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Great Britain

Map of the British Isles. 1910.

English Port Cities ° Bristol  ° Chester ° Dartmouth ° Falmouth  ° Gravesend  ° Harwich ° Hull Docks: Bessemer Steamer ° Liverpool  ° London (Billingsgate) ° Newcastle-Upon-Tyne  ° Plymouth  ° Southampton  ° Portsmouth  ° Weymouth  ° Woolwich (The Hulks)

Crown Dependency of the United Kingdom (Crown Colonys): ° The Channel Islands ° Cornwall  ° Isle of Man  ° Isle of Wight

The Hulks

During the 1800s, Britain listed more than 150 capital offences, including minor offences such as petty theft. 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. As the prison population grew, the government started sending convicts from Newgate and county prisons to overseas penal colonies.

Initially they were shipped to North America for seven years for non-capital offences or for life for those who had their death penalties commuted at the price of exile. The American Revolutionary War (1775-83) eliminated the use of America for British convicts.

The authorities then decided to imprison convicts in the hulks of old warships moored on the Thames; more than 60 ships from various nations were utilized for the discipline of unemployed and wandering labourers. The ships' internal structure was also reconfigured with various features, including jail cells, in order to accommodate convicted criminals or occasionally prisoners of war.

Many prisoners served their entire sentence on the hulks. Others were housed there until a space could be found on a transport ship to Australia. If a convict was well behaved, the convict could be given a ticket of leave; at the end of the convict's sentence, seven years in most cases, the convict was issued with a Certificate of Freedom. Convicts then could become settlers or return to England.

Convicts who misbehaved were often sent to a place of secondary punishment such as Port Arthur,Tasmania or Norfolk Island, where they would suffer additional punishment and solitary confinement.


Prison Ships.The Hulks.The first hulks were moored on the Thames off Woolwich and the opposite shore. In the 18th century there were marshes along the north shore and few people lived there.

On the southern shore, the Woolwich Warren was a maze of workshops, warehouses, wood-yards, barracks, foundries and firing ranges. 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.

Convicts from the Hulks anchored in the Thames.
Convicts from the Hulks 
anchored in the Thames off Woolwich

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:

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 provocation, they fell an unfortunate convict to the ground, and frequently repeat their blows long after the poor fellow is insensible.

Mortality rates of around 30% were quite common. Between 1776 and 1795, nearly 2000 out of almost 6000 convicts serving their sentence on board the hulks died.

April 1, 1827, The Age, London, England

Launch of the Boscawen

Launch of the Boscawen.

The Maidstone Gazette gives the following as the copy of a letter written and actually sent by a wife to her husband, who having been capitally convicted, was sent on board the Ganymede hulk, at Woolwich. The woman is at present resident at a town in the eastern part of this country. For obvious reasons we omit names, but give the remainder verbatim as it was written: --

February 2, 1827

"Dear Husband, -- I take this opportunity of addressing these few lines to you, hoping to find you in good health as it leaves me at present thank God for it -- Dear husband I am going to change my line of life and I hope it will be for the better I must tell you that I am going to be married and hope you have no objection for you know you have not behaved to me as a husband ought to have done both you and your family have used me very ill. But everyone knows that I never gave you any reason to ill treat me --

"I have been to the Overcears to ask theyre advice what I am to do and they told me I had better get another husband as I did not expect you would ever come home again. You need not fret about it nor make yourself in the least alarmed at what I say for I say for can ashure you it is true.

"The Overcears of the Parish is going to give the man ten pounds to take me out of the Parish. I have invited your Brother Robert to the wedend and I wish you was at home to make one among us - I shall tell you the mans name is William --

"You need not forget me for all that. If you should ever come where I am I hope you will call and see me. So I conclude and still remain your affectionate wife."

"Catherine --
"William --, Gadameed Ship Woolege Kent."

September 8, 1837, True Sun, London, Middlesex, United Kingdom

Escape of a Convict from Woolwich

Yesterday afternoon, between two and three o'clock, a convict named Alexander Barclay, belonging to the Ganymede hulk, at Woolwich, was missing. An alarm was instantly given and every search made, but without effect. He was under sentence for seven years and had served eighteen months. He has an iron round his left leg and is dressed in convict's clothes, which are marked with the number 4,418. In what way he effected his escape remains a complete mystery.

