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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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Penal reform and the end of the hulks

Howard and reform

Three convicts and a guard.
View full size imageThree convicts and a guard.
When the 1776 Act came up for renewal in 1779, John Howard began a long campaign against the hulks. He supported the idea of large and airy prisons where convicts could labour together, but sleep in a separate cell. Howard was supported by Jeremy Bentham and others.

After years of lobbying, Millbank Prison was eventually built in 1816 to the west of the Houses of Parliament and adjacent to the Thames. Unfortunately, due to its management regime and architectural design, it proved unsuccessful.

Model prisons

Despite this setback, there was increasing pressure from reformers and objections to transportation by the colonies. This led to the development of model prisons at Pentonville, Brixton and Chatham to replace the hulks. The era of the hulks was finally brought to a close after the Defense burned off Woolwich Docks in 1857.

The new jails followed a version of the colonial labour regimes and the transportation system was changed to incorporate the notion of exile. From then on, prisoners would serve a probationary period in one of the new jails before they were pardoned on condition of being deported.

Emigrant ships

Plan of Emigrant Ship St Vincent
View full size imagePlan of the emigrant ship St Vincent.
Pardoned criminals would then join an emigrant ship like the St Vincent. Built in 1829, she was used as a convict ship before being fitted out for emigrants going to Australia.

The plan shows bunk spaces for the emigrants on the tween below deck. Even the biggest cabin, shown right, is less than 3m square (10 feet square). Yet her owners said she was 'light and airy for both families and single persons'.


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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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