For sixty years, the Mars Training Ship lay anchored on the River Tay at Dundee and it became a famous local landmark, embedded in Dundee history. In that time, more that 6,500 homeless and destitute boys joined the ranks of the Mars to learn new skills and to keep out of trouble. Launched in 1848, the Mars was not always a Training Ship. She was a handsome three-masted sailing ship with two decks and eighty guns. But by the time she was completed, the era of sail was giving way to new technology and her conversion was never entirely successful. After a brief spell on coastal defence duty, the Mars was earmarked for scrap. At that time in 19th century Dundee, poverty and disease were rife and many children had no option other than to steal to survive and a good number ended up in prison, living in squalid, life threatening conditions.
Putting the young boys in jail was the only option until it was agreed that this was no life for young boys, and that an attempt should be made to rehabilitate them rather than confine them to jail. The Mars was berthed in Dundee with the sole purpose of providing this alternative way of life for the young delinquents. On board the vessel, the Mars boys were educated, trained in all aspects of life, learning new skills to help them adjust to life away from the ship without the temptations of crime, but it was not a free ride; nor was it easy. Many boys tried to escape the ship, with some losing their lives in the process. In March of 1871, 3 young lads lost their lives whilst attempting to escape in an open boat in stormy waters, and a gravestone is erected in their memory at Forgan churchyard. Those caught trying to escape, or breaking any other rules, such as smoking or theft received physical punishment for their disobedience. Boys were strapped over a gym-horse and beaten with the tawse (a short, thick leather whip for those of you too young to know what it is).
Life wasn’t all about escaping and beatings for the boys; they enjoyed a Summer holiday each year, and on Sundays were allowed off the boat to walk around the grounds of St Fort’s in total silence. The Summer holidays consisted of a twenty mile walk to a camp site in Elie which had no lighting, heating, water or toilet facilities. Daily activities included diving and swimming – irrespective of whether or not the boys could swim!
“We’ll Send Ye Tae the Mars” by Gordon Douglas details for the first time the life and times of the Mars and the people who ran it and the boys from Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh who were trained there. It tells a fascinating history of how it all happened and how the Mars helped thousands of boys find a new life away from the poverty and crime of nineteenth-century Dundee.
Order the book here now. Click the following link to visit the official “Sons of the Mars” website for detailed information and remember to sign up for a rare glimpse into their records of the boys who trained aboard, and the reasons they were sent to the Mars.
special thanks to our friend Shehanne Moore for her contributions