Like a Wicked Noah’s Ark

Like a Wicked Noahs Ark CoverPublished by Arcadia, an imprint of Australian Scholarly Publishing, early October 2020

Available in bookshops or order here.

Step back in time to 1860s Sydney – when ragged children populated the harbour city’s slums, picking pockets and scraping a living selling matches and watercress. Such neglected youths formed the city’s gangs, thieving and assaulting those unwise enough to travel about without company. These ‘larrikins’ often ended up in gaol, and received a thorough criminal education while they were there from Fagin-esque professors of the art.

In 1867 a solution to this problem was formed. Fitted up for the reception of New South Wales’ delinquent and abandoned boys, a Nautical School Ship was moored permanently within sight of Circular Quay on Sydney Harbour. The Colony’s prisons were drained of their young inmates, and they were herded together in their dozens – and later, hundreds – on board.

Like a Wicked Noah’s Ark is the full and close-up history of this ground-breaking experiment in juvenile reformation, which operated continuously until 1911 on the Vernon and Sobraon.

Reviews for Like a Wicked Noah’s Ark

Review by John Ramsland, OAM, Emeritus Professor of History, The University of Newcastle

… a brilliantly researched study of a neglected but important field of Australian social history …

While the colonial history of disadvantaged girls and women has been strongly exploited by a range of historians in the last thirty years, the social history of abandoned boys remains somewhat neglected. [Luke’s] book will fill a large gap. And it is very timely for both the history of social work and the history of education and current concerns about the bad conduct of orphanages and other child-rescue institutions.

Review by Greg Swinden (Naval Institute, January 2021)

As the old saying goes ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’ and this excellent book by Sarah Luke takes the reader back to New South Wales (NSW) during the period 1867 – 1911 and the confronting social problems of orphaned children, burgeoning juvenile crime, inadequate or non-existent parental control, a struggling education system and a colonial Government seeking to take control before it all spirals out of control…

While Vernon and Sobraon are long gone Sarah Luke’s comprehensive and easy to read history of the vessels, their captains, training staff and the thousands of boys (and one girl who disguised herself as boy) who passed through the nautical school ships means this important part of Australian maritime, social, educational and justice system history will not be forgotten.

Read the full review here.

Review by Dr Shirley Fitzgerald (Professional Historians Association, January 2021)

This book makes lively use of institutional and court records, as well as children’s testimonies, to bring to life the experiences of boys housed on industrial training ships moored in Sydney Harbour until 1911. It makes a great contribution to our understanding of state interventions in the lives of the poor in late-nineteenth century society.

Read the full review here.

Review posted on Goodreads (September 2021)

… I enjoyed reading this detailed history which uncovers the previously untold stories of the industrial school ships in Sydney Harbour. Captained by three different men in turn, the ‘Vernon’ and ‘Sobraon’ gave young boys from Sydney’s streets a chance to find purpose and industry.

… Luke’s balanced analysis of primary sources reveals an innovative disciplinary regime which turned idle and neglected young boys into grateful and capable men who looked back fondly on their time on the industrial school ship.

Read the full review here.

Review by Dr Caroline Withall (Journal for Maritime Research, April 2022)

Using the ships’ archival records, newspapers and court documents, Luke has produced a detailed chronological study. There is no doubt that this monograph is meticulously researched, rich in detail such that the reader can be left in no doubt what life was like on board the Vernon and Sobraon, as well as details of the apprenticeships obtained for them. Letters, such as those from boys’ parents to the captains, or from apprenticeship masters, are all contained within the written copies of the captain’s annual reports and Luke has made full use of them to paint a vivid picture. Sources like these, which provide a wealth of invaluable detail, will be greatly appreciated by those with family connections to these ships as well as social historians of this period.

… This is a valuable contribution to social history, and the history of childhood, clearly illustrating that during this period all societies were struggling with these types of issues. The question of how much intervention is necessary and right is still relevant and continually debated in society today.

Read the full review here.

Review by Dorothy Kass (History of Education Review, June 2022)

Using an extensive range of sources, Luke takes the reader into daily life on board the ships, introducing a large cast of characters including the captains, crew, teachers and boys. She examines the aims of politicians and social reformers in setting up industrial schools, along with other institutions to deal with child poverty, homelessness and crime… This accessible book will interest both a general and specialist audience. It is supported by endnotes, bibliography, an index and, not least, photographs and portraits. The work is of relevance for social historians, historians of childhood and historians of education.

Read the full review here.