Mid North Coast Pioneers - Newcastle to Lismore and beyond

Basics on British convict hulks

Shared note

Basics on British convict hulks


Prior to 1853 there was no system of penal servitude in Britain. Each county had its own gaol, but these were mainly for holding prisoners awaiting trial, and their records are generally in county record offices. Most indictable offences carried the death penalty, or a fine, with or without whipping. Commutation of the death penalty was common, generally to transportation for a term of 14 years to the colonies initially to America or the West Indies, latterly the Australian colonies. Non-capital offences generally involved transportation for seven years.

When it became evident about mid-1775 that the American colonists were determined to prevent the export of convicts from Britain, it removed a significant deterrent to crime. Several initiatives were taken: an increase in the number of instances where "burning in the hand" or whipping were substituted for transportation; and the practice of embarking convicts on "appropriate vessels . . . as if . . . for transportation". The first of these floating prisons were placed on the River Thames at Woolwich. Others were placed in Plymouth Harbour. Collectively they became known as "the hulks".

Conditions on the hulks

The transports to America had been at no cost to the Crown, whereas maintaining convicts on the hulks was at considerable expense, even though the clothing, food and quarters were plain or inferior. To defray this cost the convicts were put to hard labour - those who were able were generally involved in dredging the Thames, to make embankments. Others were put to work ashore, or driving piles to protect the riverbanks.

The conditions on the hulks, and the quality of food, were initially not good. The hours worked were long. The sick were given little attention and poorly separated from the healthy. Mortality rates of around 30% applied - smallpox, "gaol fever", etc - and led to several inquiries and considerable improvement.

As convict numbers increased, so did hulk numbers. The number of convicts held on each varied with the size of the vessel, but averaged 275-300. Because of the isolation of the hulks, convicts were less able than prisoners ashore to arrange special treatment, visits from family and friends, etc. So the hulks were not popular with convicts. But the tradition associating the hulks with brutal cruelty was not substantiated by the three inquiries mentioned above, nor subsequently. In fact, it's pretty clear that the conditions on the hulks were often rather better than in the prison system generally.

The hulks

Those in use in early 1791 were Justitia, Censor, Ceres, Fortunee, Dunkirk, Stanislaus and Leon, the latter two added after the commencement of transportation to NSW in 1788. But in 1791 the number of hulks fell, with the discharge of Justitia, Ceres and Dunkirk in March of that year, after the departure of the Third Fleet for NSW.

The hulk system was also used in Ireland, at Cork (from 1817) and Kingstown (1823). They had few facilities, no provision for shore work, and were extremely overcrowded.

Punishment by transportation became less used when the system of penal servitude was introduced to England in 1853, and was abandoned in 1867.


There are several record classes that record the convicts on the hulks: Registers of convicts in prisons and on prison ships (hulks) awaiting transportation - PRO class PCOM 2 (1770-1951) Hulk registers - PRO class HO 9 (1802-49). Quarterly returns of convicts in gaols and hulks - PRO class HO 8 (1824-76) Quarterly returns of convicts in hulks - PRO class T 38 (1802-31) Other prison registers - PRO classes HO 23 and HO 24 (1838-75) All of these registers and returns typically contain a physical description and details of occupation, marital status, character, state of health, and eventual discharge, death or transfer to another prison of each inmate. None of the volumes is indexed. Court orders for imprisonment or transfer to another prison - PRO class PCOM 5 (1843-71), indexed in PCOM 6. From 1841, the decennial censuses, in the institutional returns of the places where the hulks were moored - but names frequently show only initials, not forenames. Some of these items have been copied by the AJCP and are readily available in Australia.

Further Reading

The intolerable hulks : British shipboard confinement, 1776-1857 by Charles Campbell Heritage Books, 1994 SAG library reference: M3/23/3

The English prison hulks by William Branch Johnson published C Johnson, 1957 SAG library reference: N3/23/1 Britain's convicts to the colonies by Wilfrid Oldham published Library of Australian History 1990 SAG library reference: A3/23/24

Prison hulks: the value of their records to family history research by Betty Upton Thesis for SAG's Dip FHS, 1995 SAG library reference: Thesis B2/11/324

Given names Surname Sosa Birth Place Death Age Place Last change
January 29, 1806214Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England, United Kingdom8July 21, 189312687Hamilton, New South Wales, Australia