|Conditions on the prison hulks were terrible. © NMM|
Two months after the first convicts had been placed on board the hulks, an epidemic of gaol fever (a form of typhus spread by vermin) spread among them. It persisted on and off for more than three years.
|Convict hulks moored at the quayside. © NMM|
Dysentery, caused by drinking brackish water, was also widespread. At first, patients, whatever their state of health, lay on the bare floor.
Later they were given straw mattresses and their irons were removed.
|Convict ward on the prison hulk Warrior (1781). © NMM|
Many of the convicts sent to New South Wales in the early years were already disease ridden when they left the hulks. As a result, there were serious typhoid and cholera epidemics on many of the vessels heading for Australia.
James Hardy Vaux described the conditions on the hulk Retribution:
On arriving on board, we were all immediately stripped and washed in two large tubs of water, then, after putting on each a suit of coarse slop clothing, we were ironed and sent below; our own clothes being taken from us….
I soon met many of my old Botany Bay acquaintances, who were all eager to offer me their friendship and services, that is, with a view to rob me of what little I had; for in this place there is no other motive or subject for ingenuity. All former friendships are dissolved, and a
|Floggings with a cat o'nine tails were a common occurrence on board the hulks. © NMM|
The living quarters were very bad. The hulks were cramped and the prisoners slept in fetters. The prisoners had to live on one deck that was barely high enough to let a man stand up. The officers lived in cabins in the stern.
The conditions on board were often worse than places like Newgate. Attempts by any prisoners to file away or knock off the chains around their waists and ankles led to frequent floggings, extra irons and solitary confinement in tiny cells with names like the 'Black Hole'.
The men were poorly dressed as well as unhealthy. They were supposed to have:
But the men who controlled the ships often pocketed the money the government had given for the clothes.
|The gallery on the prison hulk Warrior (1781). © NMM|
On his second visit, 15 months later:
'there seemed to be no uniform plan with regard to their clothing, some had no shirts on, some looked as though they had not been washed for many weeks, some had shoes and some had none, or such as they could not possibly work in'.
Many convicts were forced to rely on their friends and relatives for clothing.
|Biscuits on board the hulks were often mouldy. © NMM|
The authorities were always keen to keep down the cost of the prisons. They wanted to avoid giving prisoners a better life than the poor had outside the hulks.
The quality of the prisoners' food was therefore kept as low as possible. The monotonous daily meals consisted chiefly of:
The biscuits were often mouldy and green on both sides! On two days a week the meat was replaced by oatmeal and cheese. Each prisoner had two pints of beer four days a week, and badly filtered water, drawn from the river, on the others.
Sometimes, the captain of a hulk would allow the convicts to plant vegetables in plots near the Arsenal. This attempt to add something extra to the poor diet of the prisoners depended on the goodwill, or otherwise, of the individual in charge.
|The washroom on board the prison hulk Warrior (1781). © NMM|
As convict numbers increased, so did the number of hulks. The first two vessels, the Justitia and the Censor, housed 125 and 183 prisoners respectively. The number of convicts held on other vessels varied with their size, but averaged 275-300. Also, each ship would have about 20 officers. On a still, warm day the smell of the prisoners would pollute the river from bank to bank.
Hulk after hulk, hung with bedding, clothes, weed and rotting rigging, lined the river like a floating shantytown. Because of the isolated position of the hulks, convicts were less able than prisoners ashore to arrange special treatment, particularly visits from family and friends.
|The Discovery convict ship at Deptford. © NMM|
She served as a prison hulk for 10 years at Sheerness and a further 15 years at Woolwich. She was then moved to Deptford, where she was broken up in 1834.