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

A Riot, a Dog and The George Hotel in Reading- Guest Post by Jo Romero

Jo Romero has been obsessed with history for as long as she can remember and gained her History degree at the University of Hull. Her articles have been published in online magazines The Historians and The C Word and she runs the blog Love British History.

Reading, King Street: September 1639. The town constables skidded to a stop outside The George hotel to shrieks of murder. Their eyes were met with a grisly scene. Moaning townsmen clutching their heads lay scattered across cobblestones, deep red blood oozing from their scalps and dripping down past their ears and onto their shoulders.

Reading in Berkshire was a small, prosperous town that had become famous for its Medieval abbey, founded by Henry I in 1121. Parliaments were held within its pale, cold walls and Edward IV chose it as the place to formally introduce his new bride, Elizabeth Woodville in 1464. Trades sprang up to cater for travellers who came to worship and do business with the abbey –  the royalty, nobles and pilgrims. But since Henry VIII’s dissolution, Reading concentrated on its market days and clothing industry with clothiers and shoemakers working in the town.

Photograph of The George by Jo Romero

Seventeenth-century Reading was the smell of bonfires, the barking of dogs and the furtive, eager glances of pick-pockets and cut-purses loitering in the busy market square. The malty scent of alehouses and taverns and the sharp, musty tang of leather workshops. The earthy, metallic sting of fresh meat wafted out from Butcher’s Row and the bells clanged out from church towers. Alehouses, taverns and inns were always in demand, tucked awkwardly into timber-framed streets, signs swinging above their doors with names like The Katherine Wheele, The Bear and The Sun.

Samuel Pepys visited Reading in the summer of 1668 and wrote that the town “is a very great one, I think bigger than Salsbury: a river runs through it, in seven branches, and unite in one, in one part of the town, and runs into the Thames half-a-mile off one odd sign of the Broad Face.”(1) The Broad Face was another pub on the High Street almost opposite The George.

All important town business – debts, rents and petty crime – was written down in the Corporation Diary. They were mostly concerned with mundane minutes of council meetings, the execution of wills and enforcing trade regulations, but on 21st September 1639, we can almost detect the breathless excitement of the minute-taker, as they recorded the events at the inn:

“Then complaynt was made that murder was likely to be commytted in The George backside, for there was fyghting; whereupon the Constables were presently called, and at their comynge to keep the peace they found a number of people, amongest whiche some had their heades broken and cutt with swordes and staves, and some of the fighters and quarrellers gone.” They add, with a trace of both bewilderment and derision: “And beinge brought before the Maiour, upon examynacion, it apeared the quarrell arose about a dogge.” (2)

At first glance, it seems far too serious a fight to have been over a dog. Could it have been that some drunken haggling over the sale of a dog spiralled out of control? Or perhaps the dog had been stolen and was recognised by the original owner leading to a confrontation?

A detail in the town’s diary for January 1641 might give us a clue. It records the case of a butcher named Edward Vindge who “caused a tumult in The George gate-house, by settinge and causinge dog-fightinge and other brabbles.” He also struck a man called Humfrey Dewell, and “abused him in wordes”.(3) Edward Vindge isn’t mentioned as being involved in the 1639 attack, but the fact that we have evidence of dog fighting in Reading, in this very spot, suggests that it may have been common and certainly had the potential to disturb the peace. Perhaps one of the two men implicated in 1639 (William Keate and a certain man named Cumber of Tilehurst) were training dogs to fight, or it was a bet placed on a disputed winner?

While many people think of Stuart life as a cosy huddle of timber-framed houses and cobbled streets there was, to us looking back today, a darker side, particularly in their choice of entertainment. Dog fights and bear baiting were famously enjoyed by Elizabeth I and continued into the reigns of the Stuarts. In 1666 Samuel Pepys travelled to Southwark to watch a bull baiting, “and saw some good sport of the bull’s tossing of the dogs.”(4) A dog fight in 1629 in Greenwich was one of the events blamed for the onset of Queen Henrietta Maria’s early labour after they did “snatch at her and pull her by the gown.” (5)

Baiting a live bull with dogs before it was slaughtered by a butcher wasn’t just for entertainment – the Stuarts also believed that it made the meat more tender, perhaps explaining the temperament of butcher Edward Vindge’s dogs at The George in 1641. A writer who in 1660 spoke out to discourage these baiting sports proclaimed that although ‘the baiting of the bear, and cockfights, are no meet recreations,’ he drew attention to this practice, accepting that ‘the baiting of the bull has its use.’(6)

The Stuart townspeople of Reading might not have blinked an eye at a dog fight or a bull being baited outside the butcher’s shop, but the loud clatter of swords clashing at the local inn must have been a subject of local gossip.

