Free Settler or Felon
Convict and Colonial History

Prison Hulk Report 1838

Prison Hulk at WoolwichView near Woolwich in Kent shewing [sic] the employment of the convicts from the hulks, c. 1800 / printed for Bowles & Carver - State Library NSW

A hulk was a retired vessel, often a former naval ship that had seen better days. They were considered unsafe to sail the seas, but could still stay afloat. The first prison hulks in England appeared in 1776 after Parliament pass the Hulks Act. They were refitted to make them suitable as floating prisons to house the many English felons who could not be sent to America after the war in 1775... There were eventually hulks located at Deptford, Chatham, Woolwich, Gosport, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Sheerness and Cork. Male convicts sentenced to exile in Australia were usually kept in a hulk prior to transportation, although sometimes they were sent direct to the ship from Newgate prison. Conditions on board were very harsh and unhealthy.

The only hulk to house female prisoners prior to transportation was the Dunkirk at Plymouth 1784-1791. One of Australia's most famous convicts Mary Bryant, then known as Mary Broad, was held on the Dunkirk before being transferred to the Charlotte, one of the ships of the First Fleet. Read more about conditions on the Dunkirk at Plymouth before the fleet set sail in 1787.

If your ancestor was transported to Australia in the years 1802-1849, you may find an entry for him in the Prison Hulk Registers and Letter Books, available at Ancestry.

Some of the hulks station in England included:

In Ireland:
Essex at Dublin from 1825 - Read about disease on the Essex
Surprise at Cork

Reports of the Superintendent of Hulks, England 1838

Convict Ships departing England in 1838 included the Bengal Merchant, Lord Lyndoch, Earl Grey, Portsea, Theresa and the John Barry. Many of the prisoners on these vessels had been held on prison hulks under similar conditions to those described below:

There are two half-yearly reports, for the year ending 31st December, 1838, of Mr. J. H. Capper, superintendent of ships and vessels employed for the confinement of offenders under sentence of transportation, and the establishments to which they relate are those at Portsmouth, Chatham, Woolwich, and at Bermuda.

The behaviour of the convicts is generally represented as extremely orderly, both as to the observance of their employment and of their moral and religious duties. Following is an extract showing the mode of treating them, and the manner of life to which these unfortunates are necessarily subjected.

Thus the following is a return of the daily proceedings on board the Leviathan convict hulk, at Portsmouth, August 16, 1838, being the example :

At three o'clock all the cooks are let up to boil the prisoners' breakfast ; at half past five all hands are called up; at a quarter before six the prisoners are mustered, after which breakfast is served down, then one of the three decks is washed, which is done every morning alternately. At a quarter before seven the prisoners (each one bringing his hammock and stowing it away on deck) proceed to labour. On leaving the hulk their irons are examined by the guards, who also search their persons, to prevent any thing improper being concealed; and in order that they may be more strict in the execution of this duty, in the event of anything being afterwards found upon a prisoner, the guard that searched him is made responsible.

The prisoners are divided into ten divisions, each of which is subdivided and delivered into the charge of dock-yard labourers. The prisoners are overlooked by the first and second mate, who patrol the yard, not only to prevent them from straying from their division or attempting to escape, but to make all parties attend strictly to their duties. At a quarter of an hour previous to the return of the prisoners on shore from labour, those employed on board are mustered, to ascertain whether the number is right. At twelve the prisoners return from labour, are searched to prevent any part of the public stores being brought out of the dock-yard, after which a general muster takes place, the dinners are served down, and the prisoners are locked up in their respective wards. A watch, consisting of an officer and half of the ship's company, is set on between decks, where they remain till forty minutes past twelve, when the other half relieves them. At twenty minutes past one the prisoners resume their labour, and at a quarter before six return on board; their irons are examined and their persons searched as in the forenoon. At half-past six o'clock school commences, and at half-past seven prayers are read in the chapel; after which they are mustered and locked up in their respective wards for the night.

The ship's company are divided into three watches (one of which is absent every night, unless duty requires it on board, and returns on board next morning half an hour before the prisoners proceed to labour. New prisoners are made to pass along the quarter deck every morning with their hats off, for a fortnight after their arrival, in the presence of the officers and guards, that their features, gait, etc. may be made familiar to them, in case of any attempting disguise to effect an escape.

