Formed in 1843, the Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa organisation, thanks to the involvement of Lord Shaftesbury, acquired an ex-naval war ship, the Chichester, in 1866. This was followed by the first Arethusa ship in 1874 and subsequent boats (all re-named the Arethusa) housed boys for over a hundred years, training them for a future life in the Royal or Merchant Navy.
Upnor resident Sheila worked for the Arethusa Centre for 30 years. While most of her time was at the new centre, she did also work on the last ship before it left for a new berth in New York. She recalls: “I used to work on the ship, the actual Arethusa boat, cleaning the sick bay. Upstairs was the contagious diseases and downstairs was the broken limbs.
Some of the Arethusa boys would come over for tea on a Sunday occasionally. They were all different, some went there as a boarding school, some were orphans, some were sent there by social services.”
Former chandlery owner, Elizabeth Copper, also had memories of the Arethusa boys. “The old training ship, the Arethusa, was moored out here for many years, and that was quite interesting, watching the boys – very hard life for them – but watching the boys have their band practice and marching up and down on Sunday morning at the church parade etc.
“Some of those old boys, previous to the ones I knew, have got a day when they come back to Upnor and have a meet-up – they’re getting fewer and fewer. because a lot of the slightly younger ones haven’t always wanted to be part of the Arethusa, they wanted to forget about it. A lot of them, well, it had stood them in good stead for life because it was a hard life aboard the ship – very, very strict discipline, and of course, life is – you know, you’ve got to have discipline, haven’t you. But they didn’t have the other thing that should go with it – love, because they hadn’t always got parents or they’d got one parent. It was very, very difficult for some of them. A lot of them have done well and they’re out all over the world. I’ve got a friend who’s part and parcel of the keeping in touch with the boys – we call them boys but they’re my age group now!”
With the school leaving age and entry age to the armed services narrowing in the early seventies, the Arethusa ship was no longer required. The last boat to be named Arethusa was the Peking, a Flying P-Liner four-masted barque built in 1911. It was acquired after 1918 as war reparations and served as the training ship until 1975. She was sold to the South Street Seaport Museum in New York, where she still resides.
The land based facilities were fully developed into the Arethusa Venture Centre enjoyed by thousands of young people today.