PortCities London

Prison hulks on the River Thames

Hard labour

Putting the convicts to work

A Perspective of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich Arsenal.
View full size imageConvicts were put to work at the Woolwich Arsenal. © NMM
Transporting convicts to America had cost the Crown little. But housing convicts on the hulks was expensive, even though the clothing, food and accommodation were of the lowest quality.

To cover the cost, the convicts were put to work improving the river. By about 1775 it was clear that the Thames' main channel was drifting toward the centre of the river. Major dredging needed to be done to stop the movement.

Convict labour was also needed for the development of the Arsenal and the nearby docks. The men dug canals and built the walls around the Arsenal. Other convicts were put to work driving in posts to protect the riverbanks from erosion.

The convicts worked long hours on the banks of the Thames and at the dockyards at Woolwich: 10 hours during summer, 7 in the winter.

Convict work

In July 1777 a correspondent from Scots Magazine gave an account of the employment and treatment of the convicts employed in ballast-heaving:

Justitia Hulk, with the convicts at work near Woolwich.
View full size imageConvicts labouring at Woolwich. © NMM
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There are upwards of two hundred of them who are employed as follows:

Some are sent about a mile below Woolwich in lighters to raise ballast, and to row it back to the embankment at Woolwich Warren, close to the end of the Target Walk: others are there employed in throwing it from the lighters.

Some wheel it to different parts to be sifted: others wheel it from the Skreen, and spread it from the embankment.

A party is continually busied in turning round a machine for driving piles [posts] to secure the embankment from the rapidity of the tides.

View full size imageThe prisoners were chained up at night. © NMM
Carpenters are employed in repairing the Justitia and Censor hulks, that lie hard by for the nightly reception of those objects, who have fetters on each leg, with a chain between, that ties variously, some round their middle, others upright to the throat.

Some are chained two and two; and others, whose crimes have been enormous, with heavy fetters. Six or seven are continually walking about with them
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with drawn cutlasses, to prevent their escape and likewise prevent idleness.


A day in the life...

Laboratory Square at Woolwich Arsenal.
View full size imageLaboratory Square at Woolwich Arsenal. © NMM

James Hardy Vaux was a prisoner on the Retribution, an old Spanish vessel, at Woolwich during the early 1800s.

While waiting to be transported for a second time to New South Wales, he recalled:

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Every morning, at seven o'clock, all the convicts capable of work, or, in fact, all who are capable of getting into the boats, are taken ashore to the Warren, in which the Royal Arsenal and other public buildings are situated, and there employed at various kinds of labour; some of them very fatiguing; and while so employed, each gang of sixteen or twenty men is watched and directed by a fellow called a guard.

These guards are commonly of the lowest class of human beings; wretches devoid of feeling; ignorant in the extreme, brutal by nature, and rendered tyrannical and cruel by the consciousness of the power they possess….

They invariably carry a large and ponderous stick, with which, without the smallest
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provocation, they fell an unfortunate convict to the ground, and frequently repeat their blows long after the poor fellow is insensible.