The men who were injured – five men are recorded as having been at the scene, but it’s possible there were others – lived to tell the tale. Two men blamed for inflicting injuries fled the scene, but Thomas Soundey is recorded as suffering cuts to his head, and Morrice Nashe, for whom “blood was seene run about his eares.” The Constables called the surgeon, who confirmed the men were in “no danger of death.”(2)

For the town’s mayor, Richard Burren, it was business as usual. First mentioned in the diary in 1618 as a Constable of the town, he was a clothier by trade and sworn in as Mayor in October 1638. Unusual for Reading mayors, who tended to be re-elected more than once, he served just one year. This incident would have come during his last serving month. He would stay on in a different role as a town justice and overseer of St Laurence’s parish. He dutifully brought in the people involved, questioned the ones that hadn’t run away and concluded the cause.

It’s true that daily Stuart life was probably not as inherently violent as most TV dramas and films make it out to be, but this case shows that there were occasional hot-tempered outbursts involving weapons and risk to life. The exact details of the cause of the fight are missing from the records, and so we can only speculate as to the real trigger. This scrawled entry in the town’s diary does give us a glimpse into how crime was dealt with in Stuart towns and how important the clothing industry still was to Reading, with a wealthy clothier able to advance to various positions within town administration, including Mayor. Today, as shoppers grab coffee and chat with friends they would have no idea that on this spot blood was violently spilled on the cobblestones of The George on that late September day in 1639.

Notes:

  1. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 16 June 1668.
  2. The Reading Records, The Diary of the Corporation, entry for 21 September 1639. Ed. JM Guilding. Vol 3. p464. 1892.
  3. The Reading Records, The Diary of the Corporation, entry for 12 January 1641. Ed. JM Guilding, Vol 4. p37. 1892.
  4. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 14 August 1666.
  5. Katie Whitaker, A Royal Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, 2010, Google Books.
  6. The Harleian Miscellany, vol 7. The Opinion of Mr Perkins, and Mr Bolton, and Others Concerning The Sport of Cock-Fighting, 1660. Ed. by R Dutton, 1810. Accessed via Google Books.

Robbery of Edward I’s Treasures from Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey has had a long history of royal ceremony and patronage, ever since its rebuilding between 1042 and 1052 by Edward the Confessor. The Westminster Abbey that we know of today was again rebuilt by Henry III in the 13th Century, and it was this rebuilding that made it a place of safety for the crown jewels. A vaulted chamber known as the Pyx Chamber was used to house the royal treasures, including the crown jewels, alongside others belonging to the monks who called the abbey home. This chamber was considered the best place to house the treasury as it was a medieval equivalent of a high security bank vault.[1] With the monks in charge of these precious items, along with many keys to the strong vault doors, it’s easy to see why this site was chosen.

Chamber of the Pyx, Westminster Abbey, London (2012), Wikimedia Commons

However, in 1303, the unthinkable happened; the treasury was robbed and in a most miraculous and somewhat laughable way. The man responsible was Richard Podlicote or Pudlicote. He was a merchant who had previously been working in Flanders before returning to England. He clearly had motive as he had previously been arrested and forced to pay £14 (nearly £10,000 in today’s money) towards King Edward I’s debts in Bruges.[2] Whilst this may sound harsh to us, it was a common right of medieval kings to force Englishmen living abroad to help pay debts.

