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Prison hulks on the River Thames

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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Escapes and revolts

Unrest on the hulks

The Thames and Greenwich Hospital by Moonlight.
View full size imageThe Thames and Greenwich Hospital by moonlight. © NMM
Normally the hulks were anchored off the south shore of the Thames. But sometimes they were stationed on the north side of the river because of unrest and escapes by the convicts.

Escapes to the more populous Woolwich waterfront were more common than to the north shore. In the 18th century the marshes to the north were a desolate and frightening place. Few convicts made a bid for freedom using this route.

The chapel on board the prison hulk Warrior (1781).
View full size imageThe chapel on board the hulk Warrior (1781), scene of a mutiny in the 1840s.
The handful of convicts who did manage to escape would head for communities that they knew would take them in. Most escapees were helped by their friends and families from the shore. Many of these folk were skilled at breaking and entering, planning getaway routes, distracting guards, bribing boatmen and countless other criminal skills.

Night-time escape

Flintlock pistol.
View full size imageFlintlock pistol made in London 1796. © NMM
In November 1776, five men seized the arms chest on board the 260-ton Justitia and drove the warders below. The convicts escaped in a boat brought alongside by their friends under the cover of darkness. During the pursuit, two were killed, one wounded and two recaptured. Shortly after, 14 men tried to copy the escape. They got as far as Greenwich, where they met a naval officer who persuaded them to give themselves up.

Several months later, 22 men forced their way into the captain's cabin and armed themselves with the flintlock pistols and cutlasses they found there. They rowed to the north bank and, by raiding a blacksmith's shop, cut off their fetters.

Prison ship York at Portsmouth Harbour.
View full size imageThe prison hulk York at Portsmouth Harbour.
However, at East Ham they were overtaken by a party of sailors from the Arsenal. A lively gun-battle followed, in which one of the escapees was killed and three recaptured. The rest fled into Epping Forest where several escaped. Others were caught in the following months and swiftly hanged.

York rebellion

Convicts breaking up the prison hulk 'York' (1807).
View full size imageConvicts breaking up the prison hulk York (1807).
As late as 1848, a serious rebellion broke out on the York. This vessel had served as a hulk at Gosport and London since 1820. The conditions of confinement aboard her were terrible and this must have contributed to the unrest.

Typically, she housed about 500 convicts in cramped conditions. The ringleaders of the disturbance were transferred to a land prison and the hulk was taken out of service in 1850.


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