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The ‘Mars Training Ship for Homeless and Destitute Boys’ was moored on the river Tay at Woodhaven harbour, Wormit, Fife from 1869 to 1929.

The growth of major cities, due to the expansion of mills and the availability of thousands of jobs, drew in people from all over Scotland and farther afield. The work in most of these mills was for quick, agile hands and was done mostly by women and small children, leaving the conventional family hierarchy in tatters. This, as well as poor housing and sanitation, had the knock-on effect of pushing family units to breaking point; life was cheap and losing young family members to the street was common.

The ambition behind the ship grew from the success of the Ragged School Movement, whose aim was to give the poor and unfortunate, a chance for a brighter future by providing structure to their lives and an education. The Mars differed only in the regard that they would, ideally, train boys to join the Royal Navy or the Merchant Marine on their discharge. The Institution’s principal role was to remove from the streets vagrant boys, who were in danger of turning to crime in order to survive; it was often disparagingly called ‘a bad boy’s ship’, but no boy was admitted on board with a conviction to his name. The age of the boys admitted was normally between ten and eleven and their discharge date approximately on their sixteenth birthday.

On arrival on board the ship, the young boys would be washed, examined by the doctor, have their hair cut, allotted a watch to belong to (the watch consisted of a mixture of junior and senior boys), be given a uniform and a ship’s number. They left their name at the gangway and, from then on, until they left the ship, this number was how they would identify themselves and be addressed. The ship was run on Admiralty lines, punishment therefore was accordingly strict, but a punishment book was kept and inspections were made regularly to ensure the boys were not being mistreated. Crucially the Mars was an industrial training ship, not a reformatory ship, and although the boys were not allowed to come and go as they pleased, they were permitted a certain freedom of movement and trusted with that responsibility.

In the summer, a boy’s day would begin at 5.30am with deck scrubbing in bare feet for an hour, breakfast and prayers, then half the watches went to school on board. Here they were taught English, arithmetic, geography and music; after lunch, they would swap with the other watches, to study more practical subjects – shoe repairing, clothing and sail-making, woodworking, metalworking, tailoring and seamanship. The ship was not only for boys from Dundee but from all over the country; in fact, as it was the only ship in Scotland to accept Roman Catholic boys, more than half the total of 6,562 boys came from Glasgow and district. The maximum number of boys aboard at any one time was 400. As the ship had been built to accommodate 750 men, there was more than enough space, but their dormitory was in the orlop deck, the ship’s lowest deck, and after an exhausting day once in their hammocks, sleep would have been a welcome relief. Unlike many other homes and institutes for the poor, the Mars boy was luckier than most. It was often mentioned in the newspapers that they seemed aloof. This may have been due to the fact that they had a regimented life, were attended to by doctors and dentists and were comparatively well fed. The Institution’s ambition was principally to have the boys admitted to the Royal or Merchant navy; if they were weak and spindly they would not be accepted.

Once the Mars was established on the River Tay, the boys (especially those in one of the three bands) quickly became an item at almost every official event in Dundee. A place in the band was greatly coveted by the boys. The opening of buildings, fetes, exhibitions, highland games and flower shows were never complete without one of the Mars’ bands and such invitations often led to a free feed. They also used the bands as a recruiting tool for the Institution, travelling to Aberdeen, Perth and Edinburgh; marching through these towns and cities, in their smart naval uniforms, the boys impressed many a crowd. Playing an instrument was also a great talent for many boys to enable them to find work on their release; navy and army bands were only too happy to accommodate these drilled and uniquely experienced boys.