In his confession, Pudlicote revealed how he had managed to do the robbery. It took him 98 days (roughly 3 months), between Christmas and just after Easter, to dig a tunnel under the abbey grounds.[3] He said he knew where he was going because he had done a smaller scale robbery before, taking silver dishes and drinking vessels.[4] After getting through to the chamber, he spent a whole day deciding what he wanted to take. The items were more than he could carry and so, on his way out under the cover of darkness, he left some of it under a nearby bush, which he came back for the following night.[5]

With the passage of time, we’re not entirely sure just how many things Pudlicote stole, but we do know some of the higher status items he did and did not steal. The crown jewels themselves were left alone, probably because they were too high profile.[6] One item which was possibly stolen as it was reported missing and was never seen again is a crown taken from the dead body of the Welsh Prince, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd after his death at the Battle of Builth in 1282.[7 After being taken by the English, claims began to circulate that this crown had once belonged to King Arthur, who the Welsh royals claimed as their ancestor.[8]

Contemporary image of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd wearing his crown during a ceremony of him paying tribute to Henry III (1267), Wikimedia Commons

Amazingly, the crime wasn’t discovered until early June as on the 6th, Edward I ordered an investigation into the robbery.[9] Perhaps it wouldn’t have been discovered for a lot longer if it hadn’t had been for the pawnshops and brothels the treasures ended up in. The pawnshops in their desperation to be rid of the stolen goods, offered them to nobles and others of high standing. These men were among those who knew about what these goods were and where they had come from.[10] The truth of what had happened in Westminster Abbey began to unravel and it led to Pudlicot, who was found with between £2,000-£2,200 (around £1.5 million pounds in today’s money) worth of stolen goods on him.

Despite being a previous offender, and how long it took him to dig, as well as being in or around the scene of the crime, Pudlicote claimed the monks were not involved and didn’t know of his endeavours.[11] I’m not sure that really adds up, especially as 48 monks were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London for a brief stay, but they were never formally punished, instead they were released on Edward I’s orders.[12] It seems to be a large coincidence, so there must have been some insider help. Whatever the truth, Pudlicote was sentenced to death in November 1303.

Painting in Westminster Abbey thought to be Edward I (2019), Wikimedia Commons

The theft changed how the crown jewels were kept, something which can be seen right up until the present day. The remaining treasure was briefly placed in the Tower of London whilst the Pyx Chamber was reinforced.[13] In the later 1300s, a new and more permanent home was built in the Tower of London specifically built to house the jewels. Whilst that building is not the building currently used for that purpose, as that has long been lost, it started the tradition of the Tower being the residence of the crown jewels.

The debts of Edward I, which were a major motive for the crime, were enormous. On his death in 1307, they amounted to £200,000, nearly £142 million in today’s money. The amount is so phenomenal amount it’s virtually unthinkable. Considering this, it’s no doubt that the majority of these debts were still unpaid by the time of Edward II, the son of Edward I, 20 years after.


[1] Ross, D., ‘Westminster Abbey Chapter House and Pyx Chamber’, Britain Express, https://www.britainexpress.com/attractions.htm?attraction=4723; ‘Pyx Chamber’, Westminster Abbey,  https://www.westminster-abbey.org/about-the-abbey/history/pyx-chamber

[2] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur (Stroud: The History Press, 2016), p. 101.

[3] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, p. 101.

[4] Ashbee, J., ‘Robbery of the King’s Treasure at Westminster Abbey’, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/chapter-house-and-pyx-chamber/history-treasure-at-westminster/

[5] Ashbee, J., ‘Robbery of the King’s Treasure at Westminster Abbey’, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/chapter-house-and-pyx-chamber/history-treasure-at-westminster/

[6] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, p. 101.

[7] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, pp. 91-92.

[8] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, pp. 91-92.

[9] Ashbee, J., ‘Robbery of the King’s Treasure at Westminster Abbey’, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/chapter-house-and-pyx-chamber/history-treasure-at-westminster/

[10] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, p. 101.

[11] Ashbee, J., ‘Robbery of the King’s Treasure at Westminster Abbey’, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/chapter-house-and-pyx-chamber/history-treasure-at-westminster/

[12] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, p. 101; Keegan, V., ‘Vic Keegan’s Lost London 139: The great royal jewels heist of 1303’, On London, 13 April 2020, https://www.onlondon.co.uk/vic-keegans-lost-london-139-the-great-royal-jewel-heist-of-1303/

[13] Keegan, V., ‘Vic Keegan’s Lost London 139: The great royal jewels heist of 1303’, On London, 13 April 2020, https://www.onlondon.co.uk/vic-keegans-lost-london-139-the-great-royal-jewel-heist-of-1303/