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Duration 44:26

Prison hulks

In 1776 a new act of parliament was introduced to ‘Authorise for a limited time, the punishment by hard labour of offenders…raising Sand, Soil and Gravel from…the River Thames’. Soon after, the first floating prison, the hulk Justitia, was brought into service. The first of over 50 such vessels, this ‘temporary expedient’ was to last for almost a century. This talk builds on an earlier lecture ‘From crime to punishment: criminal records of our ancestors from the 18th and 19th centuries’ concentrating on the various records created that capture the dreadful reality of life on board the hulks for the men, women and children detained on them.

Jeff James was Director of Operations and Services at The National Archives when he gave this talk. He is now the Chief Executive. Jeff has an MA in History from the University of Hertfordshire and has a particular interest in 18th and 19th century crime and poverty. His MA dissertation ‘Pardon Refusers (1776-1815)’ focused on the fate of 50 hulk prisoners who refused the offer of a royal pardon at the turn of the 19th century.


[Recorded in 2012] Good afternoon everybody – my name is Jeff James and I am the director of operations and services at The National Archives. Hopefully you are here today to listen to a talk on English prison hulks from the 18th and 19th centuries and their related records, and if anybody isn’t, its not too late to duck out.

Last April, I gave a talk on criminal records and I began by saying that I am not a record specialist, and if you allow me, I will make the same disclaimer today – particularly since some of the specialists are seated amongst the audience.

I am, however, somebody who has an interest in the history of crime and punishment, and in 2010, I completed an MA in history at the University of Hertfordshire, and my dissertation focused on the fate of 50 convicted felons who were interned on prison hulks at the turn of the 19th century. Interestingly, these felons refused pardons to serve in the army during the Napoleonic war. And it was this dissertation that really sparked my interest in prison hulks.

Whereas the April talk took a rather expansive view of the criminal justice system, tracing convicts as they journeyed throughout the system from crime to trial to punishment, and more often than not, the journeys of these convicted criminals included time spent at His Majesty’s pleasure on one of the prison hulks. Theoretically at least while they awaited transportation.

My aim today therefore is to throw some light on the records of thousands of convicted felons who were detained on what Robert Hughes so magically described as ‘rookeries of sea isolated crime’ – the English civilian prison hulks. Even in isolation these records provide invaluable insight into the lives of the men, women – yes women – and boys who were interned on them.

And now that the prison registers have been digitised and put online, it’s possible to search hulk records and trace criminals, both backwards and forwards in time. Forwards to transportation registers to workhouse records or to military service records; and backwards to the depositions, jail books and indictment and assize records and to the Old Bailey transcripts.

In focusing on hulks themselves, it’s not therefore my intention to retread the very well travelled ground from previous talks, which encompass things like the criminal justice system, the Metropolitan Police, the prison systems and places of trial. For those of you who are interested, these talks have been podcast and are available on our website.

Similarly, from 1776 Britain was variously at war with America and France and many military hulks were commissioned to hold prisoners of war. Richard Rose lists 18 prisoner of war hulks and hospital ships in service between 1794 and 1816 in his book ‘The Floating Prison.’ Rose’s translation of the contemporary memoirs of the French prisoner of war, Louis Garneray, provide a unique insight into hulk life. And whilst there are aspects that translate into the civilian hulks it the latter the talk today will focus on.

So, what am I going to cover? I am going to begin with a little bit of an explanation around why the hulks came into being and the various social and political pressures which created their existence. We’ll look a little bit at the actual hulks themselves and the physical and psychological conditions of life onboard the hulks before looking at the records that we hold at Kew for prison hulk registers. We’ll touch briefly on hulks abroad – they weren’t just phenomena that existed in the UK – before moving onto boys and ending on the slightly contentious subject of women.

So by the mid 1770’s, the combined affects of the Bloody Code and war with America had created a crisis point for the British government. Britain had been exporting criminals across the Atlantic since the early 17th century. Following Elizabeth the I’s Act for the Punishment of ‘Rogues, Vagabonds and Sturdy Beggars’ – needed to get that one right [laughter] – which established the notion of transportation to the colonies.

Political, religious and criminal prisoners were transported to Virginia and Maryland and to the West Indies too, more often then not to serve as cheap labour on plantations. However, once war broke out with the American colonies in 1775, the route to America was closed off. There was a glut of slave labour emerging in the West Indies and transportation to the southern hemisphere was too costly and impractical at this time.

