When transportation to the American colonies ceased after the War of Independence, British goals soon overflowed with prisoners. This situation soon created a new form of penal horror

To ease the pressure on prisons the government allowed old ships to be anchored in the River Thames (and at Portsmouth, Plymouth and elsewhere) to hold prisoners awaiting banishment across the seas. These ‘hulks’ were supposed to be a stopgap measure, but like many temporary arrangements they became permanent. Many prisoners would endure years aboard the rotting hulks, doing hard labour on the docks and in the naval arsenals, until they were finally transported.

The Dunkirk hulk moored at Plymouth was notorious even before the First Fleet set sail. Prisoners were sometimes without any clothing and in 1784 the abuse of the female convicts by the marine guards led to a ‘Code of Orders’ that were supposed to protect the women. Mary Bryant, later an almost successful escapee from Port Jackson, was held on the Dunkirk before sailing with the First Fleet. She became pregnant on the hulk.

Conditions aboard the Leviathan hulk at Portsmouth in the 1820s were better, but designed to strip convicts of whatever dignity they retained and subdue them into the system:

 ‘…this vessel was an ancient ’74 [1774] which, after a gallant career in carrying the flag of England over the wide oceans of the navigable world, had come at last to be used for the humiliating service of housing convicts awaiting transportation over those seas. She was stripped and denuded of all that makes for a ship’s vanity. Two masts remained to serve as clothes props, and on her deck stood a landward conceived shed which seemed to deride the shreds of dignity which even a hulk retains.’.

The prisoners were taken aboard and ‘paraded on the quarter-deck of the desecrated old hooker, mustered and received by the captain. Their prison irons were then removed and handed over to the jail authorities, who departed as the convicts were taken to the forecastle. There every man was forced to strip and take a thorough bath, after which each was handed out an outfit consisting of coarse grey jacket, waistcoat and trousers, a round-crowned, broad-brimmed felt hat, and a pair of heavily nailed shoes. The hulk’s barber then got to work shaving and cropping the polls of every mother’s son.’ Fettered and shaven prisoners were then marched below ‘where they were greeted with roars of ironic welcome from the convicts already incarcerated there’. The lower deck was a prison of wooden cells, each one holding between fifteen and twenty convicts.[i]

Edward Lilburn, a pipe-maker from Lincoln, described his experience of the Woolwich hulks around 1840:

‘I was led to think there was something dreadful in the punishment I had to undergo, but my heart sank within me on my arrival here, for almost the first thing I saw was a gang of my fellow unfortunates, chained together working like horses. I was completely horror-struck, but every hour serves now to increase my misery; I was taken to the Blacksmith and had my irons, the badge of infamy and degradation rivetted upon me, my name being registered and my person described in the books of the ship; I was taken to my berth, and here new sufferings presented themselves, as the great arrival of convicts had crowded the ship so much, that three of us have but one bed, and this the oldest prisoner claims as his own; our berth is so small, we have no room to lie at length, thus I passed a wretched, a half sleepless night, at the dawn of day we have a wretched breakfast of skilley, in which I cannot partake, and though suffering dreadfully from hunger I subsist wholly on my dinner, at present live on one meal a day!!’

Lilburn had the cheek to complain but was told that he was ‘brought here for punishment and that I must submit to my fate.’ He finished with a warning: ‘Whether I speak of my present situation in reference to daily labour, daily food, or the rigorous severity of the system under which I suffer, I can say, if there is a Hell on earth, it is a convict-ship. Let every inhabitant of the City and County of Lincoln know the Horrors of Transportation, that they may keep in the path of virtue, and happily avoid a life like mine of indescribable misery.’[ii]

After 1844 convicts were transported directly from the prisons where they were held rather than being sent first to the hulks. But the old ships still operated as gaols. By the time the journalists and social reformers Stephen Mayhew and John Binney visited the Thames hulks in the early 1860s, public outcry against the conditions and horrors of the hulks as described by Lilburn and others had already brought about reforms to the system, allegedly at least. Mayhew described conditions aboard the hospital ship Unité just a few years earlier in 1849:

‘… the great majority of the patients were infested with vermin; and their persons, in many instances, particularly their feet, begrimed with dirt. No regular supply of body-linen had been issued; so much so, that many men had been five weeks without a change; and all record had been lost of the time when the blankets had been washed; and the number of sheets was so insufficient, that the expedient had been resorted to of only a single sheet at a time, to save appearances. 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. On the admission of new cases into the hospital, patients were directed to leave their beds and go into hammocks, and the new cases were turned into the vacated beds, without changing the sheets.’[iii]

Mayhew and Binney interviewed one of the warders who served under the previous ‘hulk regime’ who said that ‘he well remembers 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…’. By the time this survey was conducted there was regular medical treatment available, a lending library, education for the man who could not read or barely so. The food provided had also improved dramatically, at least according to the regulations:

‘We now followed the chief warder below, to see the men at breakfast. “Are the messes all right ?” he called out as he reached the wards.
“Keep silence there! keep silence!” shouted the officer on duty.

