Thursday, April 22, 2010

Aboard the Hulks: A Voyage to Nowhere

By today's standards, the criminal justice system in Victorian times was hard and cruel. Although lip service had been paid to imprisonment as a reformative process, most people saw it as punishment; and the harder, the better. The hardest punishment was, of course, the death sentence but this was a punishment which was often commuted to “transportation beyond the seas.” Not all of those who were so sentenced were actually transported. Many were placed aboard ships which provided a voyage to nowhere; serving their full sentence aboard the “hulks.”

Lying in the Thames estuary, anchored along the banks of the river and in ports such as Portsmouth and Plymouth were old navy ships which had been converted into floating gaols. Generally a hulk was demasted, the rigging and rudders were removed as were any other features that might make the craft seaworthy. Inside, the decks were restructured to include cells for the convicts. Reforms in the first two decades of the nineteenth century led to a more standardized “prison” ship.

On each of the decks which housed the convicts a passage ran down the middle with cells on either side containing from ten to sixteen prisoners. The cells opened onto the passage by means of barred doors in order to insure that the activities of the convicts were always visible from the passageway. By the 1830s, when Charles Cozens, a military prisoner, was incarcerated in one of these floating prisons, the Justitia, he tells us that this former man of war was

drawn up close adjacent to the arsenal, with which a platform communicates from the ship’s gangway. It is subdivided into so many different apartments termed “wards,” varying in size according to the number and nature of their occupants, and forming three distinct stories or tiers, called the upper, middle, and lower decks, altogether capable of containing from eight to ten hundred men. Hammocks supply place of berths, which, from the facility of slinging, accommodate a much greater number of men.

In 1776, Parliament had authorized the use of these decommissioned and converted warships for a two year period as temporary holding pens for transportees. Like most government measures the hulk system seemed to take on a life of its own and they were still in use more than eighty years later. Sir Samuel Romilly, speaking in the House of Commons in May of 1809 commented on "the extreme depravity" and the "wretchedness they were condemned to suffer on board the hulks," describing them as " miserable receptacles, where so many met a melancholy death."
Indeed,  Charles Cozens may well have been right when he described other prisons as,  “delightful suburban retreat[s]” when compared to the hulks.  
Because those either too ill or too old to make the trip to Australia were not transported, the hulks were always at risk of becoming human dumping grounds. “We lament,” investigators noted, “the great proportion of persons on board the hulks generally who from age, infirmity, accident or incurable disease are wholly incapable of work.” Among the criticism directed at the hulks was that the overcrowding aboard the vessels was such as to create an environment in which criminals of all types and ages were co-mingled, “and by that constant intercourse, they corrupt and confirm each other in every practice of villainy.” The hulks became schools for criminals where they were “confirmed in every vicious habit.”  Nor was it uncommon for there to be boys among the men.  Aboard the Justitia, Cozens found  two brothers whose ages were estimated at eleven and twelve years.

Charles Cozens was aboard the Justitia, a hulk which was not noted for its cleanliness.  Even so, attempts were made, no matter how unsuccessful they might prove to be, to maintain some minimal degree of hygiene. After all, cleanliness was next to Godliness, and so convicts were required to wash and shave on Saturday evenings to prepare for the Lord’s Day, Sunday.
Cozens was a “laundress,” whose job, in his words, was “washing the shirts or linen of the remainder of the family, amounting at the time … to about five hundred.” The first four days of the week were spent in scrubbing the thick smock-frocks or shirts inside and out with a brush and they were then hung from lines between the yards. They were finally ironed and folded. Charles Cozen supported existing views on cleanliness aboard the hulks, noting that
the greatest inconvenience experienced in this … was occasioned by the filthy state of the shirts from vermin, which, on some, literally swarmed, and every place in the wash-house, from long usage, was in the same state.
Life aboard the hulks followed a relatively tight routine; at least during the daylight hours. The ordinary working day started with the cooks rising at 3.00 a.m. to prepare breakfast for the convicts who arose at 5.30. They were then mustered on the deck fifteen minutes later and as soon as they finished breakfast one of the three decks on the ship was washed. The decks were washed alternately thus meaning that one was cleaned every three days. This was completed by 6.45 at which time the convicts stowed their hammocks and left the ship to work on shore in the dockyards or on the banks of the Thames. As they left the ship, in irons, the restraints were checked by the guards who also made sure that the convicts had nothing hidden about their persons and it is likely that the guards were fastidious in their searches since, if anything was found on the prisoners later, the guard was held responsible.

