A fate worse than death

A fate worse than death

Michelle Higgs investigates the notorious conditions on the prison hulks for convicts sentenced to transportation

Header Image: ‘Portsmouth Harbour with Prison Hulks’ circa 1814 by Ambroise Louis Garneray

Michelle Higgs, author

Michelle Higgs


In the mid-1770s, Britain was facing a prisons crisis. Convicts had been transported to America since the early 17th century but, after the American War of Independence began in 1775, sending criminals there was no longer an option. At the time, the so-called ‘Bloody Code’ listed more than 200 crimes for which the death sentence could be passed, including theft. For these minor offences, judges routinely punished prisoners with transportation instead of a hanging. As a result, the jails were overcrowded with convicts awaiting transportation – but it was to be more than a decade before the first criminals were sent to Australia.

The Warrior hulk with the Sulphur washing-ship in the distance (from Mayhew & Binny, The Criminal Prisons of London, 1862)
The Warrior hulk with the Sulphur washing-ship in the distance (from Mayhew & Binny, The Criminal Prisons of London, 1862)

The government’s solution was to pass a new Act of Parliament in 1776 (also known as the ‘Hulks Act’) which authorised ‘for a limited time the punishment by hard labour of offenders who, for certain crimes are or shall become liable to be transported to any of His Majesty’s colonies and plantations’. Male convicts were to be ‘kept to hard labour in raising sand, soil and gravel from and cleansing the river Thames’. The length of the sentence was to be for the same term of years as the transportation for the offence – no less than three years and no more than ten. Females, and males who were unfit for such severe labour, were to undertake other types of hard labour. The Act was to be in force for two years.

In fact, this ‘temporary’ law lasted for more than 80 years because the legislation was regularly renewed and was not finally abolished in England until 1857. The prisoners were housed in decommissioned naval ships that were no longer seaworthy; these vessels became floating prisons and were known as ‘prison hulks’. This was far cheaper than building new barracks in which to house the convicts. The hulks were moored in the Thames estuary at Woolwich, Deptford and Chatham; on the south coast at Gosport, Portsmouth, Plymouth and Sheerness; and also at Cork, Gibraltar and Bermuda.

A ward on board the Defence
A ward on board the Defence

Floating prisons
The first two prison hulks in use for convicts were the Justitia, an old East Indiaman, and the Censor, previously a frigate. The hulks varied considerably in size and type of ship including transporters, privateers and trading vessels, as well as ex-Royal Navy warships and captured French men-of-war. As a result, their capacity for convicts also differed. For example, the Warrior at Woolwich, a former 74-gun warship, accommodated 436 men in the 1850s while the Discovery at Deptford, a ten-gun sloop, could house 200.

Female convicts were not generally held on prison hulks, although in 1823 a group of 167 women inmates of Millbank Prison was evacuated to the Narcissus and Heroine hulks at Woolwich after an epidemic; another hulk known to have housed females was the Dunkirk.

Convicts returning to the hulk
Convicts returning to the hulk

Boys as young as eight were frequently incarcerated with male convicts on the prison hulks. To prevent ‘contamination’ from these adults, from about 1824, the Bellerophon at Sheerness was used exclusively for boys. A few years later, the Euryalus at Chatham was specially fitted out for boy convicts and used until the mid-1840s.

During the period in which the convict hulks were in operation, there were around 60 vessels used for the purpose. It is difficult to find a precise number because new ships coming into service were frequently given the same names as previous hulks. In 1841, there were 3625 convicts on board the hulks in England housed on 11 different ships. By 1854, the number had reduced to 1298, helped in part by the opening of Portsmouth Convict Prison in 1852.

Convicts forming a mortar battery at Woolwich
Convicts forming a mortar battery at Woolwich

An unhealthy environment
Until 1850, the prison hulks were managed by private contractors, to whom the government paid a fee, so they were prone to corruption and abuse, and the convicts awaiting transportation endured terrible insanitary conditions on board. In the early days, the hulks were far worse than notorious prisons such as Newgate. The convicts were shackled in irons, fed a meagre diet for the hard labour they had to perform, and often had insufficient clothing. The very fact that the vessels were old and unseaworthy meant they were naturally dank and infested with rats. The stench of unwashed bodies and sewage carried up the river so that the floating prisons could always be smelled before they came into view.

Although the hulks were meant to ease the problem of overflowing jails, the irony was that they were just as overcrowded. With so many convicts living in such close proximity to one another, the vessels were hotbeds for deadly diseases such as typhoid, cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis and gaol fever, a type of typhus caused by bacteria spread through the bites of lice and fleas. Mortality rates of 30% were common and between 1776 and 1795 around 2000 out of about 6000 convicts died from neglect and disease. Many convicts would have preferred a death sentence to the living hell of the hulks.

