Life aboard the Prison Hulks.

Despite the cramped conditions, space was given over to a 40 foot chapel, which opened out onto the upper and middle decks.
The Registrar General reported in 1841 that while mean life expectancy in Surrey was forty-five years, it was only thirty-seven in London and twenty-six in Liverpool. The average age of 'labourers, mechanics, and servants', at times of death was only fifteen.
Prisoners had access to water for washing as part of their morning routine: '...the wards are then unlocked, and prisoners passed under the forecastle, in regulated numbers, to wash- troughs being there permenantly fixed, and supplied with fresh water for that purpose.' (Illustrated London News, 21 February 1846
An illustration of The Warrior convict hulk, moored at Woolwich, which appeared in the Illustrated London News in 1846
'Top deck of the "Unite" hospital ship attached the hulks at Woolwich' from Henry Mayhew's, 'The Criminal Prisons of London', 1862.
Thousands of Britons transported in the 18th and 19th centuries
line of convicts dressed in ragged clothes outside Hyde Park Barracks wall with redcoat guard

David Rowland

The last stop between home shores and the convict ships.

In the main, these ‘prison Hulks’ were old naval ships who had been used as war ships but now no longer were seaworthy and so could be moored up lose to the shore and used as prison ships, or holding prisons. These were useful as a prison ship prior to despatching the convicts, mainly to Australia as punishments as directed by the courts. The prisons were full and these were made use of until a convict ship was made ready to sail.

London had the most ships, in fact a whole fleet of them. These Hulks were sometimes described as “A voyage to nowhere.”

Life on these prison Hulks were nothing short of disgusting and should never have been used the way they were.

They suffered from acute over-crowding, poor food and serious health problems. The sick were mixed in with the healthy causing serious outbreaks of cholera and dysentery. People died quite frequently, their bodies laid where they died for several days.

The Hulks

These Hulks were infested with rats, which helped to cause further ill health. They were cold and damp, men were sleeping close to each other, and in the main they were shackled and unable to move; rats would run over them during the nights which would wake them up. There were shouts of profanity uttered loudly from the convict’s mouths.

All this was happening before they faced a sea journey lasting between 6 and 8 months in almost equally bad conditions. They often were treated to bad behaviour by the soldiers who were guarding them. Sometimes the ankle shackles were far too tight, cutting into their flesh, firstly making it bleed and later would get infected. Sometimes they were adjusted and made a little more comfortable and at other times they weren’t, thus causing the convict to suffer much pain.

The so called ‘Hulks’ were anchored along the  banks of the rivers and in ports such as London, Portsmouth and Plymouth being the main ones, but other places were used too.

The ships were all different depending on the size of the ship. Generally, three decks would be used and on each of the decks that housed the convicts a passage ran down the middle with cells on either side. Each cell would hold from 10 to 16 prisoners. These cells were built for roughly half that number.

Charles Cozens

By the 1830’s, when Charles Cozens, a military prisoner, was incarcerated in one of these floating prisons, ‘The Justina’ he tells us it was former man of war: was drawn up close and adjacent to the arsenal, with which a platform communicates from the ship’s gangway. It is then sub-divided into so many different apartments which were termed as ‘wards.’ These so called ‘wards’, varying in size according to the number and nature of their occupants, and forming three distinct stories or tiers, these were called the upper, middle and lower decks, altogether the were 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 authorised the use of these ex-military ships and had them converted into holding pens for the convict transportees. They agreed this would be for two years only, instead of them spending time in the prisons which were so full they couldn’t take the number of these tranportees.

In fact those two years which had been agreed, stretch for just on 80 years. However, as far as parliament was concerned they were doing the job and therefore they couldn’t see any reason for change.

Sir Samuel Romilly, speaking in The House of Commons in May 1809 made mention of the ‘extreme depravity’ that these people were expected to suffer while they were on board. He went on to describe these

‘Hulks’ as ‘miserable receptacles.’

Meanwhile, Charles Cozens may well have been right when he described other prisons as being

‘delightful suburban retreats, when compared to these Hulks.’

Charles Cozens Journey

The ship, the Justina, in which Charles Cozens was incarcerated, was not known for its cleanliness; even so, attempts were made, no matter how unsuccessful they might have proved to be, to maintain some ‘low-level’ cleanliness. So the convicts were made to wash and shave on Saturday evenings in order to prepare for ‘the Lord’s Day’ on Sunday.

