The Conditions onboard Prison Hulks

In the opening chapters of Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations, Magwitch was incarcerated on a prison hulk, a disused ship used to house prisoners, situated around the mouth of the River Medway in Kent. It was after he escaped from one that he first encountered the main character, Pip, along the foggy marshes near this part of Kent. The mention of these hulks during the opening scenes of the book was meant to play on pre-existing ideas about the harsh conditions that those on board endured. Were these ideas really true and what exactly was a prison hulk?

A prison ship in the River Thames at Deptford: rowing boats convey prisoners between land and the ship. Engraving by George Cooke after Samuel Prout. Wellcome CollectionPublic Domain Mark

Hulks were first used after the American War of Independence in order to solve the issue of ever increasing prisoner numbers.[1] Prior to the war, many prisoners were sent out to America, but during the War of Independence and after, this was no longer a viable option for the government. Something else had to be done as there was no space to hold them inside prisons. The idea of using decommissioned and unseaworthy ships, known as prison hulks, was born out of this need. They were officially made legal by the ‘Hulks Act’ of 1776, which was meant to create a temporary fix, although the hulks would be in action for the next 80 years.[2] As the hulks were designed to be organised by contractors, it made them an easier and cheaper option that building new prisons to hold people in. The first few were located close to London in the Thames, but when need increased, more were placed along the Medway Estuary in Kent and near the dockyards at Portsmouth.

One of the first ships to be brought used from August 1776 was the Justitia, which was previously owned by the wealthy East India Company. A total of 632 prisoners were initially placed on the ship, of which 176 had died by March 1778, showing just how insanitary the ships were.[3] Insanitary conditions were an issue throughout the lives of the prison hulks, although there were some attempts at improvement. The cramped conditions were the main cause of disease being rife on board as this meant disease could travel easier. The small amount of rations given also made the men weak and more susceptible to the diseases onboard. Instructions meant that prisoners were given little more than bread, other than some meat and potatoes for their evening meal.[4] These rations were not enough to cover the hard labour of the prisoners, who were expected to work in chain gangs, either at nearby dockyards or along river banks. Any insubordinate behaviour was punished with heavier chains for work or whilst on board. These would have made already backbreaking work a lot harder. Those who were either too old or too infirm for this kind of work instead stayed on the ship to cook, clean and mend clothes and shoes.[5]

Gallery of a Prison Hulk, London Illustrated News, 21 February 1846

The only upside to the work was that there was the opportunity to gain money. Although whilst a prisoner men were only entitled to keep a penny of every shilling they earned, funds were saved so that they could be given money upon their release. In general, this amounted to between £10 and £15, or between £670 and £1,000 in today’s money.[6] The prisoners also had the opportunity to gain some education whilst on board, if they so wished. After their evening meal, there was the option of attending to school work, giving them the chance to learn to read and write.[7] This was certainly more skills than most of the prisoners would have had before entering the hulk. It was hoped that with this education, as well as the backbreaking labour, that criminality could be forced out of those incarcerated.

By the mid-1800s, more prisons were beginning to be built, meaning that the prison hulks were slowly being phased out. More and more criticism was aimed at the hulks. Those who wanted reform for the prison system suggested that the improvements being made in ordinary prisons was not being implemented on the hulks, meaning that the conditions were still as terrible as ever. As husband and wife authors, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, who wrote on the prison system many years later, have indicated that the hulks had become “of all the places of confinement… apparently the most brutalizing, the most demoralizing, and the most horrible”.[8] It is no wonder then that by 1852, there were only two hulks left in use, before the whole hulk system was officially disbanded in 1857.

Garneray, Louis; Prison Hulks in Portsmouth Harbour; Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/prison-hulks-in-portsmouth-harbour-25000

Despite there being some positives, in terms of offering meals, education and money upon release, there was no denying that the authorities made sure that prison hulks were a nightmarish place to be. Many who served their sentence on them were known to stick together, almost as if to rally around the horrors they had witnessed, mainly caused by the corruption of the system. All in all, it is a good thing they ended, but let them be remembered for the inhumanity, just like much of other parts of the justice system at that time.


[1] Digital Panopticon, https://www.digitalpanopticon.org/Convict_Hulks

[2] Ibid

[3] Thomas R. Forbes, ‘Coroners’ Inquisitions on the Deaths of Prisoners in the Hulks at Portsmouth, England, in 1817–27’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 33.3 (1978), p. 358

[4] Anna McKay, ‘A Day in the Life: Convicts on board Prison Hulks’, Carceral Archipelago, 10 October 2017, https://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/carchipelago/2017/10/10/a-day-in-the-life-convicts-on-board-prison-hulks/

[5] Ibid

[6] Rose Staveley-Wadham, ‘”Colleges of Villainy” – Life Onboard the Prison Hulks’, The British Newspaper Archive, 31 March 2021, https://blog.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/2021/03/31/life-onboard-a-prison-hulk/

[7] Anna McKay, ‘A Day in the Life: Convicts on board Prison Hulks’, Carceral Archipelago, 10 October 2017, https://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/carchipelago/2017/10/10/a-day-in-the-life-convicts-on-board-prison-hulks/

[8] Sydney Webb and Beatrice Webb, English Prisons Under Local Government (New York, 1922), pp. 45-46

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