Posted by on September 20, 2010 in Content

Ancestry.com.au is excited to announce the launch of Prison Hulk Registers and Letter Books 1802-1849 – the incarceration records of almost 200,000 convicts who were imprisoned on giant floating jails known as prison hulks. These records will be of use to family and social historians, and anyone with an interest in the UK penal system.

The records, digitised versions of the originals held by The UK National Archives, provide a fascinating insight into the Victorian criminal underworld and conditions aboard the Dickensian ships, which were created to ease overcrowded prisons.

Hulks became a common form of internment in the 18th century as decommissioned warships from concluded naval conflicts were converted into huge floating prisons. Vessels featured in the collection include HMS Bellerophon, which saw action during the Napoleonic Wars, HMS Retribution (American Revolutionary War) and HMS Captivity (French Revolutionary Wars).

The records reveal the lives of the convicts who were imprisoned on these hulks and detail each inmate’s name, year of birth, age, year and place of conviction, offence committed, name of the hulk and, most interestingly, character reports written by the ‘gaoler’ (prison officer) which provide intriguing insight into each convict’s personality.

The entry for Thomas Bones recalls he was ‘a bold daring fellow, not fit to be at large in this country’, while the record for George Boardman explains ‘this youth has been neglected by his parents and been connected with bad company’. William Barton’s record simply reads ‘very bad, three times convicted’.

As well as featuring murderers, thieves and bigamists, the records also reveal examples of rough justice. Several eight-year-old boys were imprisoned on the hulks, as was 84-year-old William Davies, who was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for sheep stealing and later died on board the hulk HMS Justitia. Other interesting examples include:

  • John Dawson, Joseph Robinson, William Wade and John Taylor – the quartet of criminals led by the ‘ringleader’ Dawson were convicted of stealing and were described by their gaoler as ‘drunken, resolute, daring thieves [that] have been a terror to the inhabitants of Bradford’. They received between seven and 10 years imprisonment each
  • George Sweet – 28-year-old labourer George Sweet was sentenced to life for sheep rustling. However, his character seemed to match his friendly name, with his gaoler report reading ‘character believed good’, despite having been previously imprisoned
  • Samuel Phillips – 16-year-old labourer Samuel Phillips received the seemingly harsh sentence of life imprisonment for burglary. His record reveals he was unable to read or write and that he was a ‘doubtful character’ who had been imprisoned before

Many of the 200,000 convicts held on board the floating prisons were awaiting transportation to Australia, but the hulks were unable to go to sea, having been stripped of their masts, rigging and rudders, and instead fitted with prison cells.

Typically, each hulk held between 200 and 300 convicts in dire conditions. Disease was rife and spread quickly as there was no way to separate the sick from the healthy in the cramped conditions. This meant mortality rates were high, with around one in three inmates dying on board.

Yet in their heyday, these vessels had been involved in some of the era’s most famous naval battles and voyages. More than 32,000 of the convicts who feature in the collection were held on HMS Bellerophon, later renamed HMS Captivity; a 74-gun, 168 foot warship made famous when Napoleon Bonaparte surrendered to its captain, Frederick Maitland, in 1815.

In total, 18 different hulks feature in the collection, with most records relating to HMS Justitia; a 50-gun two deck ship originally called the HMS Hindostan. HMS Justitia was moored in Woolwich, while other hulks were located around Britain, including in Chatham, Sheerness, Deptford and Portsmouth.

This new collection completes the journeys of a number of convicts who appear within other criminal record collections on Ancestry.com.au, including 1.4 million criminal trials in the England & Wales Criminal Registers 1791-1892 and those who were transported to Australia in the Australian Convict Collection.