Cozens gives us a little insight what life was like on the Justina during the week. Apart from the filthy state of the ship in general, Cozens says that he was a laundress, whose job it was, in his words,’ was washing the shirts or linen of the remainder of the ‘family,’ amounting to, at this time, to about five hundred (500)

He states that ‘the first four days of the week were spent in scrubbing the thick smock-frocks or shirts both inside and out with a brush, they were then hung from dozens of lines between the ‘Yards.’ They were finally ironed and then folded Charles Cozens supported existing views on cleanliness aboard the Hulks.

The greatest inconvenience experienced in this …..was occasioned by the filthy state of these shirts from vermin, which, from long usage, was in the same state.

Life aboard these Hulks roughly followed the same pattern, no matter what Hulk you were on.Routine during the daylight hours was a pretty tight routine, the way it went.

An ordinary day

The ordinary working day started with the cooks rising at 3am in order to get breakfast ready for the convicts. They got up at 5.30am   and were mustered onto the deck fifteen minutes later. Then, as soon as they had finished breakfast one of the three decks on the ship was washed… The decks were washed alternately, thus meaning each deck was cleaned every third day. This chore had to be finished by 6.45am at which time the convicts then stowed away their hammocks and then left the ship in order to work on the shore in either the dockyards or on the banks of the River 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 quite fastidious in their searches since, if anything was found on the prisoners later, the guard was held responsible.

These on-shore work gangs usually consisted of 10 men, they were set up although the numbers might vary subject to the job they had been assigned to for any particular day. They were under the supervision of a free-overseer and while they worked they were closely guarded and watched to make sure they didn’t slacken off or make any attempt to escape.

Some of the jobs they were given to do included was to clean the shot in the arsenal or erecting ‘mounds and scarps,’ under the direction of the Army. These were used for artillery practice. Meanwhile other convicts loaded or possibly unloaded the barges in the mud and moored to the shore. They would work for the various tradesmen and mechanics that were employed in the dockyards.

Throughout the day, there were frequent musters to make sure that no one had escaped. Should everything be in order and as it should be, then they were ‘rewarded’ be given a short break around noon time providing that the overseer was happy with the standard of work and the amount of work achieved. If he wasn’t satisfied, then they would get no break. Some of these overseers were never satisfied deliberately and therefore no breaks at all. They were really the nasty ones who maybe thought they were due more punishment.

When their work day came to an end, they were gathered into their muster formations and once again their leg irons were closely examined prior to returning to the ship. Once they had been searched they were marched back to the ship.

In the evening they might have school or perhaps attend a chapel meeting. Then would come the final muster and they returned to their wards for the night, where they were locked in. Lastly, a shout would go up as the lights went out at 9.30pm and all talking would have to stop.

Violence on board

In 1835, in answer to a question the House of Commons had heard about the way some of these hulks were being run and the violence that was taking place on board. They called a large number of people before them. The Government set up a Committee on Gaols and how they were run.

Some of these witnesses were the prisoners themselves and some ex prisoners. As well as people that ran the gaols of all descriptions.

What the Committee heard didn’t make for very nice ‘bedtime reading.’ Some of the ex-prisoners testified on oath that after ‘Lights out,’ it was the signal for the intensely crowded lower decks to become places where the convicts robbed each other, quarrelled and fought. They swore with letter of the ‘swear-word dictionary.’

The stronger convicts among them did just about what they wanted to do, and there was very little anyone could do about it.

As Branch-Johnson has noted, ‘from almost whatever Hulk witnesses came, the phrase ‘Hell on earth; or something like it, finds its way into the evidence.’ So bad was life aboard these hulks that one of the convicts in one floating prison 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.’ 

They all hoped and prayed that they would soon be placed on a convict ship and taken across to Australia. Although they didn’t know what would be awaiting them, anything couldn’t be as bad as life was on one of these hulks.

The time the convicts spent on these hulks was indeterminable; it could be just a few months or as long as 2 years and in these appalling conditions. In the summer months the heat down below was stifling while in the winter months it was the opposite, freezing cold. They still had to dress in the minimum of clothes.


Written and researched 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

  • My g-g-g-grandfather was on the Justitia for a few months between March and June, 1838, before being transported to Van Diemen’s Land

    By Christine Calabria (02/06/2017)
  • A small point, but the hulk where Charles Cozens was interred was the Justitia, not the Justina. See page 72 of his book “Adventures of a Guardsman”, available on Google Books here

    My g-g-g-g-grandfather Richard Howarth Heaton and his older brother John were also interred on the Justitia in 1831.

    By Rob Roy (03/12/2015)

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