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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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The English penal system and transportation to the colonies

Two systems

Execution at Tyburn from Newgate Calendar.
View full size imageAn execution at Tyburn. © NMM
By the mid-18th century there were two prison systems in England. The first involved the counties and shires and was administered by Justices of the Peace (JPs).

These institutions ranged from simple lock-ups to Elizabethan houses of correction. They were intended for the discipline of unemployed and wandering labourers.

The government also ran a second, smaller system in London. Newgate was the main prison in London and from 1783 it was also a place for public hangings. Before then, prisoners had left Newgate to be hanged at Tyburn. The gallows at Tyburn stood near what is now Marble Arch.

Rise of the American penal colonies

The Destruction of the American Fleet at Penobscot Bay, 14 August 1779.
View full size imageThe Destruction of the American fleet at Penobscot Bay, 14 August 1779. © NMM
As the prison population grew during the 18th century, the government started to send convicts from Newgate and the county prisons to overseas penal colonies.

At first they were shipped to North America for (usually) seven years for non-capital offences or for life for those who had had their death penalties commuted.

At that time there were more than 150 capital offences, including minor offences like petty theft.

The process of transportation ended with the American Revolutionary War (1775-83), which stopped the British sending their convicts across the Atlantic.

This painting shows one of the few British victories over the American fleet. The British were eventually forced to accept defeat.

New solution to overcrowding

Mrs Fry visiting a female prisoner at Newgate.
View full size imageElizabeth Fry (1780-1845) visiting a female prisoner at Newgate. © NMM
The loss of America as a dumping ground for British convicts led to overcrowding in British prisons as more transportation sentences were handed down by the courts.

William Eden, the Home Secretary, estimated that alternative accommodation would be needed each year for about 1000 convicts. This was far more than could be crammed into the already overcrowded gaols of England.

The government delayed building new gaols, preferring to search for other places to send the convicts.  

Convicts Australia-bound

Sydney Cove, with Government House and Fort Macquarie.
View full size imageGovernment House and Fort Macquarie at Sydney Cove. © NMM

A new plan was announced in January 1787 when the government decided to transport convicts to New South Wales in Australia.

On 22 January 1788 the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay to set up a prison colony. There were more than 1500 people, including 548 male and 188 female convicts. They actually settled in Sydney Cove, not Botany Bay. Over the years about 160,000 men, women and children were sent to Australia.

The First Fleet

Arthur Phillip Esq Captain General & Commander in Chief, in & over the Territory of New South Wales.
View full size imageCaptain Arthur Phillip, RN. © NMM
The 11 ships of the First Fleet, under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip RN, had left Portsmouth in May 1787. On board the ships were several convicts from London, one of whom was 21-year-old Mary Springham.

In October 1786 Mary had been found guilty at the Old Bailey of stealing two guineas, nine shillings (about £186 at today's prices) and a snuffbox. She was sentenced to seven years transportation.

In January 1787 all the female convicts in Newgate under sentence of transportation were sent to the 333-ton Lady Penrhyn (1786) on the Thames.

Convict family

Sydney Bay, Norfolk Island in May 1855.
View full size imageSydney Bay, Norfolk Island, c. May 1855. © NMM
The Lady Penrhyn sailed in a fleet for New South Wales carrying a cargo of 101 female convicts, six marines and five children.

In January 1790, Mary's son, William (by William Hambly, a carpenter's mate on the fleet flagship Sirius), was christened at Sydney Cove.

HMS Sirius (lines & profile).
View full size imageHMS Sirius (lines and profile). © NMM
William Hambly married Mary in November 1791 at Norfolk Island. Their daughter, Elizabeth, was born in January 1794. Mary Springham died there in June 1796.




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