Postgraduate research opportunities Life on Mars: reconstructing the welfare of boys admitted to the TS Mars, 1869 to 1929


Key facts

  • Opens: Wednesday 1 November 2023
  • Number of places: 1


This project is based on the records of the TS Mars. It will address questions including: what light can data shed on the welfare of children on the TS Mars? What light do these records shed on child & adolescent growth patterns since the mid-19th century? What light does the Mars shed on the relationship between the statutory & voluntary sectors in the management of welfare institutions? What role did the Mars play in the history of care & reformation in 19th and early 20th century Scotland?
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It is preferable that the successful candidate should be able to commence study on either 1 January or 1 April 2024.

Candidates must have a background in a relevant research area (broadly conceived).

This opportunity is open to candidates who have a Master’s degree in a relevant subject area, and a UK Honours degree at 2.1 or above, or equivalent for non-UK qualifications.

Equivalent international qualifications.

An IELTS (Academic) score of 6.5 minimum is required (with a minimum of 6.0 in each component, or equivalent) for candidates for whom English is not a first language and this must be evidenced at point of application.

Recognised English Language Qualifications.

THE Awards 2019: UK University of the Year Winner
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Project Details

This project is based on the records of the TS Mars. The Mars was a training ship which was moored on the banks of the River Tay and was designed to provide recruits for the royal and merchant navies and to ‘rescue’ children who were perceived to be at risk of delinquency. It has bequeathed a wealth of records, including anthropometric and medical data, as well as administrative data.

The project offers an opportunity to address a number of questions, including the following:

  1. What light can anthropometric data shed on the welfare of children on the TS Mars between 1869 and 1929?
  2. What light do these records shed on child and adolescent growth patterns since the mid-nineteenth century?
  3. What light does the Mars shed on the relationship between the statutory and voluntary sectors in the management of ‘welfare’ institutions
  4. What role did the Mars play in the history of ‘care’ and ‘reformation’ in 19th and early 20th century Scotland?


This project will be based on the analysis of original records held by OnFife (the Fife Cultural Trust) and Dundee City archives, supplemented by local newspapers and official reports.

OnFife holds a series of records pertaining to the Mars, including its Admission and Discharge books.  These contain information about the children’s backgrounds and domestic circumstances; reasons for admission; birthdates; height, weight and other physical characteristics; educational performance; and destinations upon discharge.  Anthropometric data were recorded intermittently between 1869 and 1893 and more consistently from 1894 onwards.  Information about the children’s birthdates and measurements will enable us to reconstruct individual children’s growth patterns alongside underlying trends.

OnFife also holds copies of the ship’s minute books and other sources, including medical books, cash books, maintenance accounts, newspaper cuttings and selected reports from other training ships.  Dundee City Archives hold copies of the ship’s Annual Reports (GD/AY12/1/1-2), including both medical and dietary information.  They also include the ship’s rules and regulations and subscriptions and donations from private individuals and municipal authorities. The DC Thomson Group Archives include many visual images.

OnFife’s extensive collection of newspaper cuttings can be used alongside other sources to illustrate the ways in which the ship’s activities were reported locally.  Some first-hand recollections were also published in the People’s Journal and a tape-recording was preserved by McManus Galleries (McGill 1996: 25).  Brief reports on the Mars and other training ships can be found in various Parliamentary Papers (e.g. Report of the Departmental Committee on … Juvenile Delinquents and the Inspector of Reformatories and Industrial Schools’ Annual Reports).

Planned methodology

This project incorporates two sets of questions examining the welfare of the Mars boys and the history of the Mars as a residential institution and industrial school.  We propose to approach these issues in the following ways:

Welfare (RQs 1-2)

The TS Mars occupies an ambiguous place in the collective memory of Dundee and the wider Fife region.  On the one hand, it was a source of punishment and fear (‘We’ll send ye tae the Mars’); on the other, it was also a source of pride, and a source of opportunity for those who were admitted to it.  However, we still know relatively little about the impact of the shipboard regime on the children’s welfare.

This project will use the techniques of anthropometric history to address this issue.  Anthropometric history is a branch of economic and social history which uses the heights (and sometimes weights) of past generations to study their health and wellbeing (Harris 2021).  The Mars records include information about the heights and weights of more than 3000 boys who were admitted to the Mars between 1869 and 1929, including multiple measurements of boys who were admitted from1894 onwards.  We can use these records to compare the nutritional status of the Mars boys with those of other children from the surrounding areas, and to examine the impact of the conditions they experienced on their individual growth.

