The Original Hulk

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Hell on Water- Prison Hulks

They were introduced in the early 1770s, when attempts were made to get rid of overcrowded prisons by switching to floating prisons, thus preventing the construction of expensive new prisons on land.


Convicts being rowed out to a prison hulk, by WH Harriot, 18th century

The prison hulks were decommissioned warships from which masts, rigging, and sails were removed. They housed all those who had more than 7 years to serve and were therefore allowed to be deported according to the law of 1718. In 1775, however, the outbreak of the American Revolution stopped the transport of serious criminals to the American colonies. As a result, the convicts were replaced by prisoners of war and sent back to prisons. One year later, when the prisons were overcrowded, the Criminal Justice Act – also known as the “Hulks Act” – was passed. Condemned men who were now (since 1787) awaiting transport to Australia were now assigned to hard labor on the banks of the Thames and reinstated in the Hulks.


Prison Hulk ca.1810, by unkown

They were moored along the Thames and the Medway estuary as well as in Portsmouth, Bermuda, Australia, and Gibraltar. In these places, the work of the convicts increased the efficiency of the dockyards. The shipyards were in a constant state of development and had to keep up with the latest technologies, such as the advent of steam power and iron-hulled ships. The convicts provided cheap and efficient labor, and instead of building new barracks to house the men, prison hulls could be purchased at low cost and towed from place to place.

‘Prison Hulk in Porstmouth Harbour’
Oil on panel by Ambrose-Louis Garneray, circa 1810

Life on board was not easy, many called it “hell on water”. Just like the prisons on land, the hulks were quickly overcrowded. In general, there were on average 300 prisoners and 20 officers on a ship. It had been calculated that in 1776 and 1795, nearly 2000 out of almost 6000 convicts serving their sentence on board the hulks died. One reason for this was the rapid spread of diseases like typhoid and cholera. Another reason for this high death toll was poor nutrition. One inmate received ox-cheek, either boiled or made into soup, peas, bread, or biscuit, daily. Often the food was rotten, vegetables were very rare and even if they were, they were only scrap from the local dockyards.

But also the hardest work up to 12 hours a day did its part. In the end, there was no reasonable accommodation on board. The men wore the same clothes every day and were put in irons.

They slept in a bunk bed if they were lucky, if not then on the bare floor. Sick people simply lay between the healthy ones, only later they were separated and were also allowed to lie in a bed or on straw mattresses.

The use of the hulks was considered a temporary measure and was therefore only approved by parliament for two years. But despite the concerns of some members who complained about its inhumanity, the law of 1776, lasted 80 years. It was regularly renewed and its scope was extended “for the more severe and effective punishment of cruel and daring offenders”.

When the Act of 1776, 1779 was renewed, prison reformer John Howard (inspirer of the Howard League for Penal Reform) began a long campaign against the Hulks, but despite all his efforts and support, there was no end to them.

The era of the hulks was finally brought to a close after the hulk Defense burned off Woolwich Docks in 1857. The new jails followed a version of the colonial labor regimes and the transportation system was changed to incorporate the notion of exile. From then on, prisoners would serve a probationary period in one of the new jails before they were pardoned on the condition of being deported.


19 thoughts on “The Original Hulk

    1. Yeah, you can only dig so deep before you hit the North Sea.

      Having spent time in that part of the world, the ocean was cold and there was no heat in those hulks. Death would have been something to be sought after. What I didn’t put in the article was the re-birth of the prison hulks during the British vs IRA era during our lifetimes, when prisoners were consigned to hulks once again. Don’t tell the FBI about the option.

      1. That’ll happen soon enough. Any parent actually trying to raise their own child without the nanny government co-parenting better get ready for a new floating home.

        1. There are something like 100 massive container ships off the Port of Long Beach, waiting to offload, Each ship can carry up to 24,000 containers…

        2. our next lord-governor terri mcaulliff proclaimed parents have no right to determine what is best to be taught in our schools and he would ban them from board meeting.

  1. Thinking Stallone’s “Escape”, the floating prison movie, was a take on Hulks, albeit with better accommodations than the original. Now, if we could float DC out a ways I’d pitch in a few shekels, although with the insider trading graft all of Congress could be forced to fund it directly from their off-shore banks.

    That cartoon…some days are like that regardless of best laid plans.

    1. You really are becoming a cynic, PaulM – insider trading and graft in Congress? Just ask a congressperson. They’ll tell you that it’s all right-wing noise. Conspiracy theorists and the like…

      1. Guilty as charged…I wear my cynicism proudly, right below my Bar J Wranglers “God & Country” ball cap. Plus I ran out of blue pills 41 years ago.

  2. Interesting bit about the prison hulks. According to a family history several members of the Canadian branch, Quakers at the time, were sentenced to the hulks for refusing to serve against the Americans during the War of 1812 where they died. Rough times.

    1. Most people didn’t survive the hulks. It would have been more humane to execute them on the spot.

    1. The LCS is WAY too small for all of the Beltway bandits and politicians. As with the film Jaws, “We’re going to need a bigger boat”

      1. Just empty one of those container ships, I’d even offer to sweep the poop deck and set up cots.

        1. It’s sort of like helping Whoopie Goldberg & the women of the view pack so that they can move to Africa where it’s more politically correct. One way-ticket, tear up the passport and I’m there with free labor.

          1. Yeah, we wouldn’t want Whoopie’s ship to capsize. Or if it looked as if it might, we’d need a way to get the crew off safely.

  3. The Brits, in their own way, were as savage and ruthless as any tribe in the world, ever. Everyone else’s problem was, the Brits were damn good at what they did.

  4. Australia is lost. They started as a penal colony, and they’re ending as one.

  5. The Royal Navy didn’t even have to buy the hulk’s; they usually used old ships they would have had to pay to scrap.
    They used hulk’s for warehouses, offices, dorms, etc.
    In a few places the Brits still do.
    There is an old ship on display in London used mostly for navy offices and special events.
    The US tends to use accommodation barges for that now.

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