Prison hulks were decommissioned ships, without masts, moored up and used as temporary housing for prisoners – mainly for those about to be transported. They were variously described as ‘Floating Hells’, ‘Ocean Hells’ and ‘Colleges of Villainy’.
Hulks were moored at Portsmouth, Woolwich, Deptford, Sheerness and Chatham – often housing more than 4,000 convicts. There were also three British convict hulks moored at Bermuda, with up to 1,000 convicts onboard.
Prisoners about to be transported were delivered to the hulks from jails all over the UK. In the 1840s, a York jailer kept a diary where he described taking a few ‘lifers’ down to London on a coach, to Millbank Prison, and from there they might end up in the hulks. He got into trouble for being too liberal with the drinks and food. Glimpses of the landscape from this journey was for some of them, their last ever view of home.
Hulk prisoners were described as ‘civilly dead’. They had the same legal status as a corpse, once convicted. This left them open to barbaric mistreatment as legal non-entities. In the law, the prisoners on the hulks destined for transport as well as those transported “had no legal rights whatever” according to the Tory MP Robert Peel (Yorkshire Gazette, 2 March 1822).
The first hulks appeared on the Thames in 1776, during the lull between the UK using America as a penal colony and switching to Australia. At first, the government struggled to turn the hulks to their profit:
“… [in parliament] a report was read…stating that there are now between 700 and 800 convicts on board the hulks at Woolwich, besides a great number sentenced for transportation… Newgate, and the several other jails of this kingdom, were full of convicts and felons, who were liable to be discharged into the hulks; that there was not work sufficient to occupy the convicts now onboard…”(Leeds Intelligencer, 15 November 1785)
Initially, the hulks were prison accommodation for an overflowing penal system. The American Revolution meant the UK could no longer foist our felons on America and prisoners started to stack up in the system. Essentially, hulks were an unsatisfactory temporary solution to a problem, although they were to persist for decades.
A ticket to hell
The first fleet arrived in Australia in January, 1788. Later, during the Napoleonic Wars, the hulks also became the destination du jour for prisoners of war. Conditions were harsh – no exercise and disease was rife. Hulks employed a doctor and sometimes a separate hulk was used as a hospital.
In the late 18th century, prisoners wore uniforms, often yellow, “the colour of shame” – also sometimes used for poorhouse inmates. Later they wore “the broad arrow of the Crown”, still later, stripes. In the 1820s, hulks’ convicts’ uniforms were described as grey. By the 1840s, brown with a “fetter on the left ankle”.
In October 1788, 25 convicts made their escape from the Woolwich hulks but all were re-captured by soldiers and clapped in ‘double’ irons. In August 1802, 15 or so prisoners, part of 500 who were being forced to build a high wall round the governor’s house in the docks, made a break for it but were discovered hidden all around Woolwich dockyard. On re-capture, one was killed – shot in the head; another injured – bayoneted in the shoulder. An inquest returned a verdict of “justifiable homicide” on the dead prisoner. Recaptured escapees were subject to a sentence of death “without benefit of clergy”. No absolution for their sins. In the 19th century mindset, essentially, a ticket to hell. As if the hulks weren’t already that, anyway.
Lord Pelham ordered an enquiry into “the truth of certain rumours that have circulated respecting the provisions served out to the convicts aboard the hulks in Portsmouth harbour being unwholesome” (Bury and Norwich Post, 2 September 1801). In 1802, prisoners in the Woolwich hulks petitioned parliament asking to be allowed to join the army or navy and in May 1804, 110 convicts were allowed to join up. Two years later, over 200 convicts also received the King’s Pardon and were enlisted. It says something for the hulks that prisoners petitioned to be cannon fodder rather than remain in the ships.
Brutal punishments meted out
Generally, the hulk prisoners were used as cheap labour with their work being estimated to be worth 1 shilling and 3d a day (about 6p). For that, the prisoners were credited with just one penny – which they could redeem on release, if release ever happened. The majority of the men and women in the hulks were 20 or under – as young, strong people were calculated to be of more use in Australia and many had the minimum transportation sentence of seven years. Some people were simply sentenced to hard labour on the hulks, with no prospect of transport.
Prisoners wore heavy chains. In 1810, one prisoner stabbed another in the throat, killing him, when he suspected he’d been informed on for throwing a brick at a prison officer. Earlier, the murderer had helped the victim into bed because it was impossible for a convict to do this alone, wearing the heavy chains.
Other punishments included forcing prisoners to wear spiked iron collars – these compelled them to move and sit in such a way that caused irreparable, spinal damage. Recaptured escapees were flogged and clapped in irons, sometimes in ‘the dungeon’. There was time taken off sentences for good behaviour with some of those seven years being reduced to around four. Some in the hulks were released without having been transported. Good behaviour might result in the prisoner wearing lighter chains or a being assigned a ‘good’ prison job.