The project will also address an important debate within the field of anthropometric history.  It is generally accepted that individual variations in stature reflect the interaction of environmental and genetic influences (Visscher 2003).  As far as environmental factors are concerned, it has usually been argued that final height is determined either by events during the ‘first thousand days’ of life (i.e. from conception to the end of the second year) or by factors operating over the whole of the period from conception to maturity (Harris 2021).  However, some historians have argued that adolescence is particularly important (Depauw and Oxley 2019), whilst Gao and Schneider (2021) found no evidence of an ‘adolescent growth spurt’ among British children before the early years of the twentieth century.

The Mars records are especially relevant to the second of these issues.  As Gao and Schneider have highlighted, the majority of historical anthropometric studies have relied either on measurements of schoolchildren or those of adults, and we possess very few records of measurements taken during adolescence.  They sought to address this gap using measurements taken on board the Indefatigable, but this ship only recorded the measurements taken on admission and discharge.  By contrast, the Mars recorded the heights of approximately 3000 children at annual intervals between the ages of circa 10 and 16 between 1894 and 1929, and a smaller number between 1869 and 1893.  They therefore provide a more continuous record of adolescent height during this critical growth period.

The Mars as a residential and reformatory institution (RQs 3-4)

The Mars was part of a larger network of training ships and industrial schools which developed during the second half of the nineteenth century. The Industrial Schools Act of 1866 (29 & 30 Vict. C. 118) allowed children to be committed to such institutions for the ‘crimes’ of begging, receiving alms, or lacking visible means of subsistence (§14), for having been charged with an offence (§15), or being ‘refractory’ (§§16-17) and, as such, the Mars was a source of both pride and fear. As McGill (1996: 16, 88) noted, ‘the very name … would be enough to strike terror into the hearts of young boys’, whilst the ship’s committee ‘relied on the goodwill of local people to support the ship financially’.

This project will address these two faces of the Mars by examining its history as both a philanthropic and punitive institution. We will use information from the ship’s Annual Reports and local newspapers to examine the involvement of local philanthropists and the complex relationship between philanthropy and the state in the management of an institution which was established under statute, supported by government grants and subject to official inspection, and yet also dependent on voluntary management and subscription. We will also use the ship’s administrative records, together with official papers, to assess its role in the history of both residential child care and penal provision more generally.

Further information


Carradice, P. (2009), Nautical training ships: an illustrated history, Stroud: Amberley.

Depauw, E. and Oxley, D. (2019), ‘Toddlers, teenagers and terminal heights: the importance of puberty for male adult stature, Flanders 1800-76’, Economic History Review, 72(3), 925–952.

Douglas, G. (2008), We’ll send ye tae the Mars: the story of Dundee’s legendary training ship, Wormit: Shakey Hands.

Douglas, G. (2013), Sons of the Mars: further tales from Dundee’s legendary training ship, Wormit: Shakey Hands.

Gao, P. and Schneider, E. (2021), ‘The growth pattern of British children, 1850-1975’, Economic History Review, 74(2), 341-71.

Harris, B. (1997), Heights and weights of British schoolchildren, 1908-1950.  UK Data Service. SN: 3546, DOI: 10.5255/UKDA-SN-3546-1.

Harris, B. (2021), ‘Anthropometric history and the measurement of wellbeing’, Vienna Yearbook of Population Research, 19, 91-126.

Kelly, C. (2019), Juvenile justice in Victorian Scotland, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

McGill, L. (1996), The Mars Training Ship, Dundee: Linda McGill.

Visscher, P. (2003), ‘Sizing up human height variation’, Nature Genetics, 40(5), 489-90.

Whyte, C. (2021), ‘HMS Mars: an industrial school in the late-nineteenth century’, Scottish Journal of Residential Child Care, 20(2).

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Professor Harris

Professor Bernard Harris

Social Work and Social Policy (Subject)

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Dr Louise Brangan

Senior Lecturer
Social Work and Social Policy (Subject)

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Only complete applications will be considered.  A complete application should include:

  • Academic CV
  • Academic Transcripts and Certificates
  • IELTS (minimum overall band score of 6.5, with no individual score of less than 5.5 – or equivalent - gained within the last two years, if applicable)
  • 2 x academic reference letters regarding your suitability for this research project
  • Cover letter describing your suitability for, and why you are interested in this project

If your application is not shortlisted for interview, we aim to let you know within 2 weeks.

Number of places: 1

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Social Policy

Programme: Social Policy

Start date: Oct 2023 - Sep 2024

Social Policy

Programme: Social Policy

Start date: Oct 2023 - Sep 2024

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Contact us

Informal enquiries regarding the project should be sent to