The work gangs, usually consisting of ten men, were set up although the numbers might vary depending upon the particular assignment for the day. They were under the supervision of a free overseer and while they worked, they were, of course, closely guarded to make sure that they didn’t slack off or attempt to escape. Among the jobs undertaken by convicts were

cleaning shot in the arsenal, or erecting mounds and scarps, under the direction of sappers and miners, for artillery practice. Others loaded and unloaded barges in the mud, or attended the different tradesmen and mechanics employed in the dockyard.
There were frequent musters and the prisoners were closely guarded. On their return to the ship,  their irons were examined and they were searched. In the evening there might be school, chapel and a final muster before the prisoners were locked into their wards for the night. Finally at 9.30, it was lights out. Violence aboard the hulks was not uncommon. What might appear at first glance to be small issues could blow up and cause major disruption. In the history of the hulks, attempts were made to burn or scuttle the ships and the thin line between discipline and riot was not always easy to maintain.
Although descriptions from visitors might suggest a well run organization, this was often far from the truth. At one of the Hulks at Sheerness, a visitor found that the prisoners were largely in control. They commonly stole from the dockyards where they worked and used what they stole for purchasing beer which, as he noted, “was sold in the hulks by night, as well as by day … with the sanction and the authority of the captain.” And he went on to suggest that the authorities allowed this since they profited from the sale of the beer.

In 1835, witnesses before the House of Lords Committee on Gaols, including some former prisoners, testified that after lights out the intensely crowded lower decks became places where the convicts robbed one another, quarrelled, fought, swore and apparently did pretty much as they pleased. As Branch-Johnson has noted, “from almost whatever hulk witnesses came, the phrase ‘hell upon earth’,: or something very like it, finds its way into the evidence.” So bad was life aboard the hulks that one of the Convicts in one of these floating prisons freely admitted “that if it should be his son’s fate to be placed in confinement, he prays to God that he may never be put into a hulk.”
Click here to download Charles Cozen's Adventures of a Guardsman.


Hels said...

Welcome back :) It seems like ages.

That sectional view is telling, isn't it? I am claustrophobic... there is no way you would ever EVER get me into a hulk, below deck.

So what crime did a person have to commit to get:
1. capital punishment
2. transportation for life
3. sentenced to a hulk or
4. sentenced to an ordinary gaol?
Was there some sort of scale used by judges?

Bruce said...

Hi Hels

In answer to your questions, in 1815 there were 225 hanging offences. Gibbeting and Hanging in chains were abolished in the 1830s. Transportation for life was usually a commuted death sentence but not all of those aboard the hulks had been sentenced to death. Many were simply awaiting transportation for crimes that carried transportation for seven or fourteen years as punishment. The hulks were not prisons in the same sense as gaols; rather they were a "way station" for transportees.

That's the bad news. The good news, for you, is that women were never put aboard hulks. They were usually sent back to whatever gaol they had been in and awaited some form of transportation to a departing convict ship. So, you wouldn't have to worry about your claustrophobia; but there were some pretty nasty reports about the women's accommodation in gaols and prisons!

Kim said...

Dr. Bruce,
I'm trying to find out if the hulks were still in place in the Thames around 1850. Would you know or can you think of where I could look to find out? Thank you!

Dr Bruce Rosen said...

Hi Kim

The short answer to your question is "yes, they were." The longer answer is that they had largely (but not totally) been turned into places for sick and aged prisoners. For more detail have a look at W. Branch-Johnson. The English Prison Hulks London: Christopher Johnson, 1957.