I was good at short distance running but never any good at long distance. I also took part in putting the shot, as well as high jump and long jump although I was only very average at these.

We had very good sports coaches so in turn we had very good football teams and also excellent cricket teams. I became good at football and was usually chosen for the competitions against outside schools, which were played weekly. I was also lucky enough to be taught to play cricket, which I really enjoyed, and once again was picked for the team when we competed against local schools and colleges. Most competitive matches were played at the RCNS home ground and we very seldom played away. I believe this was because our grounds were maintained to a much higher standard than other local schools.

Mr. Bailey, the school headmaster and sports master, made me responsible for looking after the cricket bats. After each match the bats had to be rubbed down and placed in a large tub of linseed oil. In the summer months, the bats were also rubbed down prior to the cricket match with clean dry rags. When putting the bats away for the winter, they would be rubbed down with an oilcloth and then returned to the barrel until needed again in the new season.

When I arrived at RCNS I could not swim. After the ridicule I had endured from the local boys in Claydon, when I had 'chickened out' of joining them in the river. But now it was essential that I learned to swim if I were to join the merchant navy. Soon after my arrival at RCNS the sports master came to me and said, "You have to learn to swim, Ian”. The school had a very good outdoor swimming pool so all the non-swimmers were given an intensive course of instruction and we all trained and competed between ourselves to become the best swimmers. Once we had learned to swim competently, all through the summer we would have strong competitions between the four houses. By the time l left the school I had become a very confident swimmer.

In the winter when it snowed, we made our own games. We would make long slides. We would compact the snow until it was like solid ice, the object was to make the slide as long and as fast as. We would form teams to compete against each other on the slides and to have snowball fights. We were not allowed into the house or dormitory until supper was called so we had to find a way of keeping ourselves active and warm. Sometimes in the snow and when the wind was freezing cold, we formed 'freezers corner' - this was where we all huddled together in a tight circle and took it in turns to be on the inside. Today it reminds of the Penguins in the arctic all huddled together to keep warm.

Another game we concocted (anything to keep us moving and warm) was forming a circle of boys, with one boy in the middle. One boy on the outside would throw the ball at the boy in the middle trying to hit him, the boy in the middle would try to protect himself from being hit, by using only his flat hand and arm, he was not allowed to catch the ball. It was a fast paced game as each boy jumping around on the outside would want to get the ball and try his luck at hitting the boy in the middle. When the boy in the middle was eventually hit, the boy who had managed to hit the boy then took his place, and so it continued. This game became so popular that it would be played all year round. It was not really what I wanted to do, so I asked to be considered for the gymnastics team.


RCNS had a fully equipped gymnasium and we were also very lucky to have a brilliant gym instructor. On my first visit to the gym I was amazed to see the skills of the gymnastic display team and from then on, my goal was to be good enough to be a part of this fantastic team. In the evenings, instead of going to the indoor recreational room, I requested permission to go to the gym and my request was always granted. Over the period of a year I learned the skills of being a gymnast and then with a lot of practice and encouragement from the instructor, I was accepted into the team. I continued to improve my skills, and eventually was part of the display team that went to village fetes and halls throughout the Dorset area. The team wore long white trousers and white vest with the RCNS badge on the front. We also wore white tennis shoes. Sometimes after the display we were given tea and cake - a real added bonus. There was fierce competition from other boys wanting to be in the team so I continued to work hard to protect and hold on to my position within the team.

In the above photo, I am the boy on the right.


Once I became fourteen, I was considered a 'senior boy' and was moved to the senior house 'Broughton'. After the war with so many servicemen being demobbed, we acquired new staff. Many of the returning ex-servicemen needed housing as well as jobs. We soon had ex-servicemen and their wives as housemasters and housemistresses. Gussie and the other women disappeared. We were not given any explanation. I assume that it was considered more natural to have 'mother and father' replacement figures in the house, rather than the previous arrangement of two women being in charge. The new master and his wife were very fair and discipline was maintained.