With over 200 capital crimes on the statute book and a criminal justice system founded on mercy, the English gaols were quite literally overflowing with prisoners awaiting transportation, but with nowhere to go. Equally, pressure from religious and political figures to come up with a practical solution to the very real problem presented by the temporary unavailability of America was compounded by social commentators, people like John Howard, the high sheriff of Bedfordshire, who had been pressing for reform of the prison system since 1773. In fact, Howard’s seminal publications on the state of the prisons, available in our library, was first published in 1777 – just four years later. Something had to be done, and in May 1776, a new Act of Parliament received royal ascent sanctioning the use of hulks for two years as a temporary expedient to the problem of overflowing jails, and the absence of a suitable place to dispose of them.

[Shows an image] For the benefit of the podcast listeners, I will just read this out:
the Act ‘authorised for a limited time the punishment by hard labour of offenders who for certain crimes shall be liable to be transported to any of His Majesty’s colonies or plantations, and they will be kept to hard labour in raising sand, soil and gravel from and cleaning of the river Thames. For the same term of years as the transportation of the offence no less then three, no more then ten.’

Responsibility for commissioning the first hulks was therefore passed to the Middlesex justices. And unsurprisingly, the contract to oversee prisoners on the first hulks was awarded to a transportation contractor, Duncan Campbell, who no doubt saw this as a good match for his skills and an alternative source of income given the temporary drying-up of transportation routes. And the first civilian prison hulk and ex-convict transport ship of Campbell’s, the Justitia, was commissioned soon after. And about another 50 or so were brought into service thereafter until 1850, serving as a very un-temporary expedient for almost 100 years until 1875.

The hulks themselves varied enormously in type, construction and size, and included decommissioned Royal Navy warships, captured French men-of-wars, privateers, transporters and trading vessels.

This first image here [shows an image] is the Justitia, as I said an ex-transport vessel, she spent about 25 years in service and accommodated around 250 prisoners. And one of the reasons why it’s difficult to pin down the exact number of prison hulks is that the name, Justitia, was re-used several times on several different hulks.

Here we see the Warrior [shows an image], at Woolwich, an ex-Royal Navy 74-gun warship. A prison hulk from 1840 – she was eventually broken up in 1857 – which largely could accommodate up to around 400 inmates.

And the smaller Discovery, shown here [shows an image] at Deptford. Now this is a ten-gun sloop, it became a prison hulk in 1818 and it was broken up in 1834 and could accommodate around 200 prisoners.

Charles Campbell provides a list of hulk vessels in the appendices of his publication, The Intolerable Hulks, including their names, the dates that they were commissioned, the estimated time that they spent in service and the places they were stationed. Campbell lists about 44 hulks in his appendices. However I would say that for once Wikipedia is actually very useful. Wikipedia lists about 60 hulks – if you just type in ‘list of British prison hulks’ at the Wikipedia search box, you’ll get a more exhaustive list, including details of the origins of the vessels and in many cases, their eventual fates.

Given the variable nature of the hulks themselves it’s of no surprise that the number of convicts they could or should hold varies enormously, anywhere from 100 to a maximum of over 600 on the Dolphin.

Although the Act refers specifically to the Thames, in reality hulks were berthed at various anchorages – both home and abroad – including: Deptford, Chatham, Woolwich, Gosport, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Sheerness and Cork. And as I said, abroad – most notably Gibraltar and Bermuda.

There can be no doubt that physical conditions were tough. Inmates were shackled in irons, rising daily at five am, before typically undertaking ten hours of hard labour in summer and seven in the winter, and being put down at seven pm. Despite this there is also evidence of periods of idleness. William Branch Johnson, the first modern historian to publish on the hulks in 1957 points out that in ‘wet weather and on the Sundays, none worked. They sat about dejectedly, moped, grumbled, recounted past misdeeds to companions anxious to profit by their experiences and planned mutinies and escapes.’

Ironically, for a solution to capacity issues in prisons, the accommodation was terribly overcrowded. The inmates slept, ate and passed time in the same below deck spaces. Sleeping conditions in particular were very cramped, and the overall effect was to provide ideal breeding conditions for the transfer of various diseases including typhus and tuberculosis.

Clothing was basic but sufficient and the diet adequate, being no worse then that served on naval vessels according to the hulk overseers. Whilst the water available to inmates was probably similar in quality to that available to most of the inhabitants of London. Nevertheless the quality of the food was variable and concerns were raised at the time about the lack of fruit, vegetables and bread and the freshness of the meat.

