English Prison Hulks

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Date: 22 Sep 2021 [unknown]
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Warrior at Woolwich in 1846

What Are Prison Hulks?

Usually they were old ships that were no longer seaworthy for long distance travel. They were used as holding pens for prisoners pending their sentencing or to serve out sentences in England.

The aim was to reduce congestion on the prisons onland and to reduce risk of escape The hulks were designed to act as a deterrent as well as an attempt to address the overcrowding.

What were the living conditions on the Hulks?

Blue Anchor Corner, explain that Hulks were originally used for Prisoners of War from the English war with the French, and states that the French conditions were not good, but the treatment of English criminals was even worse, as part of deterring future criminality. They say that the Justitia (a prison hulk moored at Woolwich between 1830-1855) had tiered bunks for the prisoners to sleep in, and each sleeping space was approximately 5 feet 10 by 18 inches. The rations consisted of biscuits, pea soup, and a half an ox cheek weekly. Twice a week the prisoners were fed porridge, a lump of bread and some cheese. Additionaly there was no capacity to quarantine on the Hulks with ongoing contamination risk caused by the flow of excrement from the sick bays. They state in the early years, 30% of those prisoners held on hulks died while serving their time.

The NLA explains that for many convicts life was a living hell, and cites one example of complaints made by a convict including that he was kept in double leg irons. the NLA provide an excerpt of their response to complaints and allegations by a convict to include: ‘His slops have been issued to him in the usual manner, bearing in mind that no new slops are issued so long as any second hand ones remain in store.
He receives 3 ¼ oz of biscuit, three days in the week, the other three one half-penny worth of tobacco and a pint of small beer daily as a ration from the Ordnance. He is at present employed in the carpenter’s shop at the Gun Wharf, where he makes himself useful and is attentive, ‘tho his language is violent, and I certainly consider him a most mischievous and dangerous character.’
Complaints made by the convicts included brutality by the wardens and with at least one reference to them being a "drunken savages' meting out brutal and violent punishments and 'floggings'. Once complainant alleged that he was unable to work the required work duties due to his health issues and was flogged for requesting a change. When the overseers found out that he had complained he was flogged again. The same convict states the he was forced to wear the same pair of stockings for nine weeks. Yet another convict reports that his request for consideration saw him 'thrown into the black hole until noon the next day when he was retrieved and whipped with a cat'o nine tails: ‘your Petitioner was heavy ironed on both legs, that he was afterwards put in the Black hole, that he was kept there till 12 o’clock the next day when he was brought on deck and flogged in a cruel and unlawful manner over the Back, Neck and Breast with a Cat of Nine Tails’

While most convicts views were no doubt dismissed as the wailings of criminals, substance is lent to their complaints through the imprisonment of a Member of Parliaments son on a hulk for comitting libel. He states that the Hulks are damp, dingy and cold, and that they lack ventilaiton,and that as a man of 6 foot 8 his bed was too small. William Carus Wilson was imprisoned in Staffordshire County Gaol and in a series of letters dating from January 1838 he complained about his treatment: Carus Wilson, the son of an MP, was convicted of libel, and complained that he was ‘locked up for 14 hours out of every 24 in a damp, dark, dismal dungeon, without either fire or candle, and you may imagine how horrible the atmosphere of the place is when I tell you that it cannot be ventilated’. He further complained that he was denied access to all to newspapers or to books except the Bible, and as a tall man of 6ft 8ins, his bed was too small and his cell uncomfortable.

By 1943, Blue Anchor Corner states that reformists petitioned to change the living conditions on the Hulks, (too late for the Swing Rioters!) but their lists of suggestions for change provides insight to the experience of the Rioters. The doctors stated that many of the prisoners were experiencing debilitating health conditions prior to imprisonment on the Hulks, (usually because of poor and inadequate diet) and in other instances because of the poor conditions in the prisons on the mainland. The letters state that the prisoners are usually sent as work teams during the day (to do labour and build roads and so forth) and that they are too weak for basic work and that the best thing is to rebuild their physical health so that the prisoners can work. We can only imagine the living hell that existed for the Swing Rioters prior to transport - arrested in December (winter) held all through winter in damp and dingy limited space, beaten, fed slops, expected to work, exposed to excrement and other health risks even before leaving for the colonies.

Pages linked to this page


  • Blue Anchor Corner- Life inside the prison hulks staying alive. Retrieved from :


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