After about nine months of living in Broughton house, I was made a petty officer boy. The promotion meant that I had to return to live in Arranmore house and meant that I was now expected to help keep the discipline of the house. With the new changes and atmosphere in the school, I was able to be firm and do my job without the bullying that I had experienced. The new master in Arranmore was an ex-army boxer. He was a good disciplinarian but very fair and kind, his wife was also sympathetic and kind.

Some ex-servicemen had been teachers in their civilian life before the war. With their forces training and teaching skills they were ideal candidates for RCNS so we also acquired new school teachers. The teaching staff lived in their own accommodation in Poole with their families. They were not RCNS staff so they did not live on site, the department of education employed them and they came to work daily. Education at RCNS was basically the same as at any state school but with more discipline. We had to attend all the required lessons from Monday to Friday. Again I do not remember being academically tested at any time. I enjoyed English and my handwriting and spelling were considered good. Everything else I was okay in. Again there was no one to care if I excelled or not. The difference here was that I was also learning so many other nonacademic skills.

The new teachers had more time for us; a number of the new teachers gave up their free time and worked with us in the evenings. They never threatened us with discipline! We were extremely lucky that one of the ex-servicemen, who taught English during the day, felt that it was important socially, that we learned to dance. He had soon realized that as we were an all boys boarding school, we needed to have an easy way to mix with girls out in the 'real' world. He would bring in his own records and we learned the basic steps to the waltz and quickstep. We had to dance around the hall in time with the music, holding chairs! Strangely, the classes were well attended, probably because we had little other access to the popular music of the day.

This same teacher also held a classical music appreciation class on other evenings. Again, well attended. He would play a chosen record and then discuss the music and it's meaning. He would say, "Let the music take you where you want it to". This teacher was also a brilliant batsman and a fast bowler when boys played cricket in the annual game against the teachers and staff.


As I got used to the routine and the discipline of the school, we would be released from our daytime education for half a day once a week to be taught seamanship. Seamanship instruction was increased to full-time schooling once we left normal academic education at fourteen.

There was a large old wooden hut in the grounds, very rustic in appearance. It had been kitted out especially for the purpose of seamanship instructions. We would learn to tie knots, there were many, many, knots we were required to learn, starting with - the reef knot, bowline knot (pronounced 'bough' as in the bow of the ship), half shanks, clove hitch, figure of eight and sheet bend knot. On a lot of occasions a bowline knot would be tied then immediately strengthened by the additional tying of another knot, this was referred to as a double bowline. When we had become proficient with the tying of the knots, we then had to be fully aware of the name of each. In our future life at sea, if we were instructed to tie a bowline knot and we then tied a clove hitch knot, this would have serious implications as with certain types of cord the clove hitch knot can slip when loaded. The instructor would call us out one by one and instruct us to tie a knot of his choosing we then had to explain the knotting procedure and the uses for that particular knot - in front of him and the whole class. Classes were usually between fifteen and twenty boys, depending on the day of the week

Another important lesson was to learn how to splice rope, then made of soft hemp, this eventually lead to the more difficult splicing of wire ropes. We had a number of cut and sore hands until we acquired the skill of handling the sharp wire ends. It was important to have this skill at sea because if the wire slings that were used to lift cargo broke, we had to be capable of making an instant repair.


We learned to semaphore, which is an old traditional way of signaling in the event of radio failure. We had to be able to 'box the compass' this meant we had to be able to memorise each of the thirty two points of the compass starting with North, North by East, North by North East and ending with North by West. We had to be able to state traditional wind points, cardinal wind directions, principle winds, half winds and the eight-quarter winds.


We were trained to lower life boats from 'davits' which are the hooks attached to the ship that lifeboats hang from, a very necessary safety skill on cruise ships with hundreds of passengers and crew. We were taught how to seat people in order to distribute the weight evenly in the lifeboat and we had to know how to teach people to row for themselves. There were no engines in lifeboats at that time. We also had to be able to teach others how to sail the lifeboat if necessary

SAILING IN POOLE HARBOUR RCNS - Note the training officer in full uniform.