In fact the prison reformer, John Howard, made several visits to the hulks in the latter part of the 18th century commenting in his fourth edition that prisoners onboard the Justitia looked healthy and well and the decks were clean, they had bedding, the provisions were good and there were not any without shoes and stockings. Despite this somewhat positive report, mortality rates were very high – especially in the early years when about one in four perished by most accounts.

Nevertheless by the early 19th century, following several public enquiries, mortality rates appeared to have improved and certainly of the 500 hulk prisoners onboard the Retribution and Prudentia that I researched in my MA dissertation, only 49 were recorded on the register as dead. So just under ten percent.

Similarly, of the 50 hulk refusers who were interned on a total of five hulks, only four were recorded as dead – around about eight percent. And a similar pattern emerges when you look at transportation and mortality rates dropping from a high of 27 percent, on the infamous second voyage of 1790, to between about nine percent and two percent by the turn of the century. So both scenarios paint the picture of improving conditions over a period of around about 30 years. Nevertheless death was still a very real outcome for those onboard the hulks.

However poor the physical conditions were, the psychological conditions were far worse. The reputation of the hulks preceded them, with many preferring to be hanged rather then go onboard. And once onboard things were no better. The first overseer of the hulks, Duncan Campbell, reported that the first convicts received onboard in 1776 were healthy, but despondent – suffering from ‘universal depression of spirits.’ And things weren’t much better by 1819. In a letter to the Home Secretary, Viscount Sidmouth, Henry Grey Bennent claimed that convicts were ‘debased and lacking in pride, driven to a furious cast of countenance, expressive of bad passions and suppressed rage.’ As Charles Campbell says, humanitarianism was hardly a prominent feature of the 18th century, and not much grief was displayed over the plight of unfortunates who were often shamed by being sent to work in full gaze of the public.

Politicians and the public might not have been concerned about the physical and mental wellbeing of the detainees, but they did care about the apparent lack of morale – of morals, sorry – of which the hulks were perceived to perpetuate. When questioned about the corruption of morals arising from the system of the hulks, Patrick Colquhoun replied as follows:

‘I have seldom known of an instance of their return to honest industry, on the contrary, many of them have been detected immediately afterwards in the commission of new crimes. The chief cause of the general corruption of morals may be traced to the indiscriminate mixture of hardened and irreclaimable thieves with country convicts, thereby rendering the establishment a complete seminary of vice and wickedness.’

I think he might have over-egged his part a little bit there.

Before turning to the records it is worth just briefly reflecting on the typical hulk prisoner. My own research, as I said of 500 hulk prisoners from the turn of the 19th century, shows that the majority were young men, at least by modern standards. 70 percent of them were under the age of 35, and the youngest in the sample that I looked at was 14, although you do get children far younger then that as we’ll see in a few moments. The vast majority were convicted of some sort of theft-related crime. The vast majority of those were sentenced to seven years’ transportation.

It could take quite awhile to arrive onboard. Certainly a healthy proportion took between three and five years to reach the hulks. And typically people spend between one and three years on the hulks awaiting their final outcome. Of the sample that I looked at which was very narrow, and on a very tight time scale, only 14 percent were actually transported. The majority were pardoned or discharged.

So as far as the records are concerned the starting point for most researchers will be the hulk registers. These are contained in 16 volumes of HO 9 and cover the period from 1802 to 1849 – really the bulk of the period that the hulks were in commission. And there are three ways into the hulk registers, free via DocsOnline [now available on Discovery] – these are browse-only digital images taken from microfilm. They are available to view free at Kew, or anywhere else, and you can either access them directly through DocsOnline or via The National Archives catalogue by searching for HO 9 and then following the digital microfilm project link. You need to be aware that the images are typically very large PDFs, several hundred megabytes some of them, and you can only scroll through the registers in much the same way you would scroll through microfilms – so what you can’t do on this is search.

If you want to search you can access the hulk registers via Ancestry. Again, these are available free at Kew, or they are charged offsite. You can see here Thomas James [shows an image], who served on the Retribution, age 38, convicted at Wells of a felony and sentenced. I don’t know if you can see that – they quite often use abbreviations – BS ‘beyond the seas’ for seven years and most probably transported a year later in the summer of 1815.

