THE HULKS AND THE CONVICT SHIPS
THE "YORK" HULK.
The rioters who had been sentenced to (or had had their sentences commuted to) transportation were kept in the County Gaol or the Bridewell, Abingdon, until arrangements had been completed for their transfer to the hulks. On the 27th January eight of those sentenced to penal servitude in the colonies "for the term of their natural lives" and fifteen sentenced to "14 years" were transferred by caravan to Gosport and from there taken aboard the "York" hulk. On the following Monday, the 31st, the two Kintbury men who had only narrowly escaped hanging, one "14 year" man and seventeen "7 year" men were similarly transferred, to be followed later by a Hungerford man, Joseph Smith, who was reported to be suffering from rheumatism, and Thomas Mackrell, who was tried at Abingdon.
"Lags away !", was the cry which warned the "transports" that the time had come for them to be taken to the hulks. They were placed in large vans which usually accommodated twenty-five men. Before setting off the convicts were properly secured, i.e. they were hand-cuffed, heavily ironed and chained together and to the van's sides. (1)(These security precautions did not prevent William Oakley from "conducting himself very ill on the road to the hulk"; during the journey he "tried to persuade the other convicts to sway the caravan over".). (2) Even if, as was usual, the van was driven at a brisk pace continuously, except for the needful changing of horses, it was unlikely to have arrived at the dock-yard gates until the following afternoon. (1)
The hulks were old wooden warships which, when their fighting days were over, were used as floating prisons. They were originally (c.1777) intended for temporary use only, but, the on-shore prisons being permanently full to overflowing, they remained in use for over seventy years. By the end of the eighteenth century they were generally recognised to be , in the words of a London magistrate, "seminaries of profligacy and vice.". (3) The "York", to which the Berkshire men were assigned, was an old 90-gun line-of-battle ship, sold to the Convict Establishment in 1820 and destined to serve as a floating prison for the rest of her days. On her three decks she housed on the average about five hundred prisoners, in addition to the officers and guards who occupied the quarter-deck and stern cabins. (3)
On their arrival the convicts would have been paraded on the quarter- deck where they were mustered and received by the captain. Their prison irons were then removed and handed over to the jail authorities who departed as the convicts were taken to the forecastle.There every man was forced to strip and to take a thorough bath, after which each was issued with an outfit consisting of a coarse grey jacket, waistcoat and trousers, a round-crowned broad-brimmed felt hat, and a pair of heavily nailed shoes.The hulk's barber having shaved and cropped the convict's heads. each man was double-ironed and taken on deck to receive a hammock, two blankets and a straw palliasse. (1) A guard then marched the laden and fettered prisoners below deck where they were usually greeted with roars of ironic welcome from the convicts already incarcerated there.
The lower decks were divided into sections by means of iron palisading, with lamps hanging at regular intervals, and these sections were sub-divided by wooden partitions into a score or so compartments, each of which housed from 15 to 20 convicts. Newcomers were allotted to the lowest deck where the air was foulest, and bilge water occasionally slopped through the cracks in the floor boards. Weaklings were congregated on the middle deck, usually the most crowded of the three. Those who had served the greater part of their sentence without being transported were accommodated in the upper deck, the most airy and consequently the most healthy and pleasant. (3) On these decks the convicts existed when not at work and slept at night. Never were they free from the chain between ankle and waist, which was one of the badges of their state, and which clanked and rattled with their every movement. Their bodies, their clothes, their beds and the very walls of the hulk itself were infested with vermin.(4)
The food, according to Joseph Carter, a Hampshire rioter who, though sentenced to seven years transportation, actually served only two years and a day in the Portsmouth hulks, was "not always good alike, and not always bad alike.". There was often a considerable difference "according as to who might have the contract", which was for supplying meat or bread etc., for a period of six months. "We had four ounces of the best of biscuit a day. We had oatmeal too, and pea-soup, and we had garden vegetables that we bought with the money we worked for. We had fourteen ounces of meat, four times a week. During one six-month contract the meat was beautiful. That man always gave good meat when he had the contract. We had plenty of victuals; the only thing was the bread which was mostly always bad 'cause one man, who had great favour, had the contract all the time I was there. I wishes every poor hard-working man in this parish were as well fed with meat, and myself with them, as I wor in the hulk,". (5)
It was not always as good as Carter described it. Another inmate of a hulk had this to say about the food. "I woke to a consciousness of a most pungent and offensive smell, and, glancing over the sides of my hammock, saw that most of my penmates were up and gathered around a tub - known as a 'kid' - into which they were dipping spoons. My mess-mates told me that this was breakfast and that I had best hurry if I wished to have any. The ingredients of the foul-stenched mess were a very coarse barley, and the tough meat which was the convict's allowance on alternate days, boiled together until it became the malodorous tacky mess in the tub. ....The dietary on the hulk, apart from this so-called soup, was a portion of cheese of the utmost indigestibility three days a week. On the days when meat was not allowed, breakfast and supper consisted of a pint of coarse barley plain-boiled in water, and in addition each man was given one pound of black bread, with a pint of sour vinegar, mis-called table beer.".(1)
