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The Peanuts

National Sea Training School Gravesend

By John Martin

Q. “On your application form, you say you like music. Do you play an instrument? …..OK, do you go to concerts? So what sort of music do you like? ……..Right..All sorts. So what music do you mainly listen to? …..Uhuh, so which radio station do you tune into?

And it says you like football. Do you play in a team? ……..Uhuh, just a kick about with your mates? Do you support a team? …..So how often do you go and watch them play? ….so how do you support them?”

P&O Cruises started to sponsor boys to the Gravesend Sea Training College to undertake pre-sea Catering Training since the British Shipping Federation handed over the selection of boys for a career in the Merchant Navy to shipping companies who could offer them jobs at the end of such training

As the Company Hotel Services Training Officer, visiting the ships and interviewing the Junior Ratings on the scheme which had been sent to them by Fleet Personnel, it was apparent that any follow-up training on board was neglected and most only had aspirations to become a Utility (U-gang) Steward on their rating. This gave them a foot into the bar pantries and subsequently a Public Room Steward. The restaurants and ‘rooms’ seemed too much like hard work by comparison. Being a Lift Attendant or Bell Boy was not giving them the all-round departmental familiarisation that had been hoped for. As I had suggested that Hotel Services had a vested interest in the quality of these boys, I ended up every quarter spending a few days interviewing 15 and 16 year olds with a Fleet Personnel Officer.

The Shipping Federation sent along boys who expressed an interest in working on passenger ships in the hotel department. I’m not sure how they determined this as the boys (as it was still predominantly boys) were a bit vague as to what this might entail.

These young men were the most difficult group to interview. They had no experience, skill or knowledge to test. We might get an outline of what they achieved at school, but they certainly were not looking to go on to further education. I was hopeful that they really would like a career in the Hotel Services Department on our ships. I was looking for some sort of commitment. A commitment to anything. Being a badged Boy Scout was good. Playing an instrument in a school band was a bonus. My reasoning was that if they had demonstrated some form of commitment that involved self-discipline they were more likely to make some sort of commitment to their training and career development. These were the ones that were selected to join a 10 week residential pre-sea course as a Peanut at the National Sea Training College at Gravesend. This lay on the southern bank of the Thames in Kent. As Hotel Services Training Officer I was keen to make sure the Junior Rating Scheme worked for them and the to the company’s benefit.

National Sea Training College, Chalk, Gravesend.


The Gravesend National Sea Training School founded in Gravesend’s Sailor’s Home in 1918 to replace the Merchant Seamen lost in WW1 and joined in 1921 by the Training Ship Vindicatrix, which subsequently relocated to Sharpness during WW2, integrated as the National Sea Training Trust in 1963.

The trainees from Training Ship Vindicatrix were known as Vindi Boys

The result was a purpose built college at Eastcourt Marshes, Gravesend opening in 1967. Inexplicably, it became known by its residents as the Peanut Factory. This may have been a derisory reference by local boys to the Monkey or Pea Jackets issued to trainees in earlier years. Others believe they were so referred after the barber delivered the short back and sides to all new entrants making them all looking uniformly similar. Trainees who attended both the school and the college seem to be proud to be known as Peanuts. And it seems ‘once a Peanut, always a Peanut’.

All Peanuts underwent lifeboat and firefighting training. Those who had chosen catering also undertook stewarding and basic cookery training. Initially certification was Board Of Trade ‘Approved’. With the requirement of recognised national examination board certificates, the Merchant Navy Training Board had such training endorsed by the City & Guilds of London Institute from 1976.

The College's Lifeboat stage in the Thames.

As a follow-up to this recruitment initiative, occasional visits were made to the college to see how our own particular Peanuts were faring. Either with a Fleet Personnel Officer or on my own.

A catering trainee’s certificate awarded in conjunction with the Merchant Navy Training Board and endorsed by the CGLI Skills Testing Service.

This covered Basic Cookery. Food Service and Housekeeping.

There were two skills/knowledge tests under housekeeping topics

Five skills/knowledge tests for food service - Five basic cookery skills tests

It also included Skills in lifeboat handling and knowledge of survival techniques.

Practical firefighting and knowledge of firefighting principles

A 1985 Cohort The pool for basic sea survival

Catering trainees preparing for a Christmas Function with their tutors

Each ship visit included an interview with every Junior Rating to make sure their own aspirations were being considered and that the proscribed programme for them was being met. Some Staff Captains had to be reminded that they were responsible for the welfare of these boys as they were technically the custodians of these lads who were still minors, and wouldn’t achieve their full rating until they were eighteen. It was important to make sure they were not considered ‘fresh meat’ by some elements of the crew. Quite often once a boy achieved their 18th. birthday their rerate to Assistant Steward was neglected and had to be back-dated. Once on board, they invariably reported to the Accommodation Supervisor and on the larger ships became lift attendants or bell-boys, the latter term tended to stick. (The term bell-boy came from when cabins would have call bell buttons which rang in the pantries, and to which a ‘bell-boy’ would see what it was the passenger wanted. This was now obviated by the telephone.)

The programme for JCR’s was to make sure they managed to get all-round experience of the various on board hotel departments and were issued a log-book to this end. They were not there just to drive lifts.

Though this was a popular task by the boys themselves – as seen here by one such boy – and why!

Galley experience in the ships was difficult because most of the utilities and assistants in the ships were Goan. If there was a boy who demonstrably wanted to make a cooking career we asked personnel to send them to a ship that could accommodate that wish . We would then follow up by sending them to Liverpool’s Nautical Catering College to build on the basic skills obtained at Gravesend.

Princess Cruises Training Guide from 1976 - Cartoon of Pietro Corsi on right

Fleet Personnel didn’t quite understand how this might work and sent one boy to ‘Sun Princess’ where there was no real opportunity with Pietro Corsi’s Italian Catering contract. He was ready to go back to ‘The Pool’ and ask for a ship as Galley Boy.

A couple of Junior Rating Stewards during their restaurant familiarisation ‘Sea Princess’ 1984

Once a Peanut, always a Peanut’

One such Peanut decided to write about his three-month experience at the National Sea Training College.

“We follow his exciting passage through the three-month Lifeboat and Efficient Deck Hand course before embarking on his first trip to sea in September 1974 onboard the “Anco Empress”.

We then follow him on an adventure across the oceans and upon the high seas around the World, crossing the Equator, learning his new skills and transforming a shy, timid and naïve young man into an adult via Rotterdam, Montreal, New York, New Orleans, Rio De Janeiro, Durban and back to Rotterdam with hilarious and embarrassing consequences as he comes to terms with his ever-changing environments and the social demands of a work hard / play hard regime.”


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Tim Dick
Tim Dick
Sep 24, 2023

Fascinating!! Is this the basic process today? Thanks!

Salty Seadog
Salty Seadog
Sep 24, 2023
Replying to

The Sea School was moved to new premises on Chalk Marshes in 1967. In 2003, because of a decline in the size of the Merchant Navy and therefore a reduction in student numbers, the premises on Chalk marshes became a Metropolitan Police College. This is used for practical crime fighting scenarios and the like. The Sea School was incorporated into the North West Kent College and is the home for Gravesend Sea Cadets.

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