The best bit about the Ancestry model is that you can search by name, by date, by location and keyword to get to the digital image. And the keyword search is particularly useful for those of you who are doing subject-based research. For example, searching for ‘escaped’ lists the 45,000 records of escapees on the various prison hulks. And if you use a Boolean search to narrow it down you can search by, for example, ‘escaped’ and the name of the hulk.

Finally, researchers can also view the register by microfilm for free here at Kew. They are available in drawers 146 at the research enquiry room.

HO 9 is typically arranged with a register and matching alphabetical index of inmates. Typically each register will contain more then one prison hulk. So for example, HO 94 contains entries for the hulks – Prudentia, Retribution and Justitia.

If you are lucky… there will be a title page so that you are clear about what you are looking at. So I don’t know if you can read that [shows an image], but it says ‘a list of convicts under sentence of transportation and hard labour onboard the Justitia hulk in the river Thames, commencing 1st of August 1814.’ If you don’t get a title page you often get a header. And again, for those that can’t read it [shows an image], this one says, ‘return of the convicts under sentence of transportation and hard labour removed from sundry jails by command of His Majesty and put onboard the Prudentia hulk at Woolwich, commencing 1st of April 1803.’

A word of warning – the registers can randomly restart numbering for no apparent reason. So for example the Justitia, which we were looking at just a moment ago, for some reason re-starts at number one in January 1825, and again in 1834.

Generally the condition of the registers is good, although there are sporadic pages with missing information and – really frustratingly – it’s often the left hand column or the right hand column where the information is missing. And the left hand column typically contains the name, and the right hand column typically contains the outcome. So it can be a little bit hit and miss.

But the information contained within them includes: the number allocated to the convict when they were received onboard, so this is just a chronological listing; the name, Christian name and surname is the typical format; age when convicted – although it’s not always given; the offence, for example grand larceny, felony, robbery, murder; when and where they were sentenced; the sentence itself, which is often abbreviated and it takes a little bit of time to get used to that, so as I say BS for ‘beyond the seas’, NSW for ‘New South Wales’, VDL for ‘Van Diemen’s Land,’ ‘seven, 14, life’ depending on the term. And then finally what’s of most interest I guess is the remarks column which is also sometimes called ‘how disposed of,’ which includes things like; died, escaped, pardoned, discharged, transported etc.

[Shows an image] So if you look for example at one of the case studies from my April talk, James Butler, having been received onboard the hulk, Captivity, we can see, hopefully, that he was 15 years old when he was sentenced at Middlesex, and actual fact The Old Bailey, in January 1807. And he was eventually transported to New South Wales – and I don’t know if you can read that at the bottom – on the Admiral Gambier, some 18 months later. There is a book in the library, Bates and his convicts ships, if you are interested in details of the various transport vessels, certainly the Admiral Gambier is one of those listed.

The alphabetical indexes to the registers can provide a valuable insight into the previous history and character of convicts onboard the hulks, like James Butler. So here we have the index [shows an image], from HO 96, to convicts serving on the Retribution. And this one small snapshot reveals a real cross section of society with a potential escapee, an ex-soldier and somebody who was connected with horse stealers who previously spent time on the hulks for smuggling – a real multi-skilled recidivist.

The 1776 Act also required that the hulk overseers should submit regular returns. Initially it would appear that these returns were to be made to the treasury, but more laterally to the Home Office. And the earliest returns therefore dating back to the first two decades of the hulks are to be found in T 1. However most researchers are likely to start with the quarterly returns in HO 8.

From 1824, hulk overseers submitted quarterly returns to the Home Secretary listing all the prisoners who were confined during the previous three months. And these records are contained within the 207 pieces of HO 8. HO 8 returns include all the same information available in HO 9. So, the hulk number – number on the hulk I should say – the name, the age, the crime, when and where convicted and of what, and sentence and outcome details. However, they also include information relating to the convicts behavior or conduct, which as you can see ranges from very good, good, indifferent, bad and very bad; and health, including any time spent in the hospital.

And really the value is in consulting HO 9 and HO 8 together where they exist. You can build up a much fuller picture of the ancestor that you are looking for. For example if we look at HO 9/15 and HO 8/74 together we learn that the 20 year old George Foster, who was convicted of theft, stealing door knobs (I presume brass doorknobs as opposed to wooden ones) at Birmingham in 1839 and sentenced to seven years transportation. He was transferred to the York from the Kandahar in 1842, and was in good health and was a very good character. He was single, he couldn’t read nor could he write, he was a chain maker and this wasn’t his first offence. HO 8 doesn’t actually say what became of George Foster, however, HO 9 reveals that he was given a free pardon in December 1843, no doubt in no small part to his very good behaviour, especially given he was a previous offender.