In view of the conditions and the diet it is not surprising that sickness- and especially scrofula, consumption and scurvy - was never absent, and epidemics of cholera etc., swept like irresistible waves over the hulks.(3) Work of some kind was provided for all the convicts, a certain number being detailed in cleaning the hulk, cooking, and as servants to the officers. The rest were sent each day to labour in the dock-yard in gangs of 16 to 20 men under the direction of a guard or foreman; they laboured from 7 a.m. until sunset, and were fed on victuals of the worst kind, both the weight and the measure being deficient. (3)
The foreman of each gang was usually a veteran sailor of the Royal Navy , who was apt to visit upon the convicts the same kind of tyranny to which he had been subjected aboard H.M. ships. Some lessening of the tyranny might occasionally be purchased by the price of drinks obtainable at the local 'taps'. (1) According to J.H.Vaux, the guards were generally "of the lowest class of human being, brutal by nature and rendered tyrannical and cruel by the consciousness of the power they possessed.". No one else was likely to take on the job for the wages were not more than those paid to a London day-labourer. They invariably carried a ponderous stick with which, without the smallest provocation, they would fell an unfortunate convict to the ground, and frequently repeat their blows long after the poor sufferer was insensible. (6) Punishments were frequent and arbitrary, ranging from a reduction in rations, or an increase in the weight of irons, to a flogging of unspeakable severity. (3)
Fortunately for the Berkshire men they did not long have to endure the conditions described above. "Shortly after their arrival" four of them "were put aboard the Eliza to make up her complement of 200.". (7) At least one of those who remained in the hulk was on board the 'Eleanor' as early as 3rd February, and all but one were embarked by February 10th. (8)
When the time came for the convicts to be transferred to the transport ship they were supposed to be stripped, washed, shaved, close-cropped, and issued with two new suits before being embarked, "but it was not uncommon for them to be put aboard the convict ships in a filthy state.". (9) The regulation dress was two jackets and waistcoats of blue cloth or Kersey; two pairs of duck trousers; three check or coarse linen shirts; flannel under-clothing; a woollen cap and a pair of shoes. "The clothing was often of such poor quality that it was usually worn out by the time Australia was reached.". (9)
The convicts selected for the draft were paraded on the quarter-deck for examination by the surgeon-superintendent of the transport. The few sickly men (e.g. Joseph Smith, who suffered from a hernia, and who languished in the hulk until he died there on 19th January,1837) (10) were rejected. The approved men were newly double-ironed and put aboard a lighter and taken to the convict ship at anchor in Spithead.
THE CONVICT SHIP "ELEANOR".
The vessels which conveyed the convicts to Australia were ordinary British merchantmen. (11) No vessel was specially designed and built as a convict ship, and, although many made numerous voyages with prisoners, not one remained exclusively in the convict service. The chartering of transports was always by tender, and, though it was the practice to charter the vessel which could be hired at the lowest rate per ton, no tender was accepted unless the vessel had been inspected by the naval authorities, and had been certified as sea-worthy and well found. These inspections were generally very thorough and the authorities insisted upon a reasonably high standard of sea-worthiness. Occasionally a ship rotten in hull and equipment may have been chartered, but that such vessels were few in number is demonstrated by the fact that, during the continuance of transportation, when losses in other ships were heavy, no convict ship foundered on the way to Australia.
The East Indiamen, the largest class of merchantmen, were strong, fine ships; no expense was spared in their building and only the finest materials were used; those constructed in Indian yards (and the two ships which transported the Berkshire men were both Indian built) were built of the best teak. They were well cared for which could not be said for the rest of the ships in the Merchant Navy, which, due to lack of government supervision, were often neglected and ill-found. All ships were placed in one of four grades, the first and second class grades being 'A' and 'E'. All 'A' ships were automatically down-graded to the 'E' grade at the end of 10 or 12 years; the latter period if they were Thames built, the former period if they were built in other British yards. Convict ships invariably belonged to the 'A' or 'E' classes and were always designated 'A1' or 'E1', the numeral signifying that they were well found in equipment.
Unlike the rest of the British Merchant Marine "the personnel of which was drawn from the very dregs of society" and which, in the 1820s and 1830s, had reached its lowest ebb, the East Indiamen were capably officered and well-manned. Discipline was maintained in these ships which, in the "use of the lash, was as pitiless as that of the Royal Navy. They were smart in appearance, and as smartly handled as the men-of-war.".