We were taught rowing and sailing in Poole Harbour, the second largest natural harbour in the world. We would spend at least two days a week learning to row and the art of sailing. These were days we really looked forward to.

On our sailing days we would pass Brownsea Island and were told stories of the lady who owned the island, Mary Bonhan-Christie. She was a recluse who, having purchased the island, ordered the removal of all the other inhabitants. In 1934, about fourteen years before we sailed around the island there had been a serious fire on the island. Mary Bonham-Christie then stopped allowing anyone to even visit the island so she lived there completely on her own for many, many years.

From time to time, a few boys from RCNS would abscond, or as we referred to it 'bump off'. They would make their way from the school and would hide and camp out on the island until such time as they were hungry and badly bitten by insects then they would be forced to return to the school and face punishment.

One of my most memorable trips to Poole Harbour, was being taken by motorboat with a film director who had become interested in supporting Barnardo's by giving the boys personal treats like taking us a few at a time to meals and trips out, and he promised to send us food parcels just for the boys. He obviously enjoyed seeing where his donations were going and what pleasure he was giving to the boys. On one occasion he tried to physically prove to us that the harbour was actually 100 miles round in total, to do this he attempted to take us by motorboat, all the way round the harbour. We were out all day from about 9am to 5pm and we did not manage to complete the course, but it was a most enjoyable day for us. Sadly, the film director became upset when he realised that the many food parcels with special sweets and treats were not reaching us. He had a serious disagreement with the Commander and stopped his support.


Sunday was the one day of the week that we had to dress in our number one uniform. As we spent the whole summer in bare feet, it was the only day of the week that we were allowed to wear our shoes. We would still get up early in the morning, wash and clean our teeth and make our beds - but no cleaning chores! After breakfast we would then march outside to the parade ground where we would start a full parade with all the schoolboys together and our own band - made up of drums, fifes and bugle. The mandatory inspection was carried out by the commanding officer. When he pronounced that we were properly presented, we boys had to march behind the band out of the school and down into Poole. This march was usually followed by children from Poole, that would shout, "Here come the banana boys". This name stuck wherever we went on any outside walk or march and any event outside RCNS. I was never offended by the name because for the first time in my life I was cleaner and smarter and probably more intelligent than the name callers. I eventually became the base drum player in the band. I loved it!

On return to the school we would all stand on parade until we were told to file in for our first church service of the day. A parson from outside of the school held the church service. The service seemed to me, to be long and the parson’s sermon uninspiring. In the early years, our Arranmore House housemistress, Miss Drake nicknamed by the boys as ‘Gussie’, played the church organ. She was short and stocky and waddled! She was always strict on discipline but she was also kind and thoughtful and was liked by most of the boys.

After church service we would line up on the parade ground again before filing into the mess room for lunch. After lunch the whole school was taken by the Duty Officer and the Petty Officer boys for a walk around the suburbs of Poole. We formed a crocodile line, two by two, and as this was not a march we were allowed to relax and walk alongside a friend and chat. The only thing that would stop these walks was torrential rain. The walks were timed to ensure that we returned to the mess room in time for the evening meal. After we had eaten we would all file out and go back to the chapel for the evening service. The evening service was much lighter and I enjoyed the hymns. We went back to our allotted houses where we were expected to read. In the earlier years we were occasionally read to by a schoolmistress. One book I can vividly recall was 'Reach for the Sky”. I read and enjoyed many books during the three years at RCNS and gained a love of poetry, my favourite poet was always Keats. This was our routine every Sunday and continued for the whole three years whilst I was at the school.

