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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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Life on board

Appalling conditions

Prison Hulk.
View full size imageConditions on the prison hulks were terrible.
Conditions on board the floating gaols were appalling. The standards of hygiene were so poor that disease spread quickly. The sick were given little medical attention and were not separated from the healthy.

Two months after the first convicts had been placed on board the hulks, an epidemic of gaol fever (a form of typhus spread by vermin) spread among them. It persisted on and off for more than three years.

Two convict hulks moored at the quayside steps.
View full size imageConvict hulks moored at the quayside.

Dysentery, caused by drinking brackish water, was also widespread. At first, patients, whatever their state of health, lay on the bare floor.

Later they were given straw mattresses and their irons were removed.

 

Death and disease

Convict ward on the prison hulk Warrior (1781).
View full size imageConvict ward on the prison hulk Warrior (1781).
Mortality rates of around 30% were quite common. Between 1776 and 1795, nearly 2000 out of almost 6000 convicts serving their sentence on board the hulks died.

Many of the convicts sent to New South Wales in the early years were already disease ridden when they left the hulks. As a result, there were serious typhoid and cholera epidemics on many of the vessels heading for Australia.

Life aboard the 'Retribution'

James Hardy Vaux described the conditions on the hulk Retribution:

Quotation marks left
There were confined in this floating dungeon nearly 600 men, most of them double ironed; and the reader may conceive 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 amongst them….

On arriving on board, we were all immediately stripped and washed in two large tubs of water, then, after putting on each a suit of coarse slop clothing, we were ironed and sent below; our own clothes being taken from us….

I soon met many of my old Botany Bay acquaintances, who were all eager to offer me their friendship and services, that is, with a view to rob me of what little I had; for in this place there is no other motive or subject for ingenuity. All former friendships are dissolved, and a

Quotation marks right
man here will rob his best benefactor, or even messmate, of an article worth one halfpenny.

A tough life

Cat O'Nine Tails.
View full size imageFloggings with a cat o'nine tails were a common occurrence on board the hulks. © NMM

The living quarters were very bad. The hulks were cramped and the prisoners slept in fetters. The prisoners had to live on one deck that was barely high enough to let a man stand up. The officers lived in cabins in the stern.

The conditions on board were often worse than places like Newgate. Attempts by any prisoners to file away or knock off the chains around their waists and ankles led to frequent floggings, extra irons and solitary confinement in tiny cells with names like the 'Black Hole'.

Convict dress

The men were poorly dressed as well as unhealthy. They were supposed to have:

  • a linen shirt
  • a brown jacket
  • a pair of breeches.

But the men who controlled the ships often pocketed the money the government had given for the clothes.

Howard's visit

The gallery on the prison hulk Warrior (1781).
View full size imageThe gallery on the prison hulk Warrior (1781).
The prison reformer John Howard (inspirer of the Howard League for Penal Reform) visited the hulks and found that 'many had no shirts, some no waistcoats, some no stockings, and some no shoes'.

On his second visit, 15 months later:

'there seemed to be no uniform plan with regard to their clothing, some had no shirts on, some looked as though they had not been washed for many weeks, some had shoes and some had none, or such as they could not possibly work in'.

Many convicts were forced to rely on their friends and relatives for clothing.

Food on the hulks

Ship's Biscuit or Hard Tack.
View full size imageBiscuits on board the hulks were often mouldy.

The authorities were always keen to keep down the cost of the prisons. They wanted to avoid giving prisoners a better life than the poor had outside the hulks.

The quality of the prisoners' food was therefore kept as low as possible. The monotonous daily meals consisted chiefly of:

  • ox-cheek, either boiled or made into soup
  • pease
  • bread or biscuit.

The biscuits were often mouldy and green on both sides! On two days a week the meat was replaced by oatmeal and cheese. Each prisoner had two pints of beer four days a week, and badly filtered water, drawn from the river, on the others.

Sometimes, the captain of a hulk would allow the convicts to plant vegetables in plots near the Arsenal. This attempt to add something extra to the poor diet of the prisoners depended on the goodwill, or otherwise, of the individual in charge.

Overcrowding

The washroom on board the prison hulk Warrior (1781).
View full size imageThe washroom on board the prison hulk Warrior (1781).

As convict numbers increased, so did the number of hulks. The first two vessels, the Justitia and the Censor, housed 125 and 183 prisoners respectively. The number of convicts held on other vessels varied with their size, but averaged 275-300. Also, each ship would have about 20 officers. On a still, warm day the smell of the prisoners would pollute the river from bank to bank.

Hulk after hulk, hung with bedding, clothes, weed and rotting rigging, lined the river like a floating shantytown.  Because of the isolated position of the hulks, convicts were less able than prisoners ashore to arrange special treatment, particularly visits from family and friends.

Discovery convict ship at Deptford.
View full size imageThe Discovery convict ship at Deptford.
The hulk shown here is the Discovery. Thirty years before becoming a prison hulk in 1808, HMS Discovery was Captain George Vancouver's ship during his voyages in the Pacific.

She served as a prison hulk for 10 years at Sheerness and a further 15 years at Woolwich. She was then moved to Deptford, where she was broken up in 1834.


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Glossary
Fetters
Hulk
Rigging

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