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.


Historically – ‘banishment out of the realm’ – transportation of criminals beyond English waters, provided England’s justice system with ‘a severe mode of punishment short of death’.

1660s – America: Trading in convicts began soon after the founding of an English colony at Virginia in the early 1600s.

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

1717 – England: Act 4 Geo. I, c II – The Transportation Act – regularised an existing irregular trade in convicts between England and America, mainly Virginia and Maryland.

1718 – England:  Act 6, Geo. I, C 23 introduced profit into the convict equation.

‘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: After 1718 ‘trafficking’ would be a more accurate description for the transactions that took place between Treasury, a transporting merchant and his American agent, who offered the convicts’ labour for sale, usually to plantation owners.

1718-1775, America: Between the years 1718 to 1775 Treasury contracts were issued to transporting merchants for the shipment of approximately 50,000 English prisoners to America at the rate of 1000 per year.

1775 – America: Conflict erupted between ‘Mother England’ and America’s Patriot colonists. The American War of Independence (1775-1783) interrupted the convict trade. England’s gaols, prior to the war, served as short term holding-pens for prisoners sentenced ‘for transportation to America’.

1775 – England: Prisons were overwhelmed with criminals sentenced ‘for transportation to America’ but with nowhere to go.

Living conditions worsened dramatically in the squalid, overcrowded, noisy chaotic gaols they overflowed 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, in the early 1770s prison reformers, began a general investigation into England’s gaols. They found the gaolers corrupt and identified a fundamental flaw in the system. Gaolers did not receive a salary, they made a living selling goods and services to inmates 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: On 1st April 1776 when Lord North introduced his Hulks Bill to Parliament, England’s major ‘inconvenience[s]’ were revolution –  the American Revolution in the colonies and at home a growing army of common criminals in Britain’s prisons.

23 May 1776:  The Hulks Act, 16 Geo. III, c43 received Royal Ascent. The legislation provided the justice system with an alternate ‘punishment short of death’. Male prisoners reprieved from death on condition they be ‘banished from the realm’ could be held in floating prisons – hulks – moored along the River Thames. Female prisoners 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’. Britain’s Convicts to the Colonies, Wilfrid Oldham.

1776 : The Hulks Act was passed to ‘provide a punishment short of death’. Under the legislation England developed two (2) distinct forms of incarceration. Those prisoners ‘under orders of transportation’ could be held either in land-based gaols or on floating prison-hulks moored in the River Thames. Either way the Hulks Act changed the ‘status’ of all convicts under ‘orders of transportation [they became] ‘servants of the realm’.

See: A War Grave – Tasmania

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: John Howard turned his attention to conditions on the hulks and a Commission of Enquiry was established.

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 refering specifically to the hulk Censor.  

1777 October: The investigation found none of the hulks, clapped-out warships, were water-tight and space on them very limited.  Dr Solender, one of the Committee, visited the hulks in the second half of 1777,  he condemned the practice of compelling men to sleep six (6) to a  cot.

He 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’. 

Following recommendations from the Committee men, although still grouped six (6) to a mess, now slept two (2) to a cot.

See: Brokeback Mountain

The Committee  also addressed the prisoners’ diet.  While the regular diet appears to have remained much the same, 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.

On the hulks for five days of the week each mess of six (6) received a ration of five (5) pounds – 2.3 kg – of biscuit [flour]; one-half of  ‘rough meat’ – usually an ox-cheek , three (3) pints – 1.7 litres – of dried peas [rice] and some gruel described as ‘broth’. 

The other two (2) days the six (6)  shared three (3) pints – 1.7 litres – 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 litres – of small beer.

The Committee’s intervention appears to have achieved mixed results as:

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


Comments are closed.