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Prison hulks on the River Thames

Introduction
The English penal system and transportation to the colonies
Establishment of the prison hulks
Hard labour
Life on board
George Barrington
Escapes and revolts
Penal reform and the end of the hulks
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Establishment of the prison hulks

Warship gaols

Prison Hulk
View full size imageThe prison hulks were a temporary measure that lasted for 80 years.
To ease overcrowding in the gaols, the authorities also decided to imprison convicts in the hulks of old warships moored on the Thames.

Many prisoners served their entire sentence on the hulks. Others were housed there until a space could be found on a transport ship to Australia.

80-year solution

The hulk Warrior (1781) anchored off Woolwich
View full size imageThe hulk Warrior (1781) anchored off Woolwich.
In 1798 it was reported that more than 1400 out of a total of almost 1900 people waiting for transportation to Australia were confined on the hulks.

The use of the hulks was seen as a temporary measure, and so was first authorized by Parliament for only two years. But despite the concerns of some members who deplored its inhumanity, the 1776 Act lasted for 80 years. It was regularly renewed and extended in scope 'for the more severe and effectual punishment of atrocious and daring offenders'.

The Woolwich Warren

Woolwich Dockyard.
View full size imageWoolwich dockyard and the surrounding area.
The first hulks were moored on the Thames off Woolwich and the opposite shore. In the 18th century there were marshes along the north shore and few people lived there.

On the southern shore, the Woolwich Warren was a maze of workshops, warehouses, wood-yards, barracks, foundries and firing ranges.

Home of the Royal Arsenal

A geometrical plan, and north elevation of His Majesty's Dockyard at Woolwich.
View full size imageA plan of Woolwich, showing the dockyard and surrounding land.
The Warren had been the site of naval shipbuilding since the 16th century. The Royal Arsenal was not established there until 1805, but military arms had been made there for more than a century.

These facilities were gradually being expanded. However, an adequate river harbour was essential if development of the Woolwich Warren was to continue.

 


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Glossary
Hulk

Find out more
StoriesThe 18th-century port
London becomes a centre of finance, commerce and industry
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StoriesThe 19th-century port
Docks and industry transform the Thames
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StoriesDeptford and Woolwich: London's Royal Dockyards
The rise and decline of Henry VIII's Dockyards
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National Maritime Museum/Royal Observatory GreenwichNew Opportunities Fund 
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