Prior to 1802, you can find information in Treasury Papers in T 1, and there are several loose bundles dating back to the very first few years of the hulks. So for example, T 1/558, folios 180-240, date back to 1780 just four years after the introduction of the hulks. And these include several duplicate quarterly returns for hulks at Woolwich. As I say these are loose papers, which are kind of folded into quarters rather then registers themselves. Given the period I think these are almost certainly the Justitia and the [UNCLEAR], and the details include the name and the age, again when and where sentenced, for how long and how disposed. It is interesting to note that the sentence length is contexted as ‘term ordered for labour,’ reflecting perhaps the lack of transportation options available at this period and the terms of the newish Act.

Of interest within these returns is the signature of the very first hulk overseer or superintendent, Duncan Campbell [shows an image]. And at the end of each return Campbell lists the total number of convicts onboard the hulks, in this case 480, together with the numbers in hospital, the numbers escaped, pardoned and died. And again you can see the death toll is not that great. You can see Campbell’s signature here. He also typically includes at the end of each quarterly return a small number of men who he is recommending for pardon. In this case either to serve onboard one of His Majesty’s ships of war or a vessel bound to Jamaica carrying a letter of marque. And this conditional pardon is a theme which runs throughout the hulk registers.

There are some long bundles of papers relating to hulks in T 1, including hulks in Ireland which span a much broader period from 1790 through to 1840. Although to be honest, for the most part these relate to the submission of accounts and they are not name rich information. However, you can search them on the catalogue and they can be found in T 1/3564 and [T 1/]3566. And there is a research guide Treasury Board letters and papers [ ] which explains the history and composition of Treasury Board papers, including the origin of the long bundles.

Similarly, within the departmental accounts of the treasury in T 38 are quarterly returns for several hulks including the Bellerophon, Captivity, Justitia, Laurel, Leviathan and Zeeland to name but a few. And these cover the period 1802 through to 1818. Of these, the Bellerophon is of particular note as it was to be distinguished some six years later when the men were removed, and it became the very first hulk used exclusively for boys.

The format of the returns in T 38 is slightly different to HO 8 and typically comprises of three parts. There is a return of convicts, a list of those in hospital and details of captains, officers and guards who were paid and victualled. So the return of convicts tends to be a lot sparser in HO 8 and doesn’t include; age, crime and sentencing details, but does include the number of days that were victualled and the items of clothing and bedding issued.

There is also a column to record those discharged during the last quarter. The overseers were permitted to discharge two in every 100 prisoners per quarter. But only the date of the discharge is recorded, not the reason.

Separate entries are also included for the number of days that convicts were hospitalised. And you can see here [shows an image] the account for the Bellerophon in March 1818. And another section records details of the officers and chaplains, surgeons, guards and supervisors who were serving onboard the hulks as well.

It’s worth pointing out that T 38 isn’t foliated and some of the records are in unreadable condition, so again, a little bit of potluck there – some are very good, some are unreadable.

As I said at the beginning, several hulks were based abroad including Bermuda, from 1824 until 1862. Including the Antelope, Coromandel and the Weymouth. Despite such idyllic surroundings, the hulks at Bermuda were generally regarded as some of the worst in existence. And conditions onboard were actually intolerable, particularly in the confined sleeping quarters at night. And unsurprisingly disease was rampant. If the heat didn’t kill you then dysentery, scurvy or West Indian yellow fever almost certainly would. Mortality rates were extremely high and epidemics were common, including in 1853 when 160 convicts succumbed to yellow fever. The hulks themselves were grounded on mudbanks and infested with vermin and cockroaches.

The registers cover the first five years of hulk service in Bermuda up until 1828. And unlike HO 9, there is no index to these registers, however they do contain the useful information such as: name, age, offence, sentence and how disposed of. They also include a column – if you look on the left there you can see it [shows an image] – for ‘whence and when received,’ which taken together with the enrollment number from the issuing hulk makes tracing ancestors back to the UK hulks and gaols much easier. And at the end of some of the hulk lists, there is also a small number or convicts, typically murderers, rapists and deserters, who were relocated from far afield places such as Montreal and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Of real interest to the family historian though, there is also information including marital status and trade. And as with T 38 these records which contain in HO 7/3 are unfoliated. Unlike T 38, H0 73 is in superb condition and is a beautifully compact register, not much bigger then the typical hardback novel, bound in white vellum and as you can see, with exquisite calligraphy [shows an image].

