Tag Archives: Reform School

Great Uncle James Went to Reform School

James Orrock, my two-times great-grandfather, was a farm labourer in Scotland in the mid 1800s. Agricultural labourers did not work all their lives on one farm. It was common for farm servants, both men and women, to attend farm hiring fairs. They would then hire themselves out to the highest bidder.1

Hiring Fair

According to the 1851 census, James worked on a farm in the village of Marykirk, Kincardineshire.2 His wife-to-be, also a farm servant, worked on a different farm located in the same village. They married two years later. By then they had moved to Kirken, in County Angus.3 Mary and James went on to have seven children and it is no surprise that their children were born in different villages, as James would have moved from job to job, always as a farm servant. The various censuses indicate that James worked as a ploughman, farm servant, or agricultural labourer. His family followed him as he moved for work. In 1863, their daughter, Martha Linn died of small pox at the age of three.4 Two years later tragedy struck again when James died at the age of 33 from tuberculosis.5

When Mary became a widow, her situation would have been precarious. James had been sick for a long time and had been unable to work. Mary had to find a way to provide for her children. Farm servants were usually lodged at the farm where they worked. Families often had small dwellings, with a small yard, where they could have a garden and a henhouse.  With the death of James, Mary would have also lost her home. It is no surprise that she moved to Arbroath, perhaps in the hope of working in the jute and sailcloth mills. At the time of James’ death, demand for jute was high due to the American Civil War6 and work was available in the mills. Mary would soon learn that, while Arbroath provided employment, it also provided additional worries about her son, James.

The 1871 census shows Mary living with four of her six remaining children in Arbroath.7 Her eldest son, Alexander, 17, worked as a farm servant in a village about 10 km away, in Kirkden.8 Ann and Jemima, 16 and 14, would have been working. David and Jane were in school. But where was James, only 12 at the time?

I found James in the 1871 census listed as an inmate at the Mars Training Ship for Homeless and Destitute Boys, about 35 km away from his family.9 This ship was moored on the river Tay at Woodhaven Harbour, Wormit, Fife from 1869 to 1929.10

The HMS Mars was built in 1848 and saw military service in the Crimean War. Deemed surplus in 1869, it became a training ship with space for 400 boys with the objective to take destitute and homeless boys off the streets of Dundee, Edinburgh, and Glasgow and train them for service in the Royal Navy or the Merchant Marine at their discharge at age 16.11 

The Mars Training Ship was an initiative put forth by Lord Provost William Hay and members of the elite. Truancy and vagrancy were rife in the cities of Scotland, due to overcrowding, unemployment, and poverty. The inmates of the Mars were often picked up for truancy or for begging and were sent to the training ship for five years by magistrates. The boys were poor, orphans, beggars, or homeless or sometimes they had just fallen in with the wrong crowd.12

Mars Training Ship Institution 13

The move from farm life to a bigger urban centre would have been difficult for James. He was 12 when he shows up as an inmate in the Mars Training Ship and he was probably sent there at the age of 10 or 11. There is no way to know why he ended up there. We know that his family was poor. It is probable that he wandered the streets while his mother and two sisters worked long hours in the jute mills. He may have been a difficult child as he suffered from mental illness later on in life.14

The Mars Training School was an industrial school, as opposed to a reform school. The boys did not have a criminal record; however, in some ways they were prisoners. All of the boys were very poor and many of them were homeless. For those who did have homes, they were deliberately given very little opportunity to maintain connections with family and friends.15

Upon arrival on the ship, a medical officer examined the boys once they were stripped. The children then washed, put on their uniforms, and were assigned a number. From then on, they were only referred to by their number. Even the boys called each other by their numbers.16

The day on the Mars ship would begin early, at 5:30 a.m. The boys scrubbed the deck, had breakfast, and then said their prayers. In the morning they learned English, arithmetic, geography, and music. The afternoons were dedicated to practical skills such as shoe repairing, clothing and sail-making, woodworking, metalworking, tailoring and seamanship. The boys were attended by doctors and dentists and were well fed. There was less disease onboard than in the crowded and unsanitary cities of Dundee, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. To further reduce the chance of disease, the boys would make an annual trip to Elie, a coastal town, allowing a skeleton crew to fumigate and clean the ship. 17

James would have been discharged from the ship when he was 16. Records of his later life did, indeed, indicate that he worked as a seaman.18

  1. https://www.historyscotland.com/history/farm-servants-and-the-hiring-fairs/, accessed 15 March 2023. Picture of the engraving of a hiring fair courtesy of History Scotland website.
  2. National Records of Scotland, 1851 census, Parish of Marykirk, County of Kincardineshire, James Orrock, Scotland’s People, downloaded 27 March 2023.
  3. National Records of Scotland, Old Parish Registers, Church of Scotland marriages, Kirken, James Orrock and Mary Watson, Scotland’s People, downloaded 27 March 2018.
  4. National Records of Scotland, 1863 Deaths, Parish of Dunnichen, County of Forfar, Martha Linn Orrock, Scotland’s People, downloaded 8 March 2023.
  5. National Records of Scotland, 1865 Deaths, Parish of Dunnichen, County of Forfar, James Orrock, Scotland’s People, downloaded 9 April 2018.
  6. The Textile Industry of Arbroath since the Early 18th Century, Turner, W.H.K., The Abertay Historical Society, 1941, p.15
  7. National Records of Scotland, 1871 census, St. Vigeans, Arbroath, Mary Orrock (Watson), Scotland’s People, downloaded 16 March 2023.
  8. National Records of Scotland, 1871 census, Kirkden, Angus, Alexander Orrock, Scotland’s People, downloaded 23 March 2023.
  9. National Records of Scotland, 1871 census, Woodhaven, Forgan, Fife, 1871 census, James Orrock, Scotland’s People, downloaded 15 March 2023.
  10. Wikipedia, HMS Mars, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMS_Mars_(1848)#:~:text=HMS%20Mars%20was%20a%20two,July%201848%20at%20Chatham%20Dockyard.&text=She%20served%20as%20a%20supply,the%20River%20Tay%2C%20off%20Woodhaven, accessed 19 April 2023.
  11. The Mars Training Ship and Elie, Gordon Douglas, 13 January 2017, https://www.eliehistory.com/uncategorised/mars-training-ship-elie-gordon-douglas/, accessed 23 March 2023.
  12. Maritime Trail Dundee, Mars Training Ship, https://www.dundeemaritime.co.uk/Mars, accessed 23 March 2023.
  13. The Herald Scotland, From Mars to Dundee: The prison ship that shaped generations, Ron McKay, https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/17996129.mars-dundee-prison-ship-shaped-generations/, accessed 24 March 2023.
  14. General Registers of Admissions in Lunatic Asylums, 1888, James Orrock, downloaded 22 March 2023.
  15. Whyte, Christine, HMS Mars: An industrial school in the late 19th century, Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care, Volume 20.2, https://strathprints.strath.ac.uk/84204/1/Whyte_SJRCC_2021_HMS_Mars_an_industrial_school.pdf, accessed 11 April 2023.
  16. Ibid
  17. The Mars Training Ship and Elie, Gordon Douglas, 13 January 2017, https://www.eliehistory.com/uncategorised/mars-training-ship-elie-gordon-douglas/, accessed 24 March 2023
  18. National Records of Scotland, 1930 Deaths, Parish of Liff and Benvie, County of Angus, James Orrock, Scotland’s People, downloaded 8 March 2023.