One of the advantages of a river-based school was that absconding from it had obvious obstacles; the other was that disease and infection, rife on the streets of Dundee, seldom found their way on board. The establishment of a ship’s hospital, in a disused granary at Woodhaven pier, greatly reduced the chances of an epidemic spreading through the ship. But this still was not enough – scarlet fever, or scarlatina, was always a problem. No-one and no place were safe from its spread; in fact, Captain Charles Casely Scott’s daughter died of the disease at their house in Woodhaven in 1891. How could this be dealt with? The plan to take the boys to Elie, for between four to six weeks each year, to live in the granary at the harbour, owned by Mr Baird, was an inspired notion. With the boys gone, a skeleton crew had the freedom to fumigate and cleanse the ship from stem to stern. As the granary at Elie was a working granary, the week before the holiday, a group of boys and officers would march to Elie with the sole purpose of killing the rats in the building, then march back to the Mars. One description of the route taken for their march to Elie relates – ‘that when they left Woodhaven they went via Guardbridge, Peat Inn, and Largoward, halting at intervals of rest at each of those places’.

Exactly when the annual trip to Elie began is unclear; it had been reported in a newspaper article to have been 1902, but during my research I found that they were in the granary in 1898. Taking 1898 as their first visit and that between 250 and 350 boys attended each year, we can safely assume that from that year, till its end in 1929, a minimum of 6,000 boys would have made Elie their holiday home.

An article from the Mars Magazine, a bi-annual publication, detailed the programme of events at Elie in 1925:

Boys left the Mars June 8th accompanied by six officers.

June 10thBoys bathed and continued to bathe every day (ex Sundays) until they left.

June 17thDisplay on Toll Green. Good show large attendance.

June 23rdBoys v Officers – cricket match

June 24thDisplay on Toll Green, a good show and large attendance.

June 25thBand gymnastics and Choir entertained to tea by Managers Marine Hotel. Prior to tea a performance was given.

June – 27th All attended the “Favourites” Pierrots. Band and Choir assisted. Boy Tunnah recited.

June 29th and 30thPreliminary heats for Athletics Sports.

July 1stAnnual treat from Major and Mrs Sandford, their daughter Mrs Errington presiding. Our concert party were motored to Colinsburgh and performed before a large audience.

July 2ndDisplay on ground fronting Harbour Law. A successful innovation.

July 4thSand building Competition for which prizes were given.

1st Mullady (81) and Meighan (148)

2nd McDougall (141) and Cunningham (96)

3rd Chambers (57) and McPhail (53)

July 8thAnnual Sports. Great Contests. Splendid crowd. Magnificent weather.

July 10thSwimming and Diving contests in presence of a concourse of people.

July 11thLast display on Toll Green, Rev. Mr Bell returned thanks on behalf of inhabitants and visitors.

July 15th Return cricket match – Boys v Officers. Treat from residents and visitors…

March outs, Nature study, drill, football and other games took place as suitable. The flag was saluted each morning on being hoisted at the peak and again in the evening on being hauled down.

July 17thBoys left Elie for ship. Unanimous verdict – a great time.

Many boys during their time at Elie made lifelong friends with various families in the district, with whom they would be allowed to visit and spend the afternoon. Many were invited back the next year to pick up where they left off.

After the end of the First World War, the Mars ceased to be ruled by the Home Department and came under the control of the Scottish Education Department, where the ship quickly earned the name of ‘Truant Training Ship Mars’. This, plus the advent of the probation service, meant that the demand for this kind of training ship was soon decimated. The Captain who was to be in charge over its last ten years, appointed in 1919, was Commander Heathcote. He was obviously at home in Elie; he lived at Deck House with his wife and their dog called Columbus. His valiant attempts to keep the Mars afloat were dashed, literally, when after an inspection by the Admiralty, the Mars was deemed to be un-seaworthy.

Early on the morning of 27th June 1929, the Mars was towed from her moorings at Woodhaven, by the tug Bulger. On that morning, once the news had spread of her removal and imminent demise, crowds gathered down the coast, to catch a last glimpse of the ship. Many of her friends and admirers in Elie watched as she was taken to the scrap yard at Inverkeithing to be broken up.

The Mars was not a substitute for a home, life on board was hard but at least they were fed, given a bed, educated and looked after, in a world where the poor were at best expendable. These young boys had been given a second chance to live a useful life for themselves and, from letters I have read, many ex-Mars boys admit that the ship had saved them from a life of crime and, they looked back on their friendships with their shipmates, with great fondness. And for many Elie was the highlight of their year.