Branch-Johnson goes on to quote the Reverend Guilding, one of the hulk chaplains in Bermuda, who in 1860 mirrors the very worst fears of Patrick Colquhoun – him of ‘the seminaries of vice and wickedness’ fame. Guilding says:

‘it’s my painful conviction, after some years experience, that the great majority of the prisoners confined in the hulks become incurably corrupted, and leave in the most cases more reckless and hardened in sin then they were upon reception. Few are aware of the extent of suffering to which the prisoner is exposed onboard the hulks or the horrible nature of the associations by which he is surrounded. A mob law and tyranny of the strong over the weak exists below which makes the well disposed live in constant misery and terror.’

The Reverend Guilding in his tirade of 1860 wrongly implies that the hulks in Bermuda are the last in service. It is fair to say that the UK hulks were abolished in England in 1857. However, hulks continued to serve in Gibraltar from 1842 to as late as 1875. Admittedly the Gibraltan hulk, the Owen Glendower, named after the Welsh nationalist, served as a hospital hulk and inmates were actually barracked on shore. And the records for the Owen Glendower are contained in PCOM 2/11-13.

By contrast to HO 7, these are very large and very heavy registers. And entries are very spacious, typically just six entries per page. I think you have got to imagine these being A2 size, I suppose, per page. This allows for far more detail on each convict then say, HO 9, and of particular note in these registers are the details relating to previous places of confinement and to next of kin details and religion.

Registers and indexes also exist for hulks stationed at Chatham. The Cumberland – subsequently renamed the Fortitude, the Dolphin and the Ganymede are all contained in ADM 6/418 to [ADM 6/]423 this is the index in [ADM 6/]419. Those petite index books are contrasted by what are probably the largest and most unwieldy of registers, nevertheless, they are in places incredibly detailed and include unusual descriptions such as: the colour of hair, eyes and eyebrows; complexion and build; height and any tattoos – and often quite a lot of detail about the tattoos; together with marital status and trade. So if you are looking for somebody on one of those hulks and you find them in the register you are going to be very fortunate.

Until 1823, as I said before, boys were regularly detained alongside adults in the general hulk population. As such, boys appear intermittently in prison registers such as HO 9. So if you take for example, HO 9/4, which covers the Retribution, between 1803 and 1814 some 3500 convicts are registered onboard and of these 105 were aged under the age of 16 – about three percent of the population.

As I said earlier, around 1824 the adult male population of the Bellerophon at Sheerness was removed and the hulk was set aside as the first hulk used exclusively for boys. It could hold up to about 350. However within about two years these boys were to be transferred to the specifically fitted out, but terribly overcrowded Euryalus until the mid-1840s.

Children as young as eight appear on the prison hulks, including young Francis Creed here. Francis was convicted at The Old Bailey in June 1823 and sentenced to seven years transportation for stealing 36 pence from a grocer. He was to serve out his sentence on the hulks and was eventually released, age 15, in June 1830. And you can see here [shows an image] details of Creed’s Old Bailey transcript from Old Bailey Online, where he was originally transported for seven years and recommended to the prison ship.

Or you got people like the eight year old Frederick Trussler. He was convicted, at Sussex, of theft from a person, and again he was sentenced to seven years transportation. Trussler was to spend two years on the York before being transferred to the Bellerophon.

Or the case of William Hunt, again, aged eight. Convicted at The Old Bailey in 1823 and sentenced initially to 14 years transportation. This was reduced to seven years by the time he reached the hulks. He was convicted for picking the pocket of Mary Connor. And the transcript of Hunt’s trial, which is available on Old Bailey Online, reads like a scene from Oliver Twist. I don’t know if you can read it [shows an image], but Mary says:

‘I felt a hand in my pocket, I turned ‘round, laid hold of the prisoners hand in my pocket and held it while I gave him three slaps on the face and said “you monkey you have been picking my pocket!”’

Hunt was to benefit from further clemency and was actually discharged in 1825, perhaps owing to good behaviour. The returns on HO 9/7 record him as being a ‘bad lad, but quiet here.’