Eighteenth century prison reformers such as John Howard and Elizabeth Fry campaigned vigorously for better conditions on both the hulks and in the prisons. Some improvements were made but it was not until the early 19th century that significant changes to the prison system began to take place. By this time, the mortality rate had dropped to around one in ten.

In the 1850s, when Henry Mayhew and John Binny interviewed experienced prison staff who had served under the old hulk regime, one remembered ‘seeing the shirts of the prisoners, when hung out upon the rigging, so black with vermin that the linen positively appeared to have been sprinkled over with pepper’. Another recalled a prison hulk containing no less than 700 convicts; at night, these men were fastened in their dens with just a single warder on board in charge of them.

Even in the 1840s, conditions on the hulks were insanitary and dangerous to one’s health. The Surgeon of the Warrior in 1841 recorded that out of the 638 convicts on board that year, there were 400 cases of admission to hospital and 38 deaths.

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As late as 1849, the great majority of the patients on the Unité hospital ship at Woolwich were infested with vermin. A report noted that ‘no regular supply of body-linen had been issued; so much so, that many men had been five weeks without a change… Neither towels nor combs were provided for the prisoners’ use, and the unwholesome odour from the imperfect and neglected state of the water-closets was almost insupportable’.

Top deck of the Unité hospital ship
Top deck of the Unité hospital ship

Serving on the hulks
Originally, convicts sentenced to transportation were housed on the hulks for two years prior to departure for Australia. After Millbank Penitentiary was opened in 1816, they undertook a period of separate confinement there, or at Pentonville from 1842, before being put on an embarkation list for the next convict ship to leave England; they were then sent to one of the prison hulks to await deportation. Before the voyage, they had to pass a medical and have a certificate signed by a medical officer from the shore authorities. This was necessary because of the disease-ridden state of the prisons and hulks in which the convicts had been incarcerated. Only those medically fit to survive the long journey were supposed to be passed for embarkation. However, countless surgeons’ journals record instances of convicts concealing illness or injury because they feared they would be left to rot in prison or on the hulks.

Not all convicts sentenced to transportation were actually banished to the colonies. Old and infirm convicts could expect to serve out their sentences in the hulks while young men might be offered a pardon if they joined the army or navy instead. After 1853, only those sentenced to 14 years’ transportation or more were actually transported.

Many prison hulk records can be found online at TheGenealogist.co.uk
Many prison hulk records can be found online at TheGenealogist.co.uk

Life on board
We know a great deal about the day-to-day activities and routines on the prison hulks because of the meticulous eyewitness accounts recorded by Henry Mayhew and John Binny for their book The Criminal Prisons of London, and Scenes of Prison Life (1862). One of the vessels they visited in the 1850s was the Defence, housing around 500 convicts. The ship was arranged in three decks with the top deck reserved for the first-class men. Convicts could work their way up through the decks through good behaviour. As in other convict prisons, the men wore conduct badges on their uniform which showed their monthly progress towards attaining a ticket-of-leave and conditional release.

Each day began at 5.30am when the prisoners rose, washed and rolled up their hammocks. Breakfast consisted of a pint of cocoa and 12 ounces of dry bread which was eaten in silence, ‘the munching of the dry bread by the hundreds of jaws the only sound heard’. After breakfast, there was cleaning to be done until 7.30am when the convicts were mustered and rowed out from the hulk to the dockyards or the Arsenal for their hard labour.

The tasks they had to perform were labourers’ work such as loading and unloading vessels, moving timber and other materials, and cleaning out ships at the dockyard; at the Arsenal, convicts also cleaned guns and shot, and excavated grounds for the engineer department.

Work continued until 12 noon when they were rowed back to the hulk for dinner. This was made up of six ounces of meat, one pound of potatoes and nine ounces of bread. Three times a week, soup was added to the dinner menu and the amount of meat was reduced to five ounces.

At 1pm, the convicts were mustered and rowed to the working ground again. The labour continued until 5.30pm in summer and 4pm in winter. On returning to the hulk, the prisoners had a supper of one pint of gruel and six ounces of bread. After supper, there was time for evening prayers, school classes and repairing clothing. The convicts had to be in bed by 9pm in summer and 8pm in winter.

Convicts could be punished for misdemeanours or refusal to work by having their food allowances reduced; for more serious offences, they could be whipped moderately not exceeding twenty-four stripes, or confined in the ‘black hole’, a dark cell with only bread and water for no more than seven days.

Despite mounting criticism from campaigners and, after 1850, from the Directors of Convict Prisons, the hulks continued because they were a cheap option and convict labour at the Royal Arsenal and Dockyard was valuable to the government. Chatham Convict Prison, opened in 1856, eventually replaced the hulks.

The last prison hulk in Britain was the Stirling Castle at Portsmouth, but hulks remained in operation in Bermuda until 1863 and in Gibraltar until 1875.

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