What was life like at HMS Ganges?

HMS Ganges from the air in the 1930s

HMS Ganges from the air in the 1930s - Credit: HMS Ganges Museum

At the tip of the Shotley peninsular sits a cluster of abandoned buildings that were once home to hundreds of young lads right at the start of their lives at sea. 

HMS Ganges was a "stone frigate" or land-based institution for the Royal Navy, and between 1905 and 1976 was one of the key training bases used to prepare sailors to defend Great Britain. 

It was named after a pre-existing training ship by the same name that was launched from Bombay and based at Shotley. 

HMS Ganges as a training ship in the 1950s

HMS Ganges as a training ship in the 1900s - Credit: HMS Ganges Museum

Roger Jones, chairman at the HMS Ganges Museum said: "HMS Ganges was originally a ship of the wooden wall, launched in 1821. She was the last wooden wall ship to be a flagship, and the last to sail around cape horn unassisted. 

"In 1860 she was decommissioned and laid up, and in 1866 she was turned into a training ship, and her guns were removed."

HMS Ganges as a warship

HMS Ganges as a warship - Credit: HMS Ganges Museum

Life on the ship was extremely hard, with a memorial in Mylor, Cornwall, recording the names of 53 people who died while training on it between 1866 and 1899. 

While the training ship was originally based in Cornwall, she was moved to Harwich, and then Shotley in the 1890s, in order to be closer to a centre of population.

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Initially, training continued to be carried out on the vessel, but after the completion of a shore-based facility at Shotley, the ship was sent to be broken up.

According to the HMS Ganges Museum, her timbers were used to make objects including a grand staircase on an estate, and a cocktail bar in a small hotel, both in Devon. 

HMS Ganges being broken up

HMS Ganges being broken up after training was transferred to the land base at Shotley - Credit: HMS Ganges Museum

Mr Jones said: "There is a lot of truth to the statement that you entered as a boy, but left as a man.

"Boys came into Ganges at age 15 and went into the navy as men at 16. At Gagnes they spent 12 months training, and they learned everything you need to do to run a ship.

"A lot of the boys came from foster homes, or Barnardos. I knew a gentleman who said when he was at Ganges in 1947 he had his first taste of hot food."

The boys climbed the mast whenever the base received high-status visitors

The boys climbed the mast whenever the base received high-status visitors, and as part of their training - Credit: HMS Ganges Museum

"I remember another of the Ganges boys, they were talking to a visitor at the museum, and she said 'it was quite brutal, wasn't it?', and he replied that it was the first time he had a warm bed, three hot meals a day, and a roof over his head that didn't leak. 

"They had a hard life, but they were fed and looked after. There's something to be said for finding how finding out how good you are at living with other people, and finding respect for yourself."

The sailors in training doing exercises outside the gym

The sailors in training doing exercises outside the gym - Credit: HMS Ganges Museum

Boys normally signed up to a contract of 12 years, which would leave most of them aged in their late 20s after their tours. 

Speaking about the current state of the site, Mr Jones said: "All of the messes have been demolished, as have the laundry and the generators. 

"The rest of the buildings, including Nelsons Hall and the swimming pool will be converted into flats, shops and a sports centre. 

"Most of what was on the site went to the naval museum in Portsmouth, but we have the honours board and figurehead from the original ship."

The honours board from the HMS Ganges, showing the victories of all the Royal Navy ships bearing the name

The honours board from the HMS Ganges, showing the victories of all the Royal Navy ships bearing the name - Credit: HMS Ganges Museum

Mr Jones also offered reassurance around the historic mast, despite fears about its dilapidated state. 

Find out more about HMS Ganges at www.hmsgangesmuseum.com, or visit the museum, located at the end of King Edward VII Drive, in Shotley, IP9 1QJ.