The Ganymede was formerly the French frigate Hebe, captured and converted to a prison hulk in 1819, docked at Chatham and Woolwich, and broken up in 1838.

March 24, 1841, Colonial Gazette, London, Middlesex, United Kingdom

The Hulks

In the House of Commons, Lord Mahon proposed the following resolution "That, in the opinion of this House, the large increase of the number of convicts to be permanently confined in the hulks of Great Britain, although sentenced to transportation, in pursuance of the minute of the Secretary of State for the Home Department dated 2d January 1839, is highly inexpedient.''

Lord Mahon regretted the indifference with which the important subject of transportation was always received by the house: he remembered that a speech of Lord John Russell's, full of valuable and interesting matter, had been addressed to a House of few more than thirty Members. In his minute, Lord John Russell had proposed that convicts sentenced to seven years' transportation should, as far as practicable, be employed in the hulks and dockyards at home and in Bermuda; and on the 30th January 1839, the Under Secretary for the Home Department directed that accommodation should be prepared in the hulks for 3,500 convicts; there being then room for only 1,789. The orders had been acted upon; and Mr. Capper's reports on the results were before the House. But the cessation of transportation, it was calculated, would increase the number in the hulks at the rate of 2,000 year, sentenced to seven years' imprisonment. Lord Mahon objected to this wholesale commutation of sentence, that it was that it was stretching the prerogative of the Crown. The object of the law which gave the Secretary of State the discretionary power of commuting sentence of transportation, was to provide for special cases of early youth, extreme age, sickness, or the like. Indeed, Lord John Russell had almost admitted as much the other night, introducing a bill for the amendment of the criminal law.

A Committee of the House of Lords, in 1835, recommended, that no convicts sentenced to transportation should be retained in this country, except those selected for confinement in Milbank Penitentiary and that thenceforth the hulks should only be considered as places of intermediate confinement. Lord Mahon cited the evidence given before that Committee by Mr. William Crawford, whom Government had appointed to inquire into prison discipline in the United States, Mr. Matthew Newman, a principal gaoler at Newgate, Mr. Higgins, a visiting Justice of Bedford, and Mr. Samuel Hull, chairman of a society for the improvement of criminals, all of whom generally condemned the discipline of the hulks, as ill-conducted and inefficacious. He appealed to the Members of the House of Commons who were Chairmen at Quarter-sessions, to confirm the opinion that imprisonment in the hulks fails to inspire terror. He gave an instance within his own knowledge.

A person named Sceley was convicted of forgery, and was sentenced to transportation. He was connected with a highly-respectable family in Tetbury; and they presented a petition, through an honourable Member of that House, requesting that the punishment of transportation might not be carried out, and intimating that the prisoner would willingly suffer any number of years' confinement in the hulks rather than be sent abroad.

Life on the Prison Ship Jersey. Thomas Dring.

The most favourable system of management would not make imprisonment in the hulks an equivalent substitute for transportation. Though the punishment had less moral terror, a needless degree of rigour, necessary to maintain discipline in the confined space, inflicted undue suffering on the convicts. The expense of the system was another, though a less consideration. The cost to the state of a transported convict was 15£. a year; of a convict in the hulks 18£., or Lord John Russell said, deducting the value of the convict's labour, 8£. But Mr. Capper's report stated that a great number of those confined in the hulks were unfit for laborious exercises; and Lord John had forgotten, in his account, the cost of fitting up the hulks. It appeared that the actual expense of each convict was about 25£ a year. Sir William Molesworth had talked of the expense of military and police establishments in Australia: the argument might avail retrospectively as a set-off against a claim from the colonists grounded on the maintenance of the assigned convicts; but now, whether we transport to Australia or not, those establishments must be kept up. Lord Mahon then argued on the loss to the country from the system of imprisonment at home.

