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.