While researching my first book on the Mars, I was always fascinated by a photograph I had seen in Stenlake publishing’s, ‘Old Elie and Earlsferry’, an image that shows the boys at ease, more than that, they were laughing and joking, in fact, they were obviously having great fun. This intrigued me, so for the second book, ‘Sons of the Mars’, I decided to look deeper into this part of the boys’ history. Due to the success of the web site (cheers John Fitzgerald) I was contacted by Mr and Mrs Winchester who informed me that they had close links to the Mars. It transpired that Mr Winchester’s grandfather was Mr Burn, the Mars’ Chief Officer. On a visit to their house I was astonished by the Mars memorabilia they had, which included the Mars bugle, the book of plans and instructions used by the staff to teach the boys woodwork and a set of photographs taken in Elie in 1912. The archives of DC Thomson provided the next clue to solving this mystery, providing me with articles written by two ex-instructors, Mr Bowman and Mr Fyffe, which shed fascinating new light on the links to Elie.

A few months later, on a bright sunny afternoon, I took a trip to Elie taking the photographs with me, fitting the images to my surroundings – the Toll Green, the beach, sea wall – and, while walking down by the Granary, with no other sound than the wind and the sea lapping the beach and rocks, I felt an eerie echo of the hundreds of boys who must have played, sung and relaxed here in the sun during their holiday. I was looking at photographs of events and walking in the footprints of the boys from 104 years ago, I resolved to bring the boys and Elie back together again, so made up my mind to do a Mars talk in Elie. A friend of mine managed to pass on a copy of my book to Elie History Society and, on  October 13 2016, with my 35th Mars talk, I completed my mission.

The night of the talk was dark and the rain had descended in buckets just after 5pm and I was concerned that it would deter a decent crowd. I shouldn’t have worried, as before I began, all the seats were filled and a friendlier and more appreciative group of people I couldn’t have wished for. I gave a brief history of the ship then talked about the boys’ annual 20 mile march from Woodhaven to Elie and described their activities while based in the Granary for their 4, 5 or 6 week holiday. Once the talk was over there was a lively question and answer session, which would have gone on much longer, but unfortunately, as I was travelling by bus, I had to curtail my enthusiasm. The audience’s genuine delight and surprise at the length of time (1898-1929), the number of boys who attended and, their obvious enjoyment to be away from the ship. In fact, before I ran for my bus, I was asked if they could use two of my songs for their proposed new Elie app, which they are hoping to have up and running shortly – more news of that when I have it. The exciting outcome of the visit is that the good people of Elie are now looking into the possibility of funding and gaining permission to erect a plaque to the boys down by the harbour!


The book, ‘Sons of the Mars’, available to purchase from the author’s website

All images courtesy of Gordon Douglas (c)











7 thoughts on “THE MARS TRAINING SHIP AND ELIE by Gordon Douglas

  1. I’m interested to know if there are admission records available somewhere. My 2nd great uncle, Charles Baptie (b.1867) is listed aboard the Mars in the 1881 Scotland Census. I believe he was sent there after getting into trouble at the Leith Industrial School in Lochend Road!

  2. I am also interested in finding out about great uncles that possibly attend this “training facility”….. Mars around late 1890’s. can someone please advise where I find the records.
    thanks kindly.

  3. Admission records are at the Newport library

  4. Charles Baptie and Michael Gilroy were both transferred onto the Mars from Leith Industrial School in 1880, their registration numbers were 1301, and 1302, should you wish to know more the staff at Newport Heritage Centre are very helpful, by phone or email. I can be contacted at, Gordon Douglas

  5. My great grandfather Daniel Higgins was aboard the Mars in 1901. He later went to the royal military music school in Middlesex. I would like to learn more about the music opportunities the boys were given.

  6. My grandfather Robert MCandlish Daniel was an orphan and a mars boy I want to know his mars number I am in New Zealand and have been trying to find out

  7. My grandfather Robert Smith was on the HMS Mars. I think he was about 11 years old at the time. He was born in 1890 Edinburgh.

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