The men were all ranged at their tables with a tin can full of cocoa before them, and a piece of dry bread beside them, the messmen having just poured out the cocoa from the huge tin vessel in which he received it from the cooks; and the men then proceed to eat their breakfast in silence, the munching of the dry bread by the hundreds of jaws being the only sound heard.’

Each prisoner received a breakfast of twelve ounces of bread and a pint of cocoa. For dinner they were allowed six ounces of meat, a pound of potatoes and nine ounces of bread, for supper a pint of gruel with six ounces of bread. Wednesdays, Mondays, and Fridays were ‘Soup Days’, when the dinner was a pint of soup, five ounces of meat, a pound of potatoes, and nine ounces of bread.

For punishment, the luckless convict was reduced to a pound of bread and water each day. Those on the sick list were fed a pint of gruel and nine ounces of bread for breakfast, dinner, and supper. But an enhanced diet was given to the very sick, as the master of the hospital told the journalists:

‘The man so bad, up-stairs, has 2 eggs, 2 pints of arrowroot and milk, 12 ounces of bread, 1 ounce of butter, 6 ounces of wine, 1 ounce of brandy, 2 oranges, and a sago pudding daily. Another man here is on half a sheep’s head, 1 pint of arrowroot and milk, 4 ounces of bread, 1 ounce of butter, 1 pint extra of tea, and 2 ounces of wine daily.’

The trades and occupations of convicts in the 1850s included carpenters, blacksmiths, painters, sawyers, coopers, rope makers, bookbinders, shoemakers, tailors, washers and cooks, even the occasional doctor. Convicts received ‘gratuities’ for the quality of their work and general conduct. They wore badges which indicated their duration of sentence, period in the hulks and levels of good or bad behavior, updated monthly, the details entered into the ‘character book’ of each hulk.

Mayhew also described the work performed by those whose labor was now at the control of the state.

‘The work of the hulk convicts ‘is chiefly labourers’ work, such as loading and unloading vessels, moving timber and other materials, and stores, cleaning out ships, &c., at the dockyard; whilst at the royal arsenal the prisoners are employed at jobs of a similar description, with the addition of cleaning guns and shot, and excavating ground for the engineer department.’

Mayhew saw the working parties in the dockyards:

‘… only the strongest men are selected for the coal-gang, invalids being put to stone-breaking. In the dockyard there are still military sentries attached to each gang of prisoners. We glanced at the parties working, amid the confusion of the dockyard, carrying coals, near the gigantic ribs of a skeleton ship, stacking timber, or drawing carts, like beasts of burden. Now we came upon a labouring party, near a freshly pitched gun-boat, deserted by the free labourers, who had struck for wages, and saw the well-known prison brown of the men carrying timber from the saw-mills. Here the officer called – as at the arsenal – “All right, sir!” Then there were parties testing chain cables, amid the most deafening hammering. It is hard, very hard, labour the men are performing.’

Most closely regulated of all was convict time. From the moment of waking – 5.30 in summer, half an hour later in winter – the prisoners of the hulks ate, worked, washed and prayed to a strict timetable. All were in their beds or hammocks at 9pm.

This strictly regulated world of servitude, obedience and hard labour was an essential element of the larger penal transportation system of the British empire. It lasted for centuries

Adapted from Great Convict Stories from

[i] James Tucker, (‘Giacomo Rosenberg’), The Adventures of Ralph Rashleigh: A Penal Exile in Australia1825-1844.First published in 1929, though thought to have been written in the 1840s.

[ii] A Complete Exposure of the Convict System. Horrors, Hardships, and Severities, Including an Account of the Dreadful Sufferings of the Unhappy Captives. Containing an Extract from a Letter from the Hulks at Woolwich, written by Edward Lilburn, Pipe-Maker, late of Lincoln, from a broadside in the Mitchell Library (Ferguson 3238).

[iii] Henry Mayhew, John Binney and Benno Loewy, The criminal prisons of London, and scenes of prison life, London, Griffin Bohn, 1862. p. 200.