The prison, in which the convicts spent well over 80% of their time, was situated in the 'tween decks. One such prison "was fifty feet long and fifty feet wide, and ran the full height of the 'tween decks, viz. about five feet ten inches high.". (12) Surgeon Superintendent Cunningham, writing of the convict ships of the 1820s, stated that there were "two rows of sleeping berths one above the other, which extended on each side of the between decks, each berth being six feet square and calculated to hold four convicts, everyone thus possessing 18 inches of space to sleep in.". This the worthy doctor considered to be "an ample space". In the 1830s, however, according to George Loveless, the leader of the "Tolpuddle Martyrs", each berth was "about five feet six inches square" and that this minute space "was all that was allowed for six men to occupy day and night". (13) Marcus Clarke gives a similar area but points out that "the necessities of stowage ... deprived them of six inches, and even under that pressure, twelve men were compelled to sleep on the floor.".(12)
The fore and aft main hatchways were secured with strong wooden stanchions thickly studded with broad-headed nails so that the structure was practically proof against being cut. (14) In each of the hatchways was a door, with three padlocks, to let the convicts out and in, and to secure them at night. The prisoners had no access to the hold through the prison; a ladder was placed in each hatchway for them to go up and down by, but it was pulled on deck at night. "On the aft side, next to the soldiers' berths, was a trap door, like the stoke-hole of a furnace. At first sight this appeared to be contrived for the humane purpose of ventilation, but a second glance dispelled this weak conclusion. The opening was just large enough to admit the muzzle of a small howitzer secured on the deck below. In case of mutiny the soldiers could sweep the prison from end to end with grape-shot.". (12)
In the forepart of the ship was the hospital. This was separated from the prison proper by a bulkhead having two doors with locks to keep out intruders. Another bulkhead divided the prison itself into two sections, the smaller one being used to confine the boy convicts, who were thus cut off from contact with the older men.
Despite improvements in design introduced in 1817, the prison quarters were dark and gloomy and utterly foul, the ventilation being very bad. The stench of the prison, crowded with perspiring humanity, was indescribable. Even those prisoners who were inured to the fetid atmosphere of the insanitary gaols and hulks must have found it well nigh unbearable, particularly in the tropics.
The official scale of rations was adequate and the food was generally of a good quality - better than that furnished for the army and navy - but the convicts were often cheated of their due proportion, and sometimes half-starved. From the outset the scale was based on the allowances in the Royal Navy, but was two-thirds of the naval ration. Because six convicts shared between them the rations normally allowed for four sailors on H.M. ships, it was known in the transport service as the "Six upon Four". (14)
Surgeon-Superintendent Peter Cunningham, writing in the 1820s, asserted that the rations were both good and abundant, "¾ lb. of biscuit being the daily allowance of bread, while each day the convicts sat down to dinner of either beef, pork or plum-pudding, having pea-soup four times a week, and a pot of gruel with sugar or butter in it every morning.". When the ship had been at sea three weeks each man was "served with an ounce of lime-juice and the same of sugar daily, to guard against scurvy, while two gallons of good Spanish red wine and 140 gallons of water were put on board for issuing to each likewise - three to four gills of wine, and three quarts of water, being the general daily allowance.". (11) Another trades unionist from Tolpuddle, John Standfield, found this mouth-watering cruise prospectus to be a false one, unlikely to satisfy the Trades Description Act, for "the rations ... were of the worst quality, and very deficient in quantity, owing to the peculations indulged in by those officers whose duty it was to attend to that department.". Another convict noted that "the food, such as it was, was plentiful", but it was "mainly salt tack". He also confirmed the isue "on alternate days" of "a small portion of wine or lime-juices.". (14)
Except under a humane captain and surgeon-superintendent the prisoners were ironed to ring bolts. They were normally allowed on deck for exercise for two periods of two hours each day, but while there they presented a degrading sight. Ironed to one another by clanking chains they shuffled dispiritedly round and round the deck to the jingle of their own irons, with the scarlet-coated sentries closely watching them. Punishments were brutal and harsh and, until their infliction was made the joint responsibility of the master and the surgeon, they were frequently vicarious and unjust. (11)
The vessels which transported the men from Berkshire to the other side of the world were the "Eleanor" and the "Eliza". (16) Both were built in Indian yards, the former being a barque of 301 tons, and the latter a ship of 538 tons. Though Bateson's list gives no grade for the "Eleanor", we may be reasonably certain that it was "A1", but soon, because built in 1821, to be reclassified as "E1", which was also the classification of the "Eliza", an older vessel, built in 1806. (11) Aboard the "Eliza", bound for Van Diemen's Land, were three men from Kintbury and one from Hungerford. Most (40) of the Berkshire men were transported to N.S.W. on the "Eleanor". (16) Because the journal of Dr. John Stephenson, the Surgeon-Superintendent of the "Eleanor" has survived, as have letters written by the highly articulate Mason brothers of the Bullington district of Hampshire, it is possible to construct an account of the voyage of this ship.
The doctor