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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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George Barrington

Student pickpocket

One of the most famous prisoners on board the hulks was George Barrington (1755-1804). Born in Ireland in 1775 he had arrived in London to study medicine.

Instead, seeking to mix in high society, Barrington turned to pick-pocketing to make ends meet. He had a remarkable career and even stole a jewel-encrusted gold snuffbox, said to have been worth more than £30,000, from the waistcoat pocket of Count Gregory Orloff, former favourite of Catherine the Great.

First time on the hulks

Eventually, Barrington was caught and sentenced to three years 'on board the ballast lighters' at Woolwich. A reporter at the time of his arrest described him thus:

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a very genteel man, about 21, and very far from athletic: his hair dressed a la mode; clothes in quite the taste; a fine gold-headed taper cane, with suitable tassles, and elegant Artois buckles. In short he is the genteelest thief ever to have been seen at the
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Old Bailey, and it is a great pity he should be condemned to so vulgar an employment as ballast heaving.

Communal survival

Convicts from the hulk Justitia at work in Woolwich.
View full size imageConvicts from the Justitia labouring at Woolwich.

In the town gaols a man with influence or money could keep himself apart at least partially from the sick and poor prisoners.

But on board the hulks, with their single deck for all prisoners, no sort of bribery would work.

Barrington was forced to mix with the 'vulgar' criminals on board the Justitia.

Somehow, he managed to survive and 'in response for his exemplary conduct', and with two thirds of his sentence still unserved, he was released. 


Back to his old ways

George Barrington (1755-1804).
View full size imageGeorge Barrington (1755-1804).
Barrington could not find paid work after his release, and he returned to his old ways. Within five months he was back on board the Justitia, this time sentenced to 5 years.

During this second spell of imprisonment his health declined and he suffered from bouts of severe depression. He tried but failed to escape in 1779 and decided that suicide was his only option.

Barrington stabbed himself with a penknife and although the wound was deep, it was not fatal. Barrington got better, only to be struck down by consumption (tuberculosis).

He recalled that:

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Colds that I had repeatedly caught had ulcerated my lungs, and labour often exceeding my strength by day, and putrified air by night, had greatly reduced and wasted my frame.

The surgeons finding that the usual medicaments were not sufficient, applied to the superintendent, and obtained a milk and vegetable diet for me. This was a regimen never

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allowed there, but like extreme unction to those that were at the point of death.

To Ireland... and back to England

A Government Jail Gang at Sydney.
View full size imageA Government jail gang at Sydney.
After 4 years he was given a pardon on condition that he left the country and never returned. Barrington went to Ireland, but his bad reputation earned in London had got there before him and he was forced to run away.

He returned to England and a life of crime. In 1783 he reappeared at the Old Bailey charged with 'not fulfilling the conditions of His Majesty's pardon'. The Judge threatened to send him back to Woolwich. Barrington pleaded:

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My Lord, my disease is of such a nature, it is not in the power of medicine to relieve
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me if I go down to that place, and certain death must be the result.

The judge took pity on Barrington and allowed him to serve his 11- month sentence at Newgate.

Transport to Australia

The town of Sydney in New South Wales
View full size imageThe town of Sydney in New South Wales.
On his release he was again arrested for pick-pocketing. This time he was transported to New South Wales where he was able to make a fresh start. After finishing their sentence, those who worked hard were sometimes able to save money to set themselves up as settlers.

A new career

Barrington was released in 1792 because of good conduct. Remarkably, and despite a fondness for rum, he started out on a career in the Australian penal system. When he died in 1804 he was Superintendent of Convicts and High Constable in New South Wales!

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