Monday, November 14, 2022


 14 November 2022: Half way through November already and the holidays loom. My goodness, where has the year gone?! As promised last week, this will conclude our series on the prison hulks of the 18th and 19th centuries and perhaps shed some light on the use of these despicable vessels in the United States. We left off discussing the attempts to escape; it was not pretty:


One convict was shot from a distance of about 10 metres. “The bullet,” so the report revealed, “entered the left side of his head, which drove part of his skull and brains into his hat: he instantly fell lifeless to the ground.” Some of the rioters did escape, but others were rounded up by the Royal Artillery. Such desperadoes faced a flogging of up to 100 lashes, or being thrown into the hulk’s “black hole” – an isolated cell – with reduced rations.

In 1811, The Times reported that 37 convicts had escaped together from a vessel at Woolwich. Using makeshift tools and saws stolen from the dock yards, the men “cut through the ceiling and timbers of the hulk just under her bends [and] made a hole sufficiently large for a man to creep out”.

Taking advantage of a low tide leaving the ship beached on mudflats, the men waded through the mire to the shore and headed south of Woolwich in the direction of Shooter’s Hill, a place commonly associated with highway robberies. Fifteen of the men were recaptured.

The testimony of Michael Cashmin highlights the horrors of the floating prisons. In April 1778, Cashmin escaped a hulk at Woolwich but was apprehended near Tottenham Court Road, still sporting part of a fetter on each leg.

According to the Newgate Calendar, Cashmin was sent back to the hulks for a further 14 years, despite arguing at the Old Bailey that: “I was almost starved to death when I was there; there is never a man there but would escape from that place if he could: I would rather be hanged than be there.”

In 1778, a large uprising erupted in the dockyards at Woolwich during a planned mass escape. Late one after noon, some 150 men (of 250 convicts working on the Thames at the time) abandoned their wheelbarrows and grabbed pikes from a nearby ship.

Having armed themselves, the mob took up spades and carpenters’ axes, proceeding to the waterside to attempt escape via the sea wall. There they hurled showers of stones at the 20 armed militiamen who tried to stop them, and who eventually subdued the would-be escapees.

Newspapers printed detailed descriptions of fugitives to alert the public. After John Mason escaped the Justitia in 1836, the Morning Post labelled him a “notorious and desperate burglar”. Describing him as stoutly built, with “scars on the right side of his head and on the back of his hand”, the newspaper advised civilians to look out for a man in the “grey dress of the hulks, with a piece of iron on one of his legs”.

Prison uniforms stood out, so many escapees donned disguises. Michael Brothers, who escaped the Defence in 1856, disguised himself with a stolen hat and long overcoat – but his trousers, hastily sewn together from old bedding, aroused suspicion and he was soon recaptured.

Perhaps the most famous convict to abscond from the hulks was fictional. In Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations, serialised from 1860, the protagonist, Pip, helps convict Magwitch to escape. This “fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg… who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled” was recaptured on the Kent marshes and returned to the hulks, which Pip called “wicked Noah’s arks”.

By the 1830s and 1840s, hulk officers feared that influxes of “Swing Rioters” – disaffected agricultural workers – and Chartists demanding political reform would provoke mass mutiny and escape attempts on hulks. Less violent protests took the form of petitions asking for release or better rations. In 1800, a group of convicts on the Lion hulk at Portsmouth spoke of the “barbarity we receive from the officers on board”, and said that they were “starving for the want of provisions”.

Some prisoners asked for early pardons in recognition of injuries sustained in the dockyards; others tried to take up posts in the army and navy. Good behaviour didn’t guarantee success in such efforts, but in some cases it paid off. In 1834, 12-year-old David Brough from Dundee, given a positive character reference from bricklayers and masons in Woolwich dockyard, was pardoned.

Hulks had always had their critics but by the 1840s, with a new nationwide emphasis on reform and rehabilitation, they appeared ever more outmoded. In 1847, the hulks at Woolwich hit the headlines. It was feared that illegal dissections of dead prisoners were taking place on board; inmates felt they were being “allowed to die for the sake of their bodies to go to the school of anatomy”. The system was labelled “a disgrace to any country calling itself… civilised and Christian” by MP Thomas Duncombe.

In 1848, the Daily News singled out the hulk system as corrupt and negligent, observing that the system “continued, not withstanding its disastrous consequences: and it still flourishes – if that which only stagnates, debases, and corrupts, can be said to flourish”. This appraisal argued that hulks had “no redeeming feature”, and that the sole reason the system continued to operate was because convict labour was still of use to the government.