By the report of the Inspectors of Prisons in Scotland, it appeared that out of 12,418 prisoners whose ages were recorded, 11,010 were between the age of 14 and 15; the age at which they would be best able to earn their livelihood. How much useful labour was lost by their confinement is another evil of the system of home imprisonment was, that however much the prisoner might have reformed, he could get no employment when he came out, because there existed such a strong prejudice against those who had ever been guilty of a crime. The evidence of Mr. William Miles before the Committee of 1829 was conclusive on this point. He stated that many boys now in gaol were forced back upon their old associates, even though they desired to reform, because they could not obtain labour. On one occasion a boy said to the witness, "I've no character, Sir: when I come out of prison at the end of nine weeks, who will have me? How shall I pick up a meal, unless I go and steal?"

Mr. Teague, Governor of Giltspur Street Compter, Dr. Cotton, the Ordinary of Newgate, and Mr. Capper, spoke to the same effect. So strongly is the evil felt, that a society has been formed for the express purpose of providing employment for discharged convicts. France is suffering the most serious evils from the periodical discharge of convicts from Brest and Toulon.

The noble lord opposite, (Lord John Russell,) in his minute of 3d July 1839, had given so graphic an account of the evils France laboured under in this respect, that he would read it in preference to giving his own description. The noble lord said:

"France is at present suffering from the mass of released convicts, who, after having been at the galleys, joined the criminal portion of the community, being perfect adepts in forgery and housebreaking, and maintained a constant acquaintance and sympathy with all the thieves and swindlers of the community. The same result would occur in any opulent community from the same causes."

Yet the noble lord now defended the very system in England which be had thus denounced in France.

The Councils-General of departments had petitioned both the Chamber and the Home Minister of France, praying that the system of penal colonies of England should be adopted in lieu of home imprisonment. The effect of transportation as a correction of crime was of an opposite character.

He maintained that there was every possible objection to the description of secondary punishment proposed by the noble lord, while it was the peculiar character of transportation that the very refuse and poison of one country became the support and nutriment of another; that the parent state was relieved of its thieves and reprobates, who were turned into prosperous labourers for the enrichment of the colony, and that all this was effected by the magic, of one single word "employment." Such was the patriotic object of Mr. Pitt and his colleagues in laying the foundation of our Australian colonies. And surely they should he too happy at becoming the beneficent instruments, under Providence, for effecting such mighty good.

British Prison Ships in the American Revolution. Larry Lowenthal.

Lord Mahon charged the Report of the Transportation Committee of the House of Commons with being one-sided and exaggerated: and he brought against it testimony from Australia. The Chief Justice of New South Wales said that thousands of criminals had been converted into useful members of society, who but for it would have been perfect outcasts. Similar statements had been made by the Attorney-General of New South Wales, by the Bishop of Australia, the Right Reverend Dr. Polding, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Van Diemen's Land, and several other clergymen. He referred to a petition signed by 1,027 respectable settlers of New South Wales, denying that the colony itself had suffered pollution by the introduction of convict labourers, and setting forth the advantage which the Mother-country derived from the removal of her criminals, and the withdrawal of so much competition from her labour-market, to create a demand for her productions in another land. A series of resolutions, involving the same points, had been passed at a public meeting in Sydney in April last. Still Lord Mahon did not approve of the assignment system: its effect is uncertain and unequal. He quoted the authority of Sir Richard Bourke as to the advantage of convict labour in the earliest settlement, of a colony; pointing to the success of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land, compared with Swan River, or the uncertain prosperity of South Australia. Sir Richard contended that it would be impossible to maintain penitentiaries on a sufficiently extensive scale to do instead of transportation ; and he suggested an improvement in the latter system, which was quoted by Lord Mahon.

The system which has been pursued there (in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land) is susceptible of one great improvement the discontinuance of assignment to private service. But in such case the period of strict servitude which would be devoted to public works should be shortened, and the settlers allowed to obtain the benefit of a convict's labour as a holder of a ticket- leave; the holder being compelled to seek his livelihood in a settler's service, by being restricted from setting up for himself in any trade or business during the continuance of his sentence.

Lord Mahon concluded by moving his resolution.

