Until 1782, English convicts were transported to America. However, in 1783 the American War of Independence ended. America refused to accept any more convicts so England had to find somewhere else to send their prisoners. Transportation to New South Wales was the solution.

Life in Britain was very hard. As new machines were invented, people no longer needed to do farming jobs so they moved to the cities. The cities became overcrowded. Many people didn’t have a job and were very poor. People stole things to survive. Minor crimes such as stealing items worth more than 1 shilling (about a day’s wages for a working person), cutting down a tree in an orchard or stealing livestock were punishable by transportation. The prisons quickly became full and prisoners were kept in old, rotting prison ships called hulks. These ships were usually old naval or merchant ships that could not go to sea anymore but could still float safely in the harbour.

Conditions in these floating gaols were terrible. The hulks were overcrowded and cramped, often there wasn’t even room to stand up! A hulk could be up to 65 metres long. This is the same size as 6 buses placed end to end. On board each hulk there could be up to 300 convicts. There were many diseases on board and convicts died. Between 1776 and 1795 nearly 2000 out of almost 6000 convicts held on hulks, died. The majority died from diseases such as typhoid and cholera.

The convicts were not fed very well. The people in charge wanted to keep costs low. The daily diet was often made up of ox-cheek, either boiled or made into soup, pease (peas), bread or biscuits. The biscuits were often mouldy. Tobacco could be supplied as part of their ration as a reward for a job well done or for good behaviour.

Convicts got up at sunrise and worked hard for up to 10 hours a day. All convicts were sentenced to hard labour as part of their punishment and could be forced to work at just about any manual task such as timber cutting, brick making or stone cutting.

In the 21st century we are accustomed to thinking of imprisonment as one of the more obvious forms of punishment for convicted criminals. This was not so in the past.

The industrial revolution, social change and war caused great changes in the lives of British people in the 17th and 18th centuries. Extreme poverty was a fact of life for many, and desperate people resorted to crimes such as theft, robbery and forgery in order to survive. If caught and convicted, they faced a harsh and complicated criminal code. Imprisonment was only one of a range of sentences that judges could inflict and, with no national prison system and few purpose-built prisons, it was often not their first choice. Instead, most criminal offences were punishable by death, public humiliation in the form of branding, whipping, hair cutting, the stocks or the pillory, the imposition of a fine, or transportation overseas.

British authorities had used the transportation of criminals overseas as a form of punishment since the early 17th century, particularly to provide labour in the American colonies. When, in the 18th century, the death penalty came to be regarded as too severe a punishment for offences such as theft and larceny, transportation to North America became an even more popular form of sentence.

The American War of Independence (1775–1783) put an end to this human export. Convicts sentenced to transportation were sent instead to hulks, old or unseaworthy ships, generally ex-naval vessels, moored in rivers and harbours close enough to land for the inmates to be taken ashore to work. Although originally introduced as a temporary measure the hulks quickly became a cost-efficient, essential and integral part of the British prison system.

Once tried and sentenced convicts were sent to a receiving hulk for four to six days, where they were washed, inspected and issued with clothing, blankets, mess mugs and plates. They were then sent to a convict hulk, assigned to a mess and allocated to a work gang. They spent 10 to 12 hours a day working on river cleaning projects, stone collecting, timber cutting or embankment and dockyard work while they waited for a convict transport to become available. In some cases convicts sentenced to transportation spent their entire sentence (up to seven years) on board the hulks and were never sent overseas.

From 1776 to 1802 all English hulks were operated by private individuals such as the shipowners Duncan Campbell and James Bradley, under contract to the British government. These included the JustitiaCensorCeres and Stanislaus on the River Thames at Woolwich, the Chatham and Dunkirk at Plymouth, the Lion at Gosport and La Fortunee at Langstone Harbour near Portsmouth.

Transportation as a ‘solution’ to the problem of rising crime in Britain in the 1800s

In the 1800s crime courts were looking for a punishment that was not as extreme as hanging, but tougher than a fine. Transportation had been used as a form of punishment since 1717.

With many prisons full – sending criminals to Australia seemed an option. Over 80 years more than 165,000 convicts were transported to Australia. At first convicts were kept on old warships where one in three died because of terrible conditions. Many were sent to America and later to Australia. Seven out of eight of these people sent to Australia were males; some were as young as nine or ten; some were over eighty.
From England the transportation ships sometimes stopped off at Gibralter, the West Indies, South America or the Cape of Good Hope, to pick up fresh water and food supplies, before they ended up at any one of the Australian penal settlements.

Once in Australia, convicts lived in barracks and worked in gangs, building roads and bridges or working on farms or quarries. Some were sent out to work for farmers. If they behaved themselves, their sentence could be reduced by a ‘ticket of leave.’  The majority of convicts decided to stay in Australia at the end of their sentences, recognising that they could make a better life there than returning to Britain and, probably, poverty and crime.

Rich criminals were not sent to Australia as they could afford to pay a fine instead of being transported.

Hulks in Australia

Although the Australian colonies were established as penal settlements with the prisoners assigned within the community, the need for more secure accommodation quickly became apparent, especially for refractory or rebellious offenders and those found guilty of an offence in the colony, called secondary offenders. Following the British example, colonial authorities in New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land and Victoria purchased old or unseaworthy ships and converted them into floating prisons.

The hulks in Australia had two main uses. They provided prison accommodation when existing colonial gaols were unsuitable or already full, and they served as floating holding pens for prisoners convicted of secondary offences while they awaited ships to transfer them to dreaded places like Norfolk Island or Port Arthur in Van Diemen’s Land.

Main photo: Prison-ship in Portsmouth Harbour, convicts going aboard. Edward William Cooke, 1828, hand-coloured etching.. Rex Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia: an9058453.


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