And sadly, these three cases are far from exceptional. Using the statistics function of Old Bailey online and comparing age against verdict, we get 28 children under the age of eight who were convicted of crimes in the Central Criminal Court including Creed and Hunt, despite the law working on the principal that children under the age of eight could not be held responsible for their actions.

Nevertheless, the Old Bailey transcripts record children much younger and it’s worth remembering that even as late as the beginning of the 19th century children who committed a crime were generally treated no differently then adults.

If you have the time you may want to search in Old Bailey Online and you will discover children as young as one who were allegedly in employment and convicted of crimes. Very harsh.

If William Hunt was Oliver Twist then there can be found within the records real life examples of the Artful Dodger and his gang members. Boys like Thomas Llewellyn, James Newland and William Bellman, who were all sentenced at Middlesex on 16 February 1803 for felony and sentenced to seven years. Llewellyn was to escape, whilst Newland and Bellman were transferred to other hulks.

Or you can find siblings if you look hard enough. Here we see John Baggott and his younger brother Joseph. Both convicted of grand larceny at Worcester assize, together with five others and they were sentenced seven years transportation. And both were subsequently transported.

There is also numerous examples of boys pardoned on condition of serving in the navy or the army abroad, including: 11 year old Michael Swain who was convicted of a felony at Middlesex in October 1802 and sentenced to seven years transportation. He was to be pardoned on the 29th of June 1806 to serve in the Navy. And right next to him, William Fitzgerald – who was also aged 11, was pardoned on condition of serving in the Army. And as I said, this is a common feature throughout the hulk records.

Before finishing the talk then, I would just like to end by considering the fate of women hulk prisoners. While it’s fair to say that women were not generally held on the hulks, it is actually inaccurate to say that they were never detained. In 1823, inmates of Millbank prison were evacuated under an Act of Parliament to prison hulks at Woolwich following an epidemic. Amongst these inmates were 167 women who were detained on the prison hulks, Narcissus and Heroine. Disease followed the prisoners to the hulks and most were pardoned and released by 1824.

The historian Deirdre Palk draws attention to the records at The National Archives relating to 14 of these women hulk prisoners within the criminal petitions in HO 17/53, including the teenager Amy Steele. The records show that these 14 women were the last remaining female prisoners onboard the Narcissus in June 1824.

Another 20 female prisoners on the Narcissus and Heroine appear in HO 17/34 including Eliza Hatswell, aged just 16 at conviction at the Old Bailey in 1821 – and probably the nearest that I’ve found to being able to say that girls served on prison hulks. A bit of a stretch, but she was a teenager.

The excellent catalogue description, courtesy of the ongoing hard work of our dedicated volunteers, records that the grounds for clemency included that women were well-behaved and assisted during a riot on another prison hulk in February 1824. All were given a free pardon.

Leaving aside the somewhat unique and ephemeral nature of the Narcissus and the Heroine, the Dunkirk was the only other hulk to contain a number of women convicts. T 1/613 includes a list of clothing issued to both male and female prisoners on the Dunkirk in 1784. In total, nine women convicts on the Dunkirk were issued with clothing, including: shifts, gowns and aprons. And some three years later, a judge’s report in HO 47 provides evidence of a petition for Mary Bond, detained on the Dunkirk.

Again, courtesy of the ongoing hard work of our excellent volunteers, the catalogue description of HO 42/15 captures the requests from the Plymouth magistrate in 1789 to have a female prisoner, Ann Merrifield, removed to the Dunkirk.

Historical biographer, Carolly Erickson, tells the story of Mary Bryant in her publication,The girl from Botany Bay. Bryant, a girl from Cornwall convicted of highway robbery, was sentenced to transportation to New South Wales, spent time onboard the Dunkirk awaiting transportation. And Erickson provides a suitably atmospheric description on which to end:

‘A derelict ship, it’s mast gone, it’s sides covered in green slime lay mired in a mudbank. This was the prison ship Dunkirk. The convicts smelled the hulk before they saw her, for she reeked of sewage and the foul stench of decaying wood and unwashed humanity. Towering over the surrounding flats, her hull blackened with mire, the hulk Dunkirk loomed up before the approaching convicts like an apparition. A dark and spectral form around which the rising tide began to lap.’

So on that somber description I shall end my talk.

Transcribed by Nikki Vickaryous as part of a volunteer project, March 2015