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Victorian prison ship inmates revealed in new online archive
The Prison Hulk Registers and Letter Books, 1802-1849, are launched online today, making accessible the incarceration records of almost 200,000 convicts who were imprisoned on giant floating jails known as 'prison hulks'.
Digitised by Ancestry.co.uk the records from The National Archives series PCOM 4 and HO 9 reveal the lives of the convicts imprisoned on these hulks, many awaiting transportation to Australia. Each record details the inmate's name, year of birth, age, year and place of conviction, offence committed, name of the hulk and character reports written by the 'gaoler'.
The records provide a fascinating insight into the Victorian criminal underworld and conditions aboard the ships, which were created to ease overcrowded prisons.
In their heyday, these vessels had been involved in some of the era's most famous naval battles and voyages. 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).
As floating prisons, however, the hulks were stripped of their masts, rigging and rudders and 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.
Stories of convicts
The records reveal the rough justice metered out to convicts in the nineteenth century. 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 ten years' imprisonment each
- George Sweet - 28-year-old labourer George Sweet was sentenced to life for sheep rustling. However, his gaoler report read: 'character believed good', despite having been previously imprisoned
- Samuel Phillips - 16-year-old labourer Samuel Phillips received a 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