British Prison Hulks.

British Navy in Action
The forbidding form of the beached convict ship HMS Discovery at Deptford
The hulk Warrior (1781) anchored off Woolwich.
© National Maritime Museum, London
The Prison Hulk York
Prison ships or hulks, similar to those that would have taken prisoners to Australia.
The gallery on the prison hulk Warrior (1781).
© National Maritime Museum, London
Prison hulk Success[1] at Hobart, Tasmania, Australia.

Floating Prisons in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

David Rowland

Prison Hulks were decommissioned ships that the Authorities used as ‘floating prisons in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were especially very popular in England although they were used all around the world. The term ‘Prison Hulk is not synonymous with the related term, convict ship.


A hulk is a ship that is actually afloat, but is incapable of going to sea, whereas ‘Convict Ships are seaworthy ships whose main purpose was to transport convicts and felons from their place of conviction to their place of banishment. For example, from England to Australia for a specified time. They would be held in these hulks, instead of prison to await an available ship to take them overseas.

Parliament initially intended to use the hulks as a temporary measure and so for the first authorisation, in 1776, for their use, really was only for a 2 year period. It is true that many members of Parliament despised these hulks; in fact the 1776 Act lasted for almost 80 years.

Parliament regularly reviewed this Act and even extended it in scope, for the more severe and effectual punishment of “atrocious and daring offenders”

Parliament found that ‘ships of the line’ were particularly suitable to become ‘Hulks’ because of their size, as during the ship’s active service, they had accommodation for hundreds of crewmen.

When a commissioned ship was deemed to be no longer worthy of being a fighting ship, it was easy to change it to a Prison Hulk. It just involved removing the rigging, masts, rudders and a few other features that was required for sailing.

Inside the ship there just had to be changes made including the installation of prison cells, in order to keep the convicts secure. A simple job really, which took little effort and time.

These so called ‘Hulks just retained their ability to float were typically situated in harbours. This then made them convenient temporary holding and secure quarters for the convicts who were awaiting transportation to Australia and other penal colonies within the British Empire as it was then.

Most of these ships of the line were decommissioned during the 19th Century, although suspected and convicted criminals are still confined aboard ships on occasions for numerous reasons.

There were many of these Prison Hulks stationed in and around London and the convicts came from various courts and prisons to be placed in these Hulks awaiting a ship to take them to the other side of the World, possible a 6-month voyage in pretty awful conditions.

These are some of the ships who were converted to Prison Hulks in The River Thames area.

Prison Hulks: –

HMS Discovery was built in 1789 as a 10gun sloop. She was launched and purchased in 1789. She was commanded by Captain George Vancouver on his voyage of exploration from 1791 to 1795. She was converted to a bomb vessel in 1799, then as a prison hulk in 1818. It was used as such until it was finally broken up in 1834. It was moored at Woolwich and Chatham, as was dictated by use.

HMS Warrior was a 74-gun third rate ship of the line and launched in 1781. She became a receiving ship after 1818, a prison hulk for 17 years between 1840 and 1857 when she was broken up. She was moored up at Woolwich.

HMS Weymouth was a 36 gun fifth rate, previously the East Indiaman ‘Wellesley’. She was purchased in 1804. By 1811 she had been converted into a 16-gun store ship. She was used as a prison hulk for a total of some 37 years, one of the longest serving ships as a prison Hulk. She was sold in 1865. She was moored in Bermuda.

HMS York was a 74-gun third rate, launched in 1807. She was converted to a prison hulk in 1819 and eventually broken up in 1854. This was another long serving Prison Hulk. She was moored up in Gosport.

HMS Retribution and was launched in 1799 as the74-gun third rate HMS Edgar. She was converted as a prison hulk in 1813. She was then renamed HMS Retribution in 1814 and was broken up in 1835. She was moored up both in Sheerness and Woolwich.

Researched and written by David Rowland.

Welcome to the Finsbury Publishing

David Rowland has just launched his 15th and final book, “The Spirit of Winsome Winn II”, all about the B-17 Flying Fortress which crashed at Patcham after being hit by anti-aircraft fire over Germany.


Comments about this page

  • web sites/blogs never mention how convicts from Newgate Prison were shipped to say Woolwich or Chatham i.e did they walk there or went by barge and from which dock?

    By Henri L:icht (20/01/2018)

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