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It was laid down in the training Regulations at the time of the move ashore (1905) from the wooden wall H.M.S. Ganges, that in all Boys Training Establishments ‘a mast should be provided to accustom boys to go aloft’.
Every morning in the old wooden walls, the boys had had to climb the ratlines bare-footed, cross the half moon and down the other side at top speed, for exercise.
This practice continued on board H.M.S. Ganges & Ganges II
The Shotley Establishment, having no Mast of its own, the shore based Boys were taken on board one of these ships to carry out such drill.
The Mast, originally some 142 ft 10 ins. It is said in several books to be the foremast of H.M.S. Cordelia, a sloop paid off in Portsmouth in 1900 and was towed to Shotley Pier from Portsmouth. Records show the foremast of H.M.S. Cordelia as 134 ft, thus leaving a shortfall of some 8 ft 10 ins. Other drawings originally from the PSA stamped as drawing No G24/59, prepared at their Colchester Office, show the main mast as formerly the foremast from H.M.S. Cordelia. With the top sections coming from the foretopmast of the former H.M.S. Agincourt (lately Ganges II). Who according to the Navy list, was still at Shotley at this time. Could this mast have been removed at Shotley or by reading deeper into various records show that, H.M.S. Agincourt when launched was a five Masted Steam/Sail battleship. Masts two and four were removed 1893. Could one of these masts be the one in question together with the 24 ins diameter steel lower section of the foremast of sloop H.M.S. Cordelia ‘as towed from Portsmouth’ together with possibly ‘No 4 Mast earlier taken from H.M.S. Agincourt’ and not as drawings show ‘the foremast of H.M.S. Agincourt’.
All we can say with certainty is the Mast was erected at R.N.T.E. Shotley in 1907.
The various sections of the 160 ft Mast (142ft 10ins. above ground, 18 feet buried in concrete had to be man (or should we say Boy) handled up Bristol Hill to the parade field. This long and wearisome operation taking some five hours.
Early photographs show the Mast with only two-yard arms, which is again consistent with ‘Agincourt’ foremast configuration of yardarms.
The topgallant yard was made in Chatham dockyard and was added prior to 1910.
Local workmen erected or in Naval terms stepped the ‘Mast’. During the excavation of the hole, problems were encountered with ground water, the men were given an ultimatum ‘Either have the hole completed and the mast stepped within three days - or look for other work’ needless to say the mission was accomplished.
No mean feat when one considers the hole was some 18 feet deep and dug by hand.
Once the Mast was rigged, the Boys ashore started ‘Mast class’, up one side of the ratlines across the half moon and down the other side at the greatest possible speed.
Mast classes continued until 1973 although not always to the half moon
The practice of Mast Manning had it origins in the days of sail, to show respect to a Senior Officer or a person of importance. This evolution was started ashore at Shotley, with Boys manning the rigging and lining the Yards, completed by the famous ‘Button Boy’ standing to attention on the truck, some 142 feet 10 inches above the parade ground supported only by the lightening conductor. His reward was to receive the Captains ‘shilling’, (later a silver crown i.e. ‘five shillings piece’) on return to the deck.
Although not a regular event before WW2, from the early 50’s became an annual evolution. With BBC TV filming on several occasion, one of which appeared on the Children’s programme ‘Blue Peter’ in 1968, with John Noakes star of the show. This spectacular event continued until 1973, the last Mast Manning taking place on Parents Day 16th June 1973.