Prison Hulks and the Bloody Code
In the 18th century, decommissioned warships and civilian vessels had their masts and guns removed and were anchored on river banks and estuaries around Britain. They were filled with convicts whose crimes did not warrant the gallows although their living conditions made it easy to imagine how some of the inmates might have seen execution as a preferable sentence.
The Bloody Code
Penal systems in most countries in the 17th,18th, and 19th centuries focussed solely on punishment. The concept of rehabilitation was totally absent. The working thesis was to make the cost of crime so awesomely horrible that people would turn away from it. However, for the destitute it was a choice between crime and starvation.
So, the “bloody code” was a list of crimes punishable by death in Britain in 1800 that ran to more than 200 offenses. Frequent public hangings were held in a carnival-like atmosphere.
Matthew White of The British Library had this to say: “Executions were elaborate and shocking affairs, designed to act as a deterrent to those who watched. Until 1783, London executions took place at Tyburn eight times a year, where as many as 20 felons were sometimes hanged at the same time.”
For lesser crimes, many convicts were transported to the American colony until its people decided to sever the links with the British Crown. Then, the British authorities decided to dump its unwanted criminals in Australia.
While awaiting transportation, many of these wretched souls were held in prison hulks. Honouring the bloody code, the 1776 act of parliament established the hulks and, “stipulated that convicts were to be fed little other than bread, ‘any coarse or inferior food,’ water and small beer (Digital Panopticon).”
Disease and Death
The poor diet, almost non-existent sanitary facilities, and filthy living conditions combined to produce a disease factory. Those who fell ill were not separated from those who remained healthy so cholera, typhus, and dysentery spread quickly.
Royal Museums Greenwich tells us that “Mortality rates of around 30 percent were quite common. Between 1776 and 1795, nearly 2,000 out of almost 6,000 convicts serving their sentence on board the hulks died.”
Emaciated and ill fed, the men were still forced into hard labour in chain gangs. There was grunt work in navy dockyards to be done, or shovelling mud and pebbles to clear channels on the River Thames at low tide.
James Hardy Vaux was known as a swindler and thief and he was sentenced to transportation to Australia three times. Clearly, the deterrent feature of the justice system didn’t work on him.
In a memoir, Vaux wrote of his arrival on the hulk Retribution. “There were confined in this floating dungeon nearly 600 men, most of them double ironed; and the reader may conceive the horrible effects arising from the continual rattling of chains, the filth and vermin naturally produced by such a crowd of miserable inhabitants, the oaths and execrations constantly heard amongst them ...
“On arriving on board, we were all immediately stripped and washed in two large tubs of water, then, after putting on each a suit of coarse slop clothing, we were ironed and sent below; our own clothes being taken from us.”
Long before the Geneva Conventions painted a thin veneer of genteel behaviour over the conduct of war, enemy prisoners captured on battlefields were held in hulks.
HMS Jersey was one such vessel that was anchored in New York Harbor in which American revolutionary troops were entombed. Starting in 1779, as many as 1,100 men were squeezed into a ship designed to carry a maximum complement of 400 sailors.
There were 16 of these prison hulks “Sometimes called ‘floating dungeons’ or ‘ghost ships,’ the prison ships were nothing less than watery concentration camps, responsible for thousands of deaths (New York Post).” Among them, the Jersey was the most notorious being the place where an estimated 11,500 men died. This means that more revolutionary soldiers lost their lives on this one prison hulk than died in all the battles of the war.
The men were kept in the dark hold and the air was so devoid of oxygen that candles would not burn. When the sun beat on the deck above, the prison heated up to stifling temperatures. What little food they got was mostly spoiled and the water was foul. Toilets were big barrels that overflowed with waste and the place crawled with fleas, lice, and rats.
Today, there’s a monument (below) at Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn to commemorate those who died in the prison hulks.
The philanthropist John Howard took a keen interest in prison reform. In 1776, he was allowed to visit the Justicia prison ship and, as a man of compassion, was appalled by what he saw. He and others began the slow process of pressing for improvements of the conditions in which the convicts were held.
Sometimes, the prisoners took matters into their own hands by organizing mutinies and refusing to do the hard labour they were given. There were even a few mass escapes, though with many men shackled these were hard to pull off.
The “Hulk Act” of 1776 was periodically reviewed and found to still conform to the moral code on the nation. In 1823, Parliament even allowed the use of such terrible monstrosities in any colony. So prison hulks popped up in Gibraltar, Bermuda, and elsewhere.
Eventually, the voices of prison reformers became louder and their numbers grew in strength. New prisons were being built and the hulks came to be seen as belonging to a former, unenlightened age. The act that set up these hell holes was allowed to expire in 1853.
One of the prison hulks tied up on the banks of the River Thames was HMS Discovery. This was the vessel used by Captain George Vancouver on his voyages of discovery in the Pacific Ocean. The ship was finally broken up in 1834.
Nazi Germany set up a group of ships to hold concentration camp prisoners in the Bay of Lübeck. The Royal Air Force bombed the ships in May 1945, perhaps believing them to be of military importance. The bombing and strafing killed almost all of the prisoners, those that tried to swim ashore in the frigid Baltic waters were shot by SS guards.
Augusto Pinochet, the brutal dictator of Chile from 1973 to 1980, used the four-masted Chilean Navy tall ship Esmeralda as a prison for opponents to his regime. The elegant vessel was used as a torture chamber.
Victor Hugo begins his classic Les Miserables with his central character, Jean Valjean, being released from a prison hulk after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread.
Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations opens with young Pip encountering Abel Magwitch as he escapes from a prison hulk.
- “Crime and Punishment in Georgian Britain.” Matthew White, British Library, October 14, 2009.
- “Prison Hulks on the River Thames.” Royal Museums Greenwich, undated.
- “The Sunken History of This Revolutionary War ‘Ghost Ship.’ ” Nick Poppy, New York Post, August 24, 2017.
- “Convict Hulks.” Samuel Hadfield, Digital Panopticon, undated.
- “Prison Hulks on the River Thames.” Royal Museums Greenwich, undated.
- “Floating Purgatory – Life and Death Aboard an 18th Century British Prison Hulk.” Chris Dickon, Militaryhistorynow.com, January 7, 2018.
© 2018 Rupert Taylor