On Saturday evening every prisoner washes his person thoroughly before he is allowed to go below. On Sunday all hands are called and mustered at the same time as on the working days, the hammocks are brought up and stowed, and the decks cleanly swept, after which the prisoners return to their wards, and breakfast is then served down. At nine all the prisoners are mustered in divisions on the main deck, for the purpose of seeing that their persons are clean and their clothing kept in proper repair. The steward also, during the week, as opportunities offer, sees that the repairing of the clothing is not neglected, and also issues clothing to those who need it. Divine service is performed by the chaplain once every Sunday. The surgeon or his assistant visits the ship daily. A book is kept in the office, in which is entered a full detail of every day's occurrences
.........Justice of the Peace and County, Borough, Poor Law Union and Parish Law Recorder

History of the Hulks 1868

Below is an extract from &'A History of the Hulks from The Criminal Prisons of London, and Scenes of Prison Life&', compiled in 1868 by Henry Mayhew, John Binny.......

The History of the Hulks.

The idea of converting old ships into prisons arose when, on the breaking out of the American War of Independence, the transportation of our convicts to our transatlantic possessions became an impossibility. For the moment a good was effected, for the crowded prisons were relieved; but from the time when the pressure upon the prisons ceased, down to the present, when the hulks may be said to be doomed, all writers on penology have agreed in condemning the use of old ships for the purposes of penal discipline.

If, however, we follow the wording of the 19th Geo. III., cap. 74, in which the use of ships for prisons is referred to, we shall perceive that an idea of turning convict labour to account, for cleansing the Thames and other navigable rivers, had probably directed the attention of government to the possibility of arranging ships for their crowds of convicts.....

[The section of the act referred to runs thus: "And, for the more severe and effectual punishment of atrocious and daring offenders, be it further enacted, That, from and after the First Day of July, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-nine, where any Male Person... shall be lawfully convicted of Grand Larceny, or any other Crime, except Petty Larceny, for which he shall be liable by Law to be transported to any Parts beyond the Seas, it shall and may be lawful for the Court. . . to order and adjudge that such Person . . shall be punished by being kept on Board Ships or Vessels properly accommodated for the Security, Employment, and Health of the Persons to be confined therein, and by being employed in Hard Labour in the raising Sand, Soil, and Gravel from, and cleansing, the River Thames, or any other River Navigable for Ships of Burthen]

The "JUSTITIA," an old Indiaman, and the "CENSOR," a frigate, were the first floating prisons established in England. This system, though condemned by such men as Howard and Sir William Blackstone,  was not only persevered in, but extended; till, on the 1st of January, 1841, there were 3,552 convicts on board the various hulks in England. In 1854 the numbers so confined had been reduced to 1298.

Some idea of the sanitary condition of these establishments, even so recently as 1841, may be gathered from the report of Mr. Peter Bossy, surgeon of the "WARRIOR" hulk, off Woolwich, which shows that in that year, among 638 convicts on board, there were no less than 400 cases of admission to the hospital, and 38 deaths! At this period there were no less than 11 ships (including those stationed at Bermuda, and the "Euryalus," for juvenile convicts) used by the British government for the purposes of penal discipline-if discipline the then state of things could possibly be called.

There are still officers in the Woolwich hulks who remember a time when the "Justitia" (a second "Justitia," brought from Chatham in 1829) contained no less than 700 convicts; and when, at night, these men were fastened in their dens - a single warder being left on board ship, in charge of them! The state of morality under such circumstances may be easily conceived-crimes impossible to be mentioned being commonly perpetrated.

Indeed we were assured by one of the warders, who had served under the old hulk "regime," 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; and that when the cholera broke out on board the convict vessels for the first time, the chaplain refused to bury the dead until there were several corpses aboard, so that the coffins were taken to the marshes by half a dozen at a time, and there interred at a given signal from the clergyman; his reverence remaining behind on the poop of the vessel, afraid to accompany the bodies, reading the burial-service at the distance of a mile from the grave, and letting fall a handkerchief, when he came to "ashes to ashes and dust to dust," as a sign that they were to lower the bodies.

It was impossible that a state of things so scandalous could last; and the successive reports of the directors of convict prisons are evidence of the anxiety with which they urged upon the government the reform-if not the abandonment of the hulk system altogether; for, to the disadvantages inseparable from the conduct of prison discipline on board ship, the governors of hulks were forced to add the rottenness of the vessels intrusted to them. They were expected to govern five hundred convicts in a ship, the same as in a convenient building, and to keep them healthy-in a rotten leaky tub! - The Criminal Prisons of London, and Scenes of Prison Life, Issue 7 By Henry Mayhew, John Binny

Notes and Links

1). Captivity Hulk Register - National Archives