There were very few unpleasant incidents on Sundays but at the end of one Sunday service, the Commanding Officer announced that a bishop would be attending RCNS at a future date. The Commanding Officer then requested volunteers for holy confirmation. The volunteers were to be confirmed by the bishop during a service. He again asked for volunteers to come forward - nobody moved!  We were then told that if there were no volunteers the whole school would be punished. The Commanding Officer walked down through the church and picked a boy at random from each pew. Unfortunately I was one of the boys chosen. A few weeks later the bishop confirmed me. He simply laid a hand on my head and said, "Bless you my son".  It was not a painful experience - just one that should have been my choice and the experience should have reflected my own beliefs. All the boys received punishment; our in house film shows were cancelled for a period of time.

This confirmation imposed upon me plus my forced attendance at the village Baptist Church whilst at the home of my foster parent’s reinforced my belief that I wanted no part of the church. To me religion is a code of conduct; I try to treat others fairly and with compassion.


One day I was called to go before the Commander. I was concerned; trying to think what rule I might have broken so I presented myself expecting a punishment. I tried to smarten myself up and waited anxiously to be called into the Commander's office. The Commander eventually called me in and explained that a Barnardo's donator, who was the English managing director of a large company in Calcutta, had selected me to be his protégé. I had no knowledge of protégés. The Commander explained to me that this man wanted to see his donations being used to help one boy. He would in future, take me on holiday, communicate with me regularly and send occasional parcels of sweets. I was relieved to not be punished, delighted to be ‘chosen’ and very happy about the holidays and sweets!

A few days later after some hasty arrangements I was sent on my own by train to London Waterloo, where I was to meet this man. I had no description of him and no way of recognising him. I was quite clearly recognisable in my sailor’s outfit and with the RCNS band on my hat. He soon spotted me and after introducing himself, explained that we would be going on a sailing holiday to the Norfolk Broads. He then took me to his apartment in Kensington where I met his mother and father who would accompany us on this holiday. They were upper echelon, very English and were extremely pleasant and well spoken. They treated me with kindness throughout the holiday.

The following day we all went by car to the holiday hotel situated by a canal on the Norfolk Broads. One of my best memories is the quality and quantity of food. I was always hungry at RCNS and I was in awe of the hotel with smart tablecloths and the array of silverware. My table manners were probably non-existent due to the fact that I was used to eating from a tin plate with only the cutlery required for the given meal, usually a knife and fork or a single spoon. It was at this time I first became aware that there was such a thing as table etiquette. My benefactor and his parents gave me the necessary tuition required in the hotel during the two weeks we dined together.

I thought that the Norfolk Broads were stunning and I was so happy to spend the next two weeks learning all aspects of sailing on these beautiful waters. Each day we would set off early with a packed lunch. I learned to sail before the wind, to tack, how to control the jib and how to raise and lower the mast. It was all very exciting. At the end of the two weeks I was so confident in my newly learned skills that I was allowed to take charge of the boat myself. The parents of my benefactor would take day trips whilst we sailed and we would all meet back at the hotel for dinner in the evenings. After the holiday I was put on a train at Waterloo station and sent back to RCNS in Poole. My benefactor returned to Calcutta to continue his work. After about two weeks I began to receive large parcels of Indian sweets. I was amazed at the amount of sweets he sent to me. I soon became a very popular boy at the school. It was one of the unwritten laws that you share your sweet parcels.

Sometime after my return I was called into the Commander's office. He was displeased that he had received a letter from my benefactor stating that I was not keeping up regular correspondence. I was instructed to write a letter straight away.

There was one blight on the holiday that I had told no one about. One night, towards the end of the holiday I woke up in my bed and saw my benefactor sitting on my bed staring at me. I felt uneasy. It was something that I could never put into words but I did not like it. He said, "Don’t get worried" and he eventually got off my bed and went back to his own room. He had done nothing to harm me.

I continued to write letters to thank him when he sent a parcel but I would not write regularly. The parcels soon stopped and I lost all contact with him. I was very relieved. Because I had told no one of the incident that frightened me, I can only assume that the Commander thought me ungrateful and ill mannered. I had no regret.


