From the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century, prison hulks – ships repurposed as floating jails – were used by the British government over an 80-year period as a cost-saving means to detain convicts awaiting transportation. Thanks to the memorable opening scenes of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861), with the thrilling escape and recapture of convict Abel Magwitch from the misty marshes near Rochester, the reputation of prison hulks as floating hells was set in stone, an image etched on public memory. Narrator Pip, transfixed with horror when he encountered the ghostly ships, remarked: ‘By the light of the torches, we saw the black Hulk lying out a little way from the mud of the shore, like a wicked Noah’s ark.’1
In 1776, the British government authorised the use of hulks as temporary detention centres for male convicts awaiting transportation to the Australian colonies of New South Wales, and later Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania. The decision came in response to a housing crisis across British prisons caused by the American Revolution, which brought an abrupt halt to the established practice of sending the country’s felons to the American colonies. Stripped of their rigging and masts, ex-merchant and naval ships found new purpose, holding up to 500 prisoners at any one time in cramped, unhealthy, and often dangerous conditions. The first prison hulks were stationed at Woolwich, which was then a part of Kent, but the system expanded, setting up sites in Portsmouth and Plymouth, and then further along the Thames Estuary, with the hulks Retribution and Zealand arriving at Sheerness between 1804-10, followed by the Bellerophon in 1816. The Ganymede, Dolphin, and Euryalus came to Chatham in the early 1820s and then the Fortitude, in 1831.There were even hulks in Ireland, Bermuda and Gibraltar.
In the early years, management of the hulks was placed in the hands of private contractor Duncan Campbell, an established merchant who previously transported convicts from the London area to the American colonies. Campbell lobbied in parliament and secured the lucrative managerial role over rivals including penal reformer Jeremy Bentham. Campbell cut costs, disease spread, and convicts relied on friends and family to bring them additional food and clothing. By 1802, Campbell was replaced by Aaron Graham, a stipendiary magistrate from the London police at Bow Street, who oversaw management until 1814, when the Home Office took direct control. The system was frequently criticised by reformers and members of parliament. In 1810, Sir Samuel Romilly – an expert in criminal law – stated in the House of Commons that ‘no attention will ever be able to correct the defects of this species of punishment […] The vices of it are inseparable from the system.’2
Over time, approximately 28 convict hulks were moored adjacent to Royal Naval Dockyards along the Kent coastline. No female convicts were ever held on board hulks; instead, the ships were reserved for the detention of male prisoners, including boys as young as eight. Life on board was regimented; up in the early hours of the morning, prisoners ate a meagre breakfast before being rowed to shore to work in chain gangs, hauling timber, breaking rocks and dredging areas of the Thames to improve navigation for ships. By dusk, they returned to the ships to spend nights locked down with fellow messmates. Fights could break out and sexual assaults occurred, rations and personal belongings were stolen, all while corrupt guards and overseers turned a blind eye. There were four ways prisoners could leave the hulks: transportation, pardon, escape, or death.
Most commonly, prisoners received sentences of seven years, fourteen years, or life for committing petty offences, such as stealing clothing, food, and livestock. Others could serve time for murder, assault, and even their political beliefs. Men frequently petitioned for early release, citing good behaviour, pleading that they were the sole providers for their families, or asking to serve in the army and navy. If successful, some convicts were never transported, and the hulks became the only form of punishment they experienced. In 1792, William Coates, on board the Censor at Woolwich, threatened suicide if he did not receive a pardon.3 But others saw the hulks – and transportation – as preferable to life in other prisons; in October 1789, carpenter Valentine Fryar asked if he could be transferred to labour at the hulks so that he could receive better rations than those at Newgate, stating that ‘I have only bread and water’.4 He was sent to Woolwich, and later transported as part of the Third Fleet to New South Wales.5
The ships’ state of disrepair brought their own problems; in October 1829, the Morning Post printed a story about the sinking of the Dolphin hulk at Chatham, stating that it had let in water through its privy holes and snapped free of its moorings shortly after midnight. The hulk tipped to one side, drowning three convicts and injuring many more as they fell from their hammocks and scrambled to escape the rising water.6 Locals objected to convict hulks, saying they were noisy and posed a threat to society; it was feared that escape attempts might bring members of the public into contact with dangerous criminals, something that was stoked by coverage in newspapers. Some reports gave detailed descriptions of convicts’ personal appearance and clothing to help recapture, such as those in the Police Gazette. One escaped convict from the Fortitude at Chatham, Charles Watson Newberry, was described as ‘five feet seven inches high, brown hair, gray eyes […] scar on front of right shoulder’.7 He could read and write, and was wearing a blue jacket and trousers stolen from an adjoining vessel. Recaptured convicts were publicly flogged, or spent a few days in a solitary confinement cell known as the black hole, with reduced rations.
Convict hulks stationed along the Kent coastline were only supposed to be temporary measures to ease prison overcrowding, yet the system operated for nearly a century. It was hoped that their poor reputation would act as a deterrent to would-be offenders, but many people driven to desperation through poverty had no choice, while others saw the prospect of transportation as an opportunity for a new life and fresh start. The hulks were a necessary stepping-stone in the transportation process until the ships were gradually phased out amidst a wave of penal reforms, finally ceasing in England by 1857. While expenditure and upkeep was far greater than the cost of investing in new prisons, the government used hulks as stopgaps until it settled on new policy. The legacy of convict hulks as ‘wicked Noah’s arks’ lives on today, represented in the landscape; they built new prisons and transformed naval dockyards, and the coastal marshes of the Hoo Peninsula still captures the imagination, evoking their dark and dramatic memory.
This article was published: 21 June 2023.
Anderson, Clare. A Global History of Convicts and Penal Colonies (London: Bloomsbury, 2018).
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (London: Chapman & Hall, 1861). ↩
House of Commons Parliamentary Papers, Penitentiary Houses, 5 June 1810, Commons Sitting, series 1, vol.17, cols.312-352 (col.326) ↩
The National Archives (Kew), HO 42/20/132, Letter from William Coates aboard the Censor hulk, 22 May 1792, fols.294-295. ↩
TNA, HO 42/15/84, Letter from Valentine Fryar, Newgate, 17 October 1789. ↩
FindMyPast, Convict Transportation Registers 1787-1870, ‘Valentine Fryer’, departure year 1791. ↩
‘Shocking accident at Chatham’, Morning Post, 19 October 1829. ↩
‘Felonies’, case of Charles Watson Newberry, Police Gazette; or, Hue and Cry, 22 July 1837. ↩