Sunday, November 6, 2022


 6 November 2022:  Well, here we are in November and closing in rapidly on all those holidays that add inches to our waist lines and take inches off our wallets! Last week, we discussed the infamous prison hulks utilized by the British during the 18th and 19th centuries, both in British waters as well as here in America. As promised, this week we will bring you part two.      


 In total, about 25 hulks were stationed along the Thames Estuary at Woolwich, Deptford, Chatham and Sheerness. Some operated for months, others for decades. And it wasn’t long before the Justitia and other hulks at Woolwich – including the Tayloe, Censor, Reception and Stanislaus – attracted the attention of prison reformers.

After philanthropist John Howard visited the Justitia in 1776, he reported to parliament that he could see from the sickly looks of prisoners that “some mismanagement was among them”. Many had no shirts, shoes or socks. They either had no bedding or shared a blanket, and they slept on wooden boards, with the healthy lying close to the sick prisoners. One convict told him that “he was ready to sink into the earth”.

In 1776, one day’s rations to be shared by a “mess” of six convicts comprised five pounds of dry ship’s biscuit, half an ox cheek and three pints of split pea soup. They drank weak beer and water filtered from the river.

sleeping and eating accommodations on a hulk

 Howard discovered that the “good, wholesome brown biscuit” that Campbell claimed to provide prisoners was in fact mere bags of crumbs or was “mouldy and green on both sides”.

Campbell initially permitted visiting family members to bring supplementary food but eventually forbade the practice as “they conveyed saws and other instruments for their escape” inside.

In short, living conditions were close to unbearable. In an 1819 memoir, swindler and thief James Hardy Vaux wrote of “the horrible effects arising from the continual rattling of chains, the filth and vermin naturally produced by such a crowd of miserable inhabitants, the oaths and execrations constantly heard among them”.

Howard reported that convicts spoke to him in soft tones to avoid being overheard – and with good reason. Meanwhile, Vaux recalled how prisoners were beaten brutally by guards and overseers. He also claimed to have witnessed murder, suicide and robbery. “If I were to attempt a full description of the miseries endured in these ships,” he wrote, “I could fill a volume.”

What happened after the initial two years were up?

The system continued in use long after the initial two-year period mandated, proliferating over the following decades. Convicts suffered the same brand of brutality and deprivation on ships at Sheerness, Chatham, Deptford, Plymouth and Portsmouth. This mode of incarceration wasn’t restricted to the waterways of England, either. During the 19th century, the prison hulk system was exported to places such as Cork, Dublin, Gibraltar and even Bermuda.[ed: America also until 1783]

hulks in Portsmouth harbour
The system reached a global peak in 1829, when an average of 5,550 prisoners were held on hulks in England and Bermuda. The vast majority of them were incarcerated for theft or related offences – anything from house breaking and highway robbery to stealing animals and picking pockets. Theft on board was, unsurprisingly, widespread: one inspector commented that “It appears to be their whole study to rob and plunder each other.”

Prisoners stole to buy alcohol from dockyard workers and guards who turned a blind eye. Gambling was forbidden but, as men were locked down beneath the hatches each night, they could roam their decks, playing dice and dominoes. Reformers argued that prisoners would never become better citizens if they were locked together in these “Floating Academies” and “Schools of Vice”. Locals complained of riotous noises at night, and guards were said to be afraid of descending to lower decks to settle fights and disturbn 1787, when the “First Fleet” set out to transport convicts to Britain’s colony in Australia (replacing the now-lost colonies of North America), many on board had been selected from Campbell’s hulks. In 1794, 22-year old convict Richard Bevis petitioned to be sent to Botany Bay on the next available ship, rather than “wasting the prime of manhood in this receptacle for vice and misery” on the Stanislaus.

His fellow prisoner Edward Moseley asked to be “taken out of this floating hell”, stating he was “stout and robust, and every day go thro’ laborious work. I have three times had the gaol fever.”

Women were still held in prisons on land, but boys younger than 10 were routinely sent to the hulks. This mixing of men and boys was a source of great consternation among reformers, who wanted them kept separately. Chaplains visiting the hulks petitioned for segregation. “Let it be remembered,” one proclaimed, “that they are at present children, and so situated as to claim our sympathetic concern.”

It wasn’t until the 1820s that boys were removed to separate ships, where they learned trades such as carpentry and shoemaking. Until then, those convicts either too young or too old to work on shore during the day were left on board to clean the decks, prepare meals and care for the sick.

 For the others, daily life meant endless rounds of hard labour. The dockyards of Chatham, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Gibraltar and even Bermuda were built on the backs of men imprisoned on hulks. Convicts worked from morning till night in these places, building wharves and embankments, digging ditches and levelling earth to widen the riverbed and improve navigation for ships.

Dockyards were dangerous places for unskilled labourers. In 1825, convict Thom as Merrick died after being jammed between two timbers in the dockyard at Portsmouth. The following year at Portsmouth, convict Joseph French fractured his skull and died from timber falling from a cart. And in 1831, one prisoner complained that “there is nothing thought of a convict if he is hurt”, and that accidents happened frequently, “such as arms broke and legs; there are a great many amputations, from the falling of stones and timber”.

In the face of such danger and deprivation, it’s hardly surprising that prison hulks were powder kegs of violence and insurrection. In August 1802, The Morning Chronicle reported on a riot at Woolwich during which 14 convicts “armed with large clasp knives” rushed their guard threatening murder, demanding that he open the gate to the dockyard. They knocked him down, took the key and made their escape, pursued by several guards who shot at them.


Surely one would think this incarceration threat would be a deterrence to crime - especially relatively minor ones, but the proliferation of hulks would seem to suggest otherwise. 

We'll finish this subject next week, so be sure to check back! We will tell you about the most notorious prison ship, the Jersey, on which countless American POWs perished during the American Revolution.

Until next time, 

                                Fair Winds,

                                   Old Salt


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