When Mayhew and Binny visited the Defence in 1855, they remarked with wonder that “a state of things so scandalous could last”. Two years later, the Defence burned down; its remaining inmates were moved to nearby prisons.

That same year, 1857, the hulk system ended in Britain, though hulks continued to be used as prisons in overseas colonies for several more years. A system of incarceration that was, Mayhew and Binny pointed out, as rotten as the wooden timbers of the Defence was finally consigned to a watery grave.

[ed: so ends the story of the hulks in England. what follows discusses of the use of them and one specific hulk in New York Harbor during the American Revolution]

 One story of the American War of Independence has eluded the popular imagination: the British prison ships in New York’s East River.

Inside the prison ship Jersey.

Docked in Wallabout Bay, near what would become the Brooklyn Navy Yard, these ships held American prisoners in hellish conditions. Sometimes called “floating dungeons” or “ghost ships,” the prison ships were nothing less than watery concentration camps, responsible for thousands of deaths. The 16-odd prison ships included HMS Falmouth, Scorpion and Hunter. But the most notorious was the Jersey. In its day, the mere mention of its name was enough to send shivers down the spine of an American patriot.

HMS Jersey in Wallabout Bay


More than two centuries later, little remains of the Jersey and the ghastly fleet once anchored in Wallabout Bay. In the years after the war, the prison ships were something nobody cared to remember.

“This ship, the Jersey, the ‘ghost ship,’ it was the single bloodiest conflict of the entire Revolutionary War,” states an authority on the war, Robert P. Watson in his terrifying new history, The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn: An Untold Story of the American Revolution. “Not Saratoga, not Trenton, not Yorktown, not Germantown. The single bloodiest conflict was on board this one ship.”

How bloody was it? We’ll never know the precise number of men who died on the ships, but most scholars estimate the death toll at 11,500.

“This was the statistic that knocked me out of my seat,” Watson says. “Twice as many Americans died on this one ship than died in combat during the entirety of the Revolutionary War, from 1775 to 1783.”

Once a warship of the Royal Navy, by 1770 the Jersey was put to nautical pasture and “hulked.” Its guns and masts were removed, and it was converted into a sort of warehouse in the East River. In 1779, it was turned into a prison.

One internee said of the Jersey, “Without ornament, an old, unsightly hulk, whose dark and filthy external appearance fitly represented the death and despair that reigned within.”

The conditions on board the Jersey were by any measure appalling. Prisoners were locked in dark, overcrowded holds for days on end, often with no room to lie down. They were given brackish water and moldy food, if anything at all, and were kept company by lice, fleas and rats. For toilets, there were great barrels, overflowing with waste. The smell was unimaginable, the air so thick with filth that candles would not light. And pervading it all was a sense of terror from the guards, who showed no mercy. Most prisoners had little hope of ever leaving, and little hope at all.

The British and Americans occasionally exchanged prisoners, although the British did not consider most of the prison-ship population to be legitimate soldiers. Many of the men imprisoned in the East River ships were privateers — crews from small rebel-friendly ships that raided British merchants in the Atlantic. By disrupting British trade and diverting royal resources, privateers were valuable to the revolutionary effort, but they were not officially part of the small Continental Navy. To the British, they were criminals, rebels. And in the calculus of prisoner exchange, one privateer hardly compared to a member of the British army.

There are rare accounts of prisoners escaping. More likely, they’d die. Smallpox, yellow fever, typhoid, dysentery, gangrene, starvation and murder by guards ensured that end for many prisoners. Some six to 12 died every day. Every morning, guards would greet their charges by shouting, “Rebels! Turn out your dead!” The bodies of those who had died the night before were brought up to be buried in the marshy riverbank. Sometimes the dead were left in the hold for days.

None of this was by accident. For the British, there was a purpose behind the Jersey. Watson says the British “saw this ship as a psychological weapon of terror.” They thought “so many Americans will die on this ship, that it will deter patriots from picking up arms against them . . . They designed this and nurtured this.”

The Jersey held its ghastly cargo to the very end of the war, with the last prisoners leaving in September 1783. With the war over and the British gone from New York City, the rotting hulk of the Jersey was allowed to sink into the muck of the Wallabout Bay. In the excitement of the new nation, the Jersey was a nightmare many wanted to forget.


Some of you may recall an earlier post on this subject; if so, the above includes some new material. A horrible treatment of our fellow man, indeed.

Until next time (and a lighter subject),

                                 Fair Winds,

                                         Old Salt



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