The extraordinary story of the boy who lived in a nest and was sent to sea.
Shrewsbury March 1909 – A fire breaks out in an outbuilding on Sutton Lane in Shrewsbury and Sergeant Barnet is called. He sees a young boy at the scene, whose skin and clothes are covered with dirt – he was filthy.
Barnet recognised him as ten year old William Edward Roberts. He questioned William who described seeing a man leaving the building. Barnet pressed him further, until he admitted that it was him who caused the fire. He was arrested and taken to the police station. William explained how he’d been sleeping out because he wasn’t allowed to sleep at home.
At the time of the fire the weather had been exceptionally stormy with temperatures dropping below freezing at times.
Now William Roberts was known to the police, and the Chief Constable was well aware of his situation – sleeping out was a crime. They’d been keeping an eye on him for some time and he’d been pulled into the station before. It was clear his parents weren’t controlling him – and they’d been cautioned for it.
Often young William would be seen collecting armfuls of leaves to make a nest to sleep in off London Road. Some nights he would take shelter and rest in pigsties.
The police would chase him but he really didn’t want to be caught – so much so that he’d wade into a nearby pool up to his neck, with just his head poking out of the water. They couldn’t get him. It turns out he’d been living like this for perhaps two years. By the 5th of March he was in ‘the most neglected and filthy’ condition.
William’s family home was on May Terrace in Cherry Orchard – and just 12 months before the fire the police had been there to visit to his father. He told them that he couldn’t control the boy and said he wanted him to be sent to an Industrial School. These were places where children under 14 would be sent if they were found to be destitute, begging or wondering the streets, or if there was serious parental neglect or the child was associating with thieves or prostitutes.
So had his tough upbringing led him to become a toughened troublesome child, prone to antisocial behaviour? Well it seems not. The master of Salop Boys Home at St Julian’s Friars,where he’d been a pupil, said the boy was very sensitive to punishment and he couldn’t understand why he couldn’t be controlled. In fact he said he was ‘one of the best boys at the home and very obedient and extremely sharp.’
So at the end of March 1909 William went to the new Children’s Court (a product of the 1908 Children’s Act). The magistrate listened to all the evidence and it was decided that this most filthy, neglected but bright 10 year old boy should be sent to the Clio Training Ship at Bangor – and he should stay there until he reached the age of 16.
What do we know about the Clio?
A former battleship she was now anchored in the Menai Strait and had been since 1877. Delinquent children, as young as William, would be sent there to prepare them for a life at sea either in the Royal Navy or on a Merchant Vessel and it could hold more than 250 at a time.
It was no secret that life was harsh for the boys on board. Severe punishments and beatings were handed out for rule breaking – some so bad that students who had been beaten had to sleep on their front for days afterwards.
The Death of William Crook
There are some sad stories of the fates of others boys who served on the Clio. In 1906 just three years before our boy was sent there, another William – William Crook, a “quiet and inoffensive” 13 year old had his scull cracked. He’d been cleaning his boots when a group of lads gathered around him and started hitting him around the head – and one used a stick.
The following day he as too ill to go ashore and was put to bed. As his conditioned worsened, a doctor was called who found the boy was suffering from a fractured skull. He was hospitalised and died the following day .
At his inquest the evidence showed he’d be “terribly bullied” by the boys who said they picked on him because he “did not stick up for himself”.
Captain Langdon told the judge he punished two of the attackers (both under 14) with 12 strokes of the birch. The jury returned a verdict of death by misadventure and the officers were praised for their frankness in giving evidence. Bullying was simply seen as part of growing up – and they clearly felt there was nothing to hide.
The Boy Who Tried To Run Away
In another tragic case, in June 1915, the papers reported that the body of a twelve year old boy was found floating in the Straits wearing a life jacket. His name was Walter Shaw, and by all accounts he was very well behaved and had never been in the punishment book.
He was said to quite happy – but evidence given at the inquest paints a different picture.
The nightwatchman said how at 2.30am he was doing the rounds and heard a sound. He investigated and found Walter lowering the small lifeboat into he sea. He stopped him and “boxed his ears”and sent him away to the main deck. When the watchman then went down to see the boy he discovered he was missing. They searched the ship but no no avail.
It wasn’t until the following morning at 11.30 when his body was found floating towards Bangor.
Clearly this poor boy had been so desperate to escape that when his first plan failed – and he was beaten for it – he grabbed a life jacket and jumped.
What happened to The Boy In The Nest?
It’s impossible to know how ten year old William Edward Roberts must have felt going to the ship. Nerves, perhaps trepidation over a new life which lay ahead – he’d probably never even seen the sea.
Or was he excited at the prospect? A new life, plenty of food, and somewhere to sleep that wasn’t just a bundle of leaves or a pigsty.
He was going to be there for 6 years – so you’d expect that 2 years later a 12 year old William Roberts would appear on the census as a resident of the Clio.
But there’s no sign of him. Not on the Clio, not back home in Shrewsbury – nowhere.
Something must have happened to him in those two years. Phil Carradice is the author of Nautical Training Ships: An Illustrated History and he suggests there could be many reasons for William’s disappearance ‘he could have absconded or been sent to a land based Industrial School if he was deemed unsuitable for “naval” training.’ He may well have died in some manner – but as yet nothing has come to light.
The search for William Edward Roberts, The Boy In The Nest, continues…
FOR THE NEXT PART OF THE STORY SEE Boy In The Nest: Part 2
The Gwynedd Museum and Art Gallery (black and white photos).