Prison hulks were decommissioned warships, such as ships of the line or frigates, that were repurposed as floating prisons. They were used by the British government to house convicts, debtors, and other prisoners in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The use of prison hulks eventually declined in the mid-19th century. This was because the government began to invest in new prison construction on land, while transportation of convicts to Australia became more common.

The Beginning

The first prison hulks were established in 1776, during the American War of Independence, as a temporary measure to alleviate overcrowding in land-based prisons.

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The British government initially experimented with using old ships as prisons during the American Revolution, when prisoners of war were housed on decommissioned ships in New York Harbour. The success of this approach led to the adoption of prison hulks as a more permanent solution to the problem within British prisons.

However, the practice continued long after the war ended and the hulks became a permanent feature of the British penal system. The last prison hulks were decommissioned in the mid-19th century.

HMS Discovery as a prison hulk. She served as a prison ship from 1818 to 1834.

The conditions on board the hulks were generally appalling, with prisoners cramped together in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions. Disease was rampant, and food was often scarce and of poor quality. Many prisoners died on board the hulks due to the harsh conditions and lack of medical care.

HMS Temeraire

Several famous ships were converted into hulks. HMS Temeraire and HMS Warrior, both of which had distinguished service records before being decommissioned, were repurposed as prison hulks.

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HMS Temeraire was a British Royal Navy ship of the line, launched in 1798. The ship had an illustrious career, participating in several major naval battles, including the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

At the Battle of Trafalgar, Temeraire was commanded by Captain Eliab Harvey and was the second ship in the lee column, following behind the flagship HMS Victory. Temeraire played a key role in the battle, helping to break the line of the combined French and Spanish fleet and contributing to the decisive victory for the British.

The once proud HMS Temeraire at Rotherhithe on the river Thames. Before being broken up she was a prison hulk.

During the battle, Temeraire engaged in fierce fighting with several French and Spanish ships, including the French ship Redoutable. After a lengthy exchange of gunfire, Temeraire was able to board and capture the Redoutable, which had been causing significant damage to the British fleet. The capture of the Redoutable is often seen as a turning point in the battle, as it allowed the British to gain the upper hand and secure victory.

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Temeraire sustained heavy damage during the battle, with 32 of its crew killed and 78 wounded. However, the ship was able to make it back to port. The ship continued to serve in the Royal Navy for several more years. It participated in battles such as the Battle of Groix in 1806, before being decommissioned and repurposed as a prison hulk in 1813.

Escape From Hulk Life

Escapes were few, though there were occasional reports of prisoners managing to escape from the hulks, but these were relatively rare. The conditions on board were harsh and escape was difficult. This was because the hulks were moored in the middle of rivers or harbours, making it hard for prisoners to swim to shore. The risk of drowning or being caught by guards was also high.

There were, however, some instances of successful escapes. One of the most famous of these was the escape of James Hardy Vaux. He was an Australian convict who managed to escape from the Retribution hulk in 1801 by disguising himself as a sailor and stealing a small boat. He eventually made his way to America, where he wrote a bestselling memoir about his experiences as a convict and his escape from the hulk.

Conditions Below Deck

Conditions on prison hulks were generally very harsh and difficult for those who were held on board. The hulks were old ships that had been repurposed as floating prisons, and they were often overcrowded, dirty, and unsanitary.

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The prisoners were typically housed in cramped, poorly ventilated spaces below decks, with little access to fresh air or natural light. The conditions on board were often hot and stuffy. The lack of proper sanitation and waste disposal meant that disease and infection were common.

The British prison hulk, HMS Jersey. Life was grim, crowded and the risk of death immense.

Prisoners on the hulks were subjected to strict discipline and were often forced to perform hard labour, such as rowing or working on maintenance tasks. They were also frequently subjected to harsh punishments, such as flogging, for even minor infractions.

Food on board the hulks was often of poor quality and insufficient in quantity, and prisoners were frequently malnourished. The lack of proper medical care and the unsanitary conditions on board also meant that illness and disease was rife.

Overall, conditions on prison hulks were incredibly difficult and often unbearable for those who were held on board. The combination of harsh living conditions, hard labour, and strict discipline made life on the hulks a brutal and punishing experience.

The Crimes

The prisoners held on the hulks were a mix of convicts serving sentences for crimes such as theft and assault, debtors who were unable to pay their debts, and prisoners of war. Some of the most notorious prison hulks were used to hold convicts who were being transported to Australia as part of the penal transportation system.

The hulks were maintained and operated by the British government, and were staffed by a mix of naval personnel and civilian contractors. They were also subject to regular inspections by government officials, although conditions on board were often so bad that inspectors were unable to make any significant improvements.

Famous Prisoners

There were several notable individuals who served on prison hulks at some point in their lives. One of the most famous was the writer and politician Sir Richard Steele, who is best known as the co-founder of the Spectator magazine. Steele was imprisoned for debt in the early 18th century and spent several months on a prison hulk before being released.

Sir Richard Steele was imprisoned on a hulk for months. His crime?
Debt.

Another notable individual who served on a prison hulk was the Australian bushranger Jack Donohoe, also known as “Bold Jack.” Donohoe was a convict who was transported to Australia in the early 19th century and was imprisoned on the Retribution hulk before being sent to Sydney to serve out the rest of his sentence.

The Irish revolutionary and nationalist Robert Emmet also spent time on a prison hulk in the early 19th century. Emmet was arrested and imprisoned after his failed rebellion against British rule in Ireland in 1803. He was then held on the Swiftsure hulk before being executed.

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There were also many ordinary people who served on prison hulks, including convicts who were being transported to Australia. The risk of disease and violence though made life difficult for all those who were held there, regardless of status or background.