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 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 an existing irregular trade in convicts between England and America, with prisoners shipped mainly to Virginia and Maryland.

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

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

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

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

England’s home gaols, prior to the war, served as short term holding-pens for prisoners sentenced ‘for transportation to America’ after 1775 they soon overflowed with criminals sentenced ‘for transportation to America’ but with nowhere to go.

Living conditions worsened dramatically in the squalid, overcrowded, noisy chaotic gaols overwhelmed as they were 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.

The 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 and, only those 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: Lord North introduced the Hulks Bill into Parliament on the 1st of April 1776. Its aim to provide alternate accommodation for the growing army of common criminals festering in Britain’s prisons.

The Bill proposed, male prisoners reprieved from death on condition of ‘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. The legislation provided the justice system with an alternate ‘punishment short of death’.  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’. Wilfrid Oldham. ibid. 

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 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 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: The investigation found none of the hulks were water-tight and space on the clapped-out warships was very limited.

Dr Solender, one Commissioner, 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’.

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. They found biscuits ‘mouldy on both sides, green, broken and consisting largely of crumbs’ these 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 diet 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 mess of 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.

The Commissioners intervention appears to have achieved little.

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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