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Thursday, September 16, 2010


Nineteenth century prison ship records reveal ghastly disease-ridden conditions on board for about 200,000 unfortunates, including young children, according to a BBC news story.

The lists include 8-year-old Francis Creed, confined for seven years on HMS Bellerophon for stealing copper worth a total of three shillings. Convicted in Middlesex on 25 June 1823, little Frank served out his term in the company of  an assortment of thieves, bigamists, and murderers, including such colorful characters as 84-year-old sheep stealer William Davies.

The records, held by National Archives, have been published online at

A quick search of the Archives using the key phrase "prison hulks" reveals much fascinating stuff, including the ration of wine per mess (imagine sharing a crowded berth with a drunken murderer!), and surgeons' reports on the difference in health between those on hulks and those incarcerated in "regular" prisons. 

Recommended reading for historical novelists, those in search of mystery plots and settings, and people researching the gritty social background of their ancestors.


M. C. Muir said...

Accounts of life on prison hulks is varied according to the sources you read or listen to.
THE FLOATING PRISON is a 'remarkable account of 9 years' captivity on the British Prison Hulks during the Napoleonic Wars'.
Louis Garneray was a French prisoner and an artist who was able to paint and to sell his paintings on shore.
Some prisoners were schooled in reading and writing, others learned the basics of a trade, others were rowed ashore each day to work on the wharves in the chain gangs.
With a doctor assigned to each hulk, the health of the prisoners, be they English or foreign was often better than in the dibolical British gaols.

World of the Written Word said...

That's really interesting, Margaret. I'll follow this book up. The only prison hulk story I know is that of Mary Broad, who was arrested as a highwaywoman, and went on from the hulk to be one of the female prisoners in the First Fleet to Botany Bay. She married William Bryant en route, and together they stole the colony cutter and made an amazing small boat voyage to the East Indies, rather in the manner of Bligh. So, since her story is so dramatic, I have a fairly dramatic view of prison hulks.