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A boy seaman (plural boy seamen) is a boy (male minor) who serves as seaman or is trained for such service.
In the British naval forces, where there was a need to recruit enough hands to man the vast fleet of the British Empire, extensive regulations existed concerning the selection and status of boys enlisted to keep filling the ranks.
Various specific terms were introduced for different, age- and exam-related stages in a boy's potential career:
- Apprentice - boy aged 16 to 18 trained in technical skills at the dockyard schools to become an artificer.
- Boy, as rated (after World War II known as a 'junior') - aged between 15½ and 18. On a boy's 18th birthday he automatically became rated as an ordinary seaman and was subject to the Naval Discipline Act as applicable to adult seamen.
- Boy 1st class - a boy aged 16 to 18 under training, who had previously served for between 9 months and 18 months rated as "boy 2nd class", shown sufficient proficiency in seamanship and accumulated at least one good conduct badge (the requirements varied between training ships). His rate of pay was increased on being promoted.
- Boy 2nd class - a boy aged 15 to 17 rated as such on entry to a training ship of the Royal Navy. Such entry was conditional on a boy's adequate physical height, weight and medical fitness and evidence of being of 'good character'. The boy's parents or guardians would sign a declaration that the boy would serve in the navy for a minimum period (usually 12 years).
- Boy 3rd class - a boy aged 14 to 18 who served either as a domestic (waiter, steward) aboard the port flagships or as a junior clerk or storekeeper in the ports. He would be eligible for entry to a training ship as a boy 2nd class from age 15 if he met the physical requirements. The majority of such boys were enlisted from homes in the ports and were not wholly resident on ships or in the dockyards.
- Powder-boy was a role for younger boys to service artillery.
- Cadet - boys aged 13 to 15 enlisted to become officers and trained on a training ship reserved for such schooling; the last was HMS Britannia moored at Dartmouth.
- Midshipman - a boy aged 16 to 18 serving aboard a seagoing ship, having passed out of the cadet ship and undergoing further training before being promoted to the fully commissioned officer rank of sub-lieutenant.
Prior to the First World War, the United States Navy allowed males under the age of 18 to serve on ships who were officially referred to as "boys". In 1828 ships were allowed to have boys between 14 and 18 at the ratio of one boy for every two guns the ship carried. (i.e. a 44 gun frigate could have up to 22 boys in its crew.) Article 464 of Naval Regulations published in 1833 stated, "A recruiting officer shall enter no boy under thirteen years of age; nor any person under twenty-one years of age, without the consent of their parent or guardian". In 1883 the minimum age of enlistment was raised from 14 to 15.
In the 1880s Captain (later Rear Admiral) Stephen B. Luce established an apprentice training program in the U.S. Navy where males as young as 15 could be enlisted, with their parents' permission, and then serve an apprenticeship on training ships before being assigned to the fleet. The first six months were on a stationary training ship where the apprentices learned fundamental skills which included basic literacy, gunnery, seamanship and shipboard maintenance. The next phase of training was assignment to a cruising training ship where the apprentice was expected to complete both a winter and a summer cruise before being sent to ship in the fleet.
In 1909 Navy regulations were changed so that the minimum age for enlistment was raised to 17 with parental permission and 18 without. Recruits enlisted under age 18 served until they reached age 21 at which point they could be discharged or, if they chose, re-enlist for four years.
Luce's theory behind the apprentice training program was to provide the Navy with young sailors who were already trained and adapted to shipboard life. This was in contrast to traditional recruiting which would take any able bodied applicant and have them learn on the job. The problem with the traditional method was that many of the new "landsmen" (i.e. inexperienced sailors) were unable to adapt to Navy life or were sometimes criminals. The apprentice program, Luce hoped, would give the Navy the opportunity to make good sailors during their formative years which, in the long run, would provide better trained and more disciplined sailors in the enlisted ranks.
The apprentice program ended with the establishment of the Recruit Training Center at Naval Station Great Lakes in 1911. In the few years prior to World War I, the Navy rapidly expanded and needed new sailors in large numbers as quickly as possible. The result was the abolition of the apprentice program and the establishment of an 8 week "boot camp" which would transform civilians into sailors in a much shorter time frame.