On 1 April 1776 [‘whereas the transportation of convicts to H.M. Colonies in America is found to be attended with various inconveniences’] Lord North moved to bring in a Bill to authorise for a limited time punishment, by hard labour, of offenders who were liable to transportation….On 23 May 1776 Lord North’s Bill [the Hulks Act] received Royal Assent. Wilfrid Oldham, Britain’s Convicts to the Colonies, Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1993.


Exile ‘beyond the seas’ of criminals reprieved death provided England’s justice system with ‘a severe mode of punishment short of death’.

1660s – America: Trading in convicts began soon after England founded a colony at Virginia in the early 1600s.

1655 – England: Oliver Cromwell made ‘reprieve from death’ conditional on ‘banishment out of the realm’ in 1655.

1717 – England: Act 4 Geo. I, c II – The Transportation Act – regularised the existing trade in convicts between England and America, with prisoners shipped mainly to Virginia and Maryland.

‘Every convict to America was sold like a slave. The only essential difference…one was sold for life the other for a term of years’. Roger Ekirch, Bound For America, 1981

1718 – England:  Act 6, Geo. I, C 23 introduced profit into the ‘for transportation’ equation.

After 1718 ‘trafficking’ would be a more accurate description for transactions that took place between English Treasury,  the transporting merchant and his American agent, who offered convict labour for sale, usually to cotton and tobacco planters.

1718 – 1775, America: At the rate of 1000 per year between the years 1718 to 1775 government contracts were issued for the shipment of approximately 50,000 English prisoners to America .

1775 – America: Conflict, the American War of Independence 1775-1783 between ‘Mother England’ and America’s Patriot colonists interrupted the convict trade.

Prior to the war England’s home gaols had served as short term holding-pens for those prisoners sentenced ‘for transportation to America’ and soon overflowed with criminals with nowhere to go.

Living conditions worsened dramatically in the squalid, overcrowded, noisy chaotic gaols overwhelmed as they filled not only with criminals but their families, friends and assorted hangers-on, as well as ‘dogs, pigs, pigeons and poultry’.

 1770s, England: John Howard a wealthy philanthropist and prison reformer, in the early 1770s, led a general investigation into England’s gaols.

His reformers identified a fundamental flaw in the system – corruption. Gaolers did not receive a salary, they made a living selling goods and services to those who could pay for them.

‘The possession of wealth could make life less disagreeable than it might otherwise have been. Gaolers were ever ready to provide superior meals and quarters for those who were willing to pay for them’. Richard Byrne, Prisons and Punishments of London, 1992 .

1776 – 1 April, England: To provide alternate accommodation for the growing army of common criminals festering in Britain’s prisons Lord North introduced the Hulks Bill into Parliament on the 1st of April 1776.

The Bill proposed, male prisoners for ‘banished from the realm’ be held in floating prison-shipshulks – moored along the River Thames.

23 May 1776:  The Hulks Act, 16 Geo. III, c 43 received Royal Ascent in May 1776. It provided the justice system with an alternate ‘punishment short of death’ female prisoners however were excluded from the hulks.

‘If contemporary opinion can be accepted, labour on the hulks was a form of punishment particularly dreaded. Death reduced the number on the hulks much more than did pardons or escapes’. Wilfrid Oldham. ibid. 

Under the legislation England developed two (2) distinct forms of incarceration. Those ‘under orders of transportation’ could be held either in land-based gaols or on hulks moored along the River Thames.

Either way the Hulks Act changed the ‘status’ of convicts under ‘orders of transportation [they became] ‘servants of the realmtheir Service is for the State’. See: John M’Entire – Death of a Sure Thing – 10 December 1790

‘Like transportation the hulks were not operated by the state but delegated to a private contractor [who]…had no stake in the prisoners’ work, which was for government projects, and the Home Department had overall supervision and …responsibility.

The prisoners were supposed to be the most hardened, serious offenders yet they included boys under ten years of age. The weak were at the mercy of the tough once the ships had been battened down for the night’. Richard Byrne, Prisons and Punishments of London, 1992.

1777 – England: A year later – 1777 – John Howard turned his critical attention to conditions on the hulks. A Commission of Inquiry was established and Duncan Campbell, Superintendent of Hulks was called to give evidence.

‘Those who arrived [on hulks] sick from county goals brought their diseases with them and usually died within the first twelve (12) days…a putrid fever broke out; of nine [9] who came from York four [4] soon died.

Another unpleasant fact twenty [20] out of forty [40] from Newgate were suffering from venereal disease. Duncan Campbell Superintendent of Hulks, Report to Commission referring specifically to the hulk Censor’ Byrne. op.cit..  

1777 – October: Howard’s investigators found none of the hulks were water-tight and space on the clapped-out warships was very limited.

Commissioner Dr Solender visited the hulks in the second half of 1777 and condemned the practice of compelling men to sleep six (6) to a cot.

Solender considered; ’18-19 inches ( 45cm) insufficient space for a man [and]…the effect upon the morals of small boys on board did not pass altogether unnoticed’. Byrne. ibid.

On the Committee’s recommendation men, although still grouped six (6) to a mess, now slept two (2) to a cot. See: Brokeback Mountain

The prisoners’ diet was also addressed. The biscuits ‘mouldy on both sides, green, broken and consisting largely of crumbs’  were replaced with ‘four and one-half (4 & 1/2) pounds of ‘second’ bread flour; rice was issued instead of dried peas’.

The regular diet however appears to have remained much the same. For five [5] days of the week each mess of six (6) received a ration of five (5) pounds (2.3 kg) of biscuit [flour]; one-half (½) pound of ‘rough meat’ usually an ox-cheek , three (3) pints (1.7 litre) of dried peas [now rice] and some gruel described as ‘broth’. 

The other two (2) days the six (6) men shared three (3) pints of oatmeal made into porridge; five (5) pounds (2.3 kg) of bread and two (2) pounds (900 g) of cheese.

Four (4) days a week each man was served one (1) quart (1.1 litre) of small beer.

‘Between 1776 and 1788, Howard visited the hulks at Woolwich at least seven times. He made several trips to those at Plymouth and Portsmouth during the same period. At times he appears to have been astonishingly tolerant with respect to the hulks….The first inquiry was thorough. Thereafter, the attention given was perfunctory’. Charles Campbell, The Intolerable Hulks British Shipboard Confinement 1776-1857, Fenestra Books, Arizona, 2001


August 1776 – March 1778:  ‘Of 632 prisoners taken on board the Justitia, between August 1776 and March 1778, 176 died. Even after years of criticism and promises of change, the surgeon on one ship, the Warrior, reported 400 admissions to hospital, and 38 deaths, among the 638 prisoners on board.

Conditions on board were notoriously cramped and foul, with little supervision – the 700 prisoners on the Justitia were simply locked in overnight in the charge of a single warder’. Richard Byrne, Prisons and Punishments of London, 1992  See: Analyse This



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