The RCNS only allowed the boys to go to Bournemouth when we participated in the Beale's department store Christmas parade. A platoon of senior boys was chosen to take part each year. Once I was established, I became the base drummer.

Due to the incredible parade ground instruction we were constantly given, we were excellent when marching and also at keeping in time with the band. Beales supplied us with the uniforms, which were guard’s uniforms and even included Busby’s.

We would march through the streets of Bournemouth behind a whole array of floats. There were always enormous crowds that gathered to watch this parade that lasted for about two hours. As we marched we would be clapped and cheered by all the spectators. Then the parade was over and we had to give back the guards uniforms and change back into our school uniforms, the sailor suits. Beales always treated us to an enormous cream tea. This was an annual Christmas event during my time at RCNS. I attended all three of these parades.

The commander of the school was praised for the turnout and the professionalism of the boys. We were made the talk of the town and the local newspapers. A few years ago I was fortunate enough to be given archive photographs of the parade.

The RCNS boys in their Busby hats are just visible


Every summer the RCNS boys would be taken to a summer camp in Devon where we would pick apples and hops. About two weeks before we were due to leave our school for Devon I was once again called to the Commander’s office. I was told that my foster mother’s daughter had written to the Commander and requested that I be allowed to return to Claydon for two weeks holiday. This request came completely out of the blue. I jumped at the chance immediately as this meant that I would be able to see my old friends in Clayton.

A sad thing that had changed in my Auntie’s life was that one of her twins had died.

On arrival at her home she sat me down and my Auntie, as I had always called her then explained to me the reason why she had to send me back to Dr. Barnardo's. The simple explanation was that as she was not my relative and was not named on my fostering documents she was not allowed to keep me. I had been unaware that she had asked Dr. Barnardo's if she could foster me but again the rule that a child had to be under the age of eight to be fostered was applied to her.

The next day, I overheard my Auntie talking to her husband Bert. She said, "I can't believe the difference in Ian. He is so clean and so much brighter". I was pleased.

The summer holiday turned out to be brilliant. I was able to meet all my friends and old adversary Dennis. I could do all the things that I used to do during my previous village school summer holidays when I lived in Claydon. I took part in the harvesting and I returned again to Ben Cooper’s yard. These two weeks became a normal thing for me for the next two years during the school summer holiday.  

There was a difference however during these holidays, I was clean and well dressed. The only clothes I had to wear at any time were my RCNS school sailor uniform. I felt proud and more than equal. My education had come on leaps and bounds and I could do gymnastics and show them all how to tie knots. I could talk about sailing and I could swim! I felt that my old friends saw me in a new light - I was very happy.

Much later in life I learned that my foster mother's daughter had paid for the train fares and all expenses incurred for each of the two weeks I spent with her. She never mentioned it to me. Even now I find her kindness remarkable.

Below is a photo of my Auntie, the twins and my foster mother before she was ill. Nana is wearing her best clothes and hat!


Once I had passed my sixteenth birthday I had to wait for a position to become available on a ship and a place to be available in a holding house. When both positions were lined up I then had to hand in all my clothes except for my first class uniform that I was wearing. I was called into the Commanding Officer’s office and he gave me my train ticket to Southampton. His wife said "Freedom at Last". I replied, " Yes". I was excited about the new world being opened up to me and a completely new life. I then walked to the station in the clothes I stood up in and a train ticket, not a penny in my pocket nor a book to read, nothing but anticipation! The master of the holding house met me at Southampton station.


Summing up my time at the RCNS I felt that the food was awful, the discipline was strict, often cruel and even at times brutal. But for the first time in my life I did not feel the odd one out. We were all dressed the same and we all had the same basic background. The majority of us had no parents and we had no one else who would care for us.

We had clean clothes and lots of activities and most importantly good schooling and training in so many things. We all worked for one another and would stick by each other through thick and thin. This camaraderie and this life experience improved my confidence and gave me a discipline that would see me through the rest of my life.

Thank you to Dr. Barnardo's and Russell Cotes Nautical Training School.