The bottom line
Syndicated in newspapers across the UK was an article purporting to describe hulk conditions and also the nefarious evil deeds of the prisoners – apparently, one supposed scam being trying to smuggle money onto the ship to effect an escape. One prisoner’s letter home was quoted:
“‘…My dear, I am very short of everything; I want particularly money, some of which I hope you will send me. Send me down some writing paper and a stone bottle of ink. In order that the money may come safe (i.e. free from observation) empty out the ink, and then put as many sixpences as you can spare in the empty bottle; when you have done this, pour on some melted pitch, which will fix the money at the bottom, and then you may pour in the ink again…’”(Devizes and Wiltshire Gazette, 3 January 1833)
In reality, this prisoner was probably anticipating transport and was trying to garner money for what remained of their life. Once abroad, there was little prospect of hearing from home again, maybe for some years.
In 1817, it was mooted that all the prisoners being used as labour from the Woolwich hulks should be sent to Botany Bay as a costing exercise revealed that it cost more to maintain them on the hulks, than send to Australia (Royal Cornwall Gazette, 3 May 1817). This didn’t happen, but for some time the newspapers were bristling about the cost of the hulks and how to make imprisonment on them cost-effective.
White slaver’s ships
In the House of Commons privilege committee, “general ill treatment on the hulks” was mentioned by an MP named Bennett, (possibly Henry Grey Bennet, a progressive Whig politician), referring to the hulks as “white slavers’ ships” (Bury and Norwich Post, 27 January 1819). Then foreign secretary Viscount Castlereagh suggested an inquiry into conditions on the hulks, the following month. In the UK, there was a shortfall between the value of the prisoners’ labour and the running costs of the hulks, but in 1834, the value of Bermudan hulks’ prisoners’ labour was in excess of the money cost to run them, putting the British government in profit for this slave labour. Profit and loss seems to have been the primary concern of government, when it came to the hulks.
The prisoners’ diet was described in this way:
“… The diet daily is 1 ½ lb of bread, a quart of thick gruel, morning and evening, on four days of the week a piece of meat weighing 14 ounces before it is cooked, and on the other three days, in lieu of meat, a quarter pound of cheese, also an allowance of small beer; and on certain occasions, when work peculiarly fatiguing and laborious is required, a portion of strong beer is served out to those engaged in it…”
Occasionally, the government advertised for contractors, putting the right to supply hulks with food, out to tender. As ever, the bottom line was the main concern. As with workhouses, food was not always as advertised, so the description above should be… taken with a pinch of salt.
The hulks, once thought to be a cheap solution to a problem, proved to be a costly one. By 1828, it was calculated that the 4,000 hulk prisoners cost £60,000 per annum – twice the cost of transport (Bury and Norwich Post, 19 March 1828).
In 1841, a House of Lords committee discussed the expense of keeping prisoners on hulks and concluded that, as the ships were costly to maintain, they should estimate each prisoner cost on average around £25 per year to imprison in the hulks; £100 for a four-year stint. The expense of transporting them was a mere £15 one-off cost, and their labour potentially valuable once transported. Although, a committee member pointed out that being confined on the hulks was so injurious to prisoners’ health, that many were unfit for heavy work, once transported, making their value less. The cost of the hulks, rather than whether they worked as punishment/rehabilitation and conditions aboard, was always of more interest to politicians than were conditions on them.
A macabre turn
By 1841, questions in parliament were being raised about the hulks as the numbers imprisoned there had doubled within a year. When the death rate amongst prisoners rose steeply, Liberal MP Fox Maule Ramsay dismissed it saying death rates in soldiers’ barracks had also risen lately. The subject was dropped.
In 1843, an anonymous eyewitness described seeing inside a hulk containing 500 convicts. The hulks were ‘supposed’ to house up to 400, which gives us a clue about overcrowding. A series of ramshackle huts sprawled across the docks, used for supplies but, his tour guide said ominously, “that first one is for the dead” (The Standard, 4 April 1843).
A prisoner’s letter of 1846, described what went on in these mortuary shacks. Dead prisoners, still warm, were eviscerated by the hulk doctor and had their entrails thrown into the river (the Anatomy Act of 1832 directed doctors to dissect bodies a minimum of 48 hours post-mortem, so this broke the law). Hulks supplied anatomy schools with bodies and there was a thriving trade in them. Bodies supplied by the gallows might be damaged in a way that made them less useful for the anatomist so hulk prisoners’ bodies were preferred.
Corpses from the hulks were less compromised. Hulk prisoners’ bodies became commodities and yet another way to capitalise on the hulks’ product – human beings as a commodity; either as a source of cheap/free labour or as harvestable anatomy samples. Doctors reported that filthy, recycled coffins often arrived from the hulks, and the convicts’ corpses might be lice-ridden or already in too poor a state to anatomise. But as these were society’s most marginalised people they had few advocates and in any case, as the Tories pointed out, were already ‘civilly dead’ with no rights, a mere cargo of ‘un-people’ by the time they arrived at the hulks. Slowly, the hulks fell out of favour, although one or two remained by the end of the 19th century.
By the turn of the 20th century, it was thought the hulks were a ridiculous concept; degrading, repellent, best sunk in the past.
Who’d have thought they’d make a comeback.