Prison Hulks on the River Thames, Woolwich, c.1856. © Greenwich Local History Library
Created following the 1776 statute which ordered that male prisoners sentenced to transportation should be put to hard labour improving the navigation of the Thames,12 the hulks were an emergency measure to cope with prison overcrowding following the interruption to transportation caused by the outbreak of war with America. The London focus of the act is evident in the fact the work took place on the Thames, and the influence of reformist principles can be seen in the fact that prisoners were put to hard labour and subjected to restrictive discipline. The first ships, the Justicia and the Censor, took on their first convicts in August 1776. The hulks were run by contractors, overseen by the Middlesex Justices of the Peace.
There were difficulties from the start. Crowded and insanitary conditions led to a high mortality rate (from August 1776 to April 1778 176 of 632 prisoners on board died), largely due to gaol fever (typhus).13 Belatedly medical treatment was provided, from 1779 in a separate hospital ship. There were mutinies, and many prisoners escaped from the work parties on shore. Problems with prisoner morale led the authorities to offer pardons to well-behaved prisoners; this practice also addressed the problem of overcrowding.
Despite attempts to address these problems, the hulks remained crowded and expensive, and in a sense contributed to the very phenomenon of criminal intransigence they were meant to solve. Their presence led to pressure for the resumption of transportation, but even after transportation was resumed the hulks remained, to be used as a place for confining and punishing prisoners prior to the departure of the transport ships. During the first twenty years, 8,000 prisoners spent time in the hulks.
London Lives 1690 to 1800