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T.S. Arethusa at Upnor on the River Medway

The origins of the organisation now known as The Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa (one of the oldest surviving children's charities) date back to 1843, when a young solicitor’s clerk called William Williams, badly crippled in his youth, was travelling to the West Country by train. In the next compartment he heard a commotion and, looking into it, he saw a dozen or so boys in rags, handcuffed together. They were, he learned, to be shipped to a convict settlement in Australia.

Williams was so appalled by this treatment that he formed a committee of friends to found a Ragged School in an old hay loft in the notorious Seven Dials District in Holborn, known in those days as The Rookery. There the committee held a Sunday School and gave destitute children their only square meal of the week.

It was not long before William Williams’ Ragged School project attracted the patronage of the great Victorian social reformer, the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. On St. Valentine’s Day in 1866, 200 homeless boys were invited to a supper at the Parker Street Refuge. After a feast of roast beef and plum pudding Lord Shaftesbury asked the boys “supposing that there were in the Thames a big ship large enough to contain a thousand boys, would you like to be placed on board to be taught trades or trained for the Navy and Merchant Services?”. A forest of upraised hands settled the matter.

Associated with Newport Market Army Band School?

The Newport Market Army Training School was founded in 1863 in Newmarket, Soho in order to train destitute boys with musical ability who wanted to join army bands. In 1928 the School was amalgamated with the Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa, and its name changed to Newport Market Army Band School. See some personal photographs at the following address:

The Society's first training ship was HMS Chichester but it was the name of the second training ship, the former HMS Arethusa purchased in 1874, which was adopted for subsequent Shaftesbury Homes’ training ships. The Arethusa, which had been the last Royal Navy warship to go into action under sail alone, remained in service until 1932.

The replacement training ship was another sailing vessel, the merchantman Peking – one of the famous ‘Flying Ps’ – built in Germany. In 1933 she become the second Arethusa training ship at a new base which had been established at Lower Upnor on the River Medway. When the first Arethusa was broken up its figurehead was saved and placed on display at the new base where it has remained every since as a prominent local landmark and is now within the grounds of the Arethusa Venture Centre.

The Society's training ships were in use for over 100 years and many of the boys from them were later to serve with distinction with the armed services and the Merchant service.

In 1975, the second Arethusa, having become hopelessly uneconomical to repair and maintain, was sold to the South Street Seaport Museum of New York to be restored to her 1911 built condition and reverting to her launched name Peking. She was replaced by a new offshore cruising ketch. This offshore venture was so successful that it was decided to replace the first ketch with a purpose-built vessel, embodying features which would increase performance and versatility. This Arethusa was named by The Countess of Burma, CBE CD JP DL in July 1982 and began a highly successful career offering exciting and demanding sea-going holidays and adventures for youngsters mainly from backgrounds unlikely to provide them with this type of opportunity.

The Society’s history has been a fascinating one, featuring at various times Newsboy Shelters in Bloomsbury, a hostel in Shaftesbury Avenue, a farm school at Bisley and the Army Band School at Newport Market. Homes and schools were established for girls and boys in Ealing, Esher, East Molesey, Orpington, Sudbury, Twickenham, Hanworth, Putney, Wandsworth and Norwood. The Head Office was appropriately situated in Shaftesbury Avenue, but in 1975, it moved to a freehold property in Rectory Grove, Clapham because of escalating costs. A further move in 1998 brought Head Office to its current location in Trinity Road in Wandsworth.

From 1976 the shore base at Lower Upnor was redeveloped as a residential education and activity centre for inner city children known as The Arethusa Venture Centre. Continuous development at the Centre has resulted in a range of modern facilities which now include three modern dormitory blocks, a kitchen and dining hall, a purpose built climbing wall, indoor sports hall and a science laboratory as well as the original, but updated, swimming pool.

photograph of the swimming pool in the Arethusa Venture Centre at Upnor

The climbing wall offers 600 square metres of climbing surface with a lift giving access to a wheelchair abseil ramp. The Watersports Centre in Basin No. 2 at Chatham Maritime provides opportunities for dinghy sailing and kayaking in enclosed waters. Other activities offered by the Arethusa Venture Centre include swimming, motorboating, raft building, orienteering, ropes courses, archery, teamwork exercises, adventure walks and environmental studies attracting a wide range of users.

photograph of the climbing wall at the Arethusa Venture Centre at Upnor

In all the Society’s Homes and ships, at whatever period of time, the aim has been to provide a caring background for infants, children and young people suffering from social disadvantage. Since its foundation, the Society has cared for and prepared for adult life upwards of 60,000 children and young people. Many have risen to positions of distinction and some to fame; nearly all have been able to hold their own in competition with others, whose roots were in socially secure backgrounds.

The History of The Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa is covered in more detail in Marion Bailey’s book ‘The Chance of Lifetime’ – ISBN 0 946604 11 8.

[Acknowledgements to The Shaftesbury Homes for this information]


For more information about the Arethusa Venture Centre, please click here.


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