‘On a ship,’ continued the nun, ‘as in a Venetian convent, you are safe from all enemies, except one – the sea – which can snuff out your life on a whim. And yet the ship, like the convent, is a thing that most inhabitants learn to love. Perhaps we humans always long for a mother, be it a church or a ship, to hold us safely to her bosom, and comfort us.’









There really was a floating orphanage in Venice called the Scilla.  The philanthropist David Levi Morenos came up with the idea of ‘converting a war ship into a peaceful shelter for the orphaned sons of seafarers and to educate them in the traditional profession of their family’. I took the liberty of setting my story a few years earlier than the real foundation date of June 1906.

The original Scilla was an old grey-painted sailing ship. Boys were usually taken in at the age of seven, and ‘graduated’ when they had learnt all the skills necessary to gain employment as merchant sailors, naval mechanics or fishermen.

The first intake was just half a dozen. By 1922, there were 102 boys living on board, while 72 younger children were housed in dormitories on shore at San Raffaele, not far from the Zattere, where the Scilla was originally moored. The onshore building was also equipped with teaching rooms and workshops.

Aboard, the young sailors slept in double rows of hammocks hung from metal frames and poles. They rose at 5.30am, winter and summer. They tidied up their hammocks and washed ten at a time in big tubs. (So in reality Teo would have had problems with concealing her identity!) The boys then washed their underwear in the same water.

By day they learnt practical skills, such as how to climb the masts and riggings, how to unfurl and refold the sails and how to keep watch. Or they went to the classrooms at San Raffaele for the more conventional aspects of their education.

The real Scilla was established by an act of kindness and run in the same spirit by David Levi Morenos. His wife Elvira helped with the younger boys, tending them ‘with a mother’s heart’.

In later years, the regime seems to have been harder. A former inmate of the Scilla recalled a tough routine.









The ship’s cat stopped dead and looked Renzo straight in the eyes: ‘Oh, another dirty little boy. Worse luck!’
        Renzo had come across several talking cats during the campaign to save Venice from Bajamonte Tiepolo. None were overly respectful. However, none had been quite as rude as this.

      ‘I was promised something better,’ lamented Sofonisba.
     ‘I’m awfully sorry,’ Renzo smiled.
     ‘You will be,’ said the cat.








         Breakfast was bread and milk, but boys who had misbehaved were deprived of one or the other: they were allowed to choose. Lunch was served in metal mess tins, and consisted of pasta or soup and some meat. Dinner was polenta, beans and dried cod. The only drink served was water. There was no heating.

Photos from the early twentieth century show the shaven-headed little boys in their sailor suits, busy scrubbing the deck, folding sails and making rope. They are also seen at their desks, and eating their rations on wooden benches. Wrapped up in their naval coats, they would attend the funerals of benefactors – this too would be cold work in the winter, and boys were known to faint.

Before joining the Scilla, orphans were required to fill in a questionnaire about their future. In one such document a little boy called Leo Pavesi revealed that he had always wanted to be a sailor. When asked ‘What qualities do you have that make you suitable for your chosen profession?’ he answered, ‘I am not afraid of water, and I can swim a little.’ He was also asked if his mother or tutor approved of his choice, and he responded that it was thought a bit of naval discipline would be good for him.

By 1920, the Scilla had become too dilapidated for service. She was broken up and another vessel was commissioned to replace her. The former Volturnia was renamed the Scilla.

An unusual feature of shipboard life was teaching the Scilla’s parrots to speak, using mirrors. Each boy would hide his face behind a mirror and patiently talk to his parrot. The bird, staring at a parrot face reflected in the glass, would believe another of his own species was engaging him in conversation, and would answer in kind. Although easily tricked in this way, they were otherwise highly intelligent birds and seemed to rejoice in increasing their vocabularies. Professor Marìn’s trained parrots were in great demand for transmitting messages: the telegraph office and the telephone exchange in Venice were both still submerged in mud.

Apart from a break between 1923 and 1945, the Scilla continued functioning as a sailing school up until 1972. After the Second World War, the old boat was a familiar sight at the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Locals still say that, after its tall masts disappeared, they always felt that something was missing.

For much of the information about the Scilla I am indebted to an excellent and beautifully illustrated book, La Scuola del Mare, edited by Samuele Constantini and published by l’Assessorato all’Educazione e all’Edilizia scolastica, Provincia di Venezia.

Old ships were also used as training vessels for young sailors in Britain between 1856 and 1986, preparing them for enlisting in the merchant navy or Royal Navy. At Greenhithe on the Thames was the Chichester Training Ship for Homeless Boys, the hull of a fifty-gun frigate housing and training 200 boys for service at sea.


About the book  Meet the cast   The floating orphanage  Unspeakable eatables  London in 1901   Victorian mourning  Quack cures and corsets