Lord John Russell did not consider that there was any great difference of opinion between Lord Mahon and himself. Lord Mahon did not propose to continue private assignment, which was the vice of the convict system. He seemed, however, to think that with regard to transportation, there had been no change of opinion since the Lords Committee sat in 1835; and he did not attach due weight to the representations of the Transportation Committee of the House of Commons.

Prison Transport.Wreck of a Transport Ship.
The Wreck of a Transport Ship, 1805
Joseph Mallord William Turner

That Committee sat for two years, and came to certain resolutions on the subject after a great deal of discussion and deliberation; but he believed there was no great difference of opinion, for, if he was not mistaken, there was not division in the Committee on any of the resolutions. The Committee was formed of some of the leading Members of that House, and was composed of men of various opinions; and many of them had paid considerable attention to the subject of criminal punishment. Among the names he found those of Sir William Mosesworth, Sir George Grey, Sir Robert Peel, Mr. Ward, Mr. Hawes, Lord Howick, Mr. Buller, Lord Ebrington, and himself. Several members of it, therefore, had had extensive official experience, and others were well able to form sound opinions of their own on the subject from the information afforded to them, and from their own reading and reflection. The effect of the resolutions agreed to by this Committee was, that transportation should be discontinued to New South Wales and to the settled districts of Van Diemen's Land, as soon as practicable. It was intended that it should only be continued to the parts not settled of Van Diemen's Land, and which were remote from the inhabited districts.

Now that capital punishment was so generally abolished, some substitute had become necessary, and some way had been made in the improvement of secondary punishments. But Lord John did not think that, until they could see their way to a better system, the House could he called upon to pronounce a definite opinion on the subject. It was very true that imprisonment in the hulks affected the comfort and endangered the health of convict, and made it difficult for them to procure employment on being released; but if the Legislature were to increase the comforts of the convicts, and profess to find them employment, they would only get rid of one objection to fall into another; for they would he offering a premium on crime. With respect to the expense, Mr. Capper's report showed that the whole cost of the convict establishment for the half-year ending 31st December 1840, was 30,233£; while the value of the labour performed was 32,472£. It was necessary to put an end to a system which made our Colonies the repositories of the crime of this country; and he would diminish transportation as much as he could.

England.British and Australian History. The Intolerable Hulks: British Shipboard Confinement 1776-1857
Charles CampbellPrison Hulks.
A well- researched book providing a link in the time between convicts being sentenced to transportation from England and their actual transportation. Many of these men were held on the hulks at various ports in England for months and years before being sent to Australia. This volume includes names of the hulks, the previous history of the ships and the conditions under which the convicts were held.

The Hulks.British and Australian History. The Floating Prison:  The Extraordinary Account of Nine Years Captivity on British Prison Hulks during the Napoleonic WarsBritish and Australian History. 
Louis Garneray, Richard Rose
In 1806, after 10 years at sea, Lieutentant Garneray was anxious to return to France when his ship was captured by the Royal Navy. He was confined, with hundreds of others, in the cramped quarters of one of the prison hulks off Portsmouth, where he remained for 9 years. Later, in the book Mes Pontons, he would recount his experience in what is considered to be the longest and most detailed account of life on a prison hulk.

The Floating Brothel: The Extraordinary True Story of an Eighteenth-Century Ship and Its Cargo of Female ConvictsBritish and Australian History. 
Sian Rees 
England.In July 1789, the Lady Julian set sail from England, bound for the penal colony at Sydney Bay, New South Wales, bearing some 240 women sentenced, mostly for petty crimes, to "transportation to parts beyond the seas." The intention of this voyage was twofold: to relieve overcrowding in British jails and to provide sexual comfort and eventually children to the male prisoners, from whom nothing had been heard in more than a year. One year later, the ship arrived, its cargo augmented by a number of infants born along the route to the "wives" of her officers and crew. However, when she finally dropped anchor, the Lady Julianproved something of a disappointment to the half-starved colonists, who had been hoping more for food than for recreation. The colony was eventually resupplied with food, and these women, salvaged from jails and saved from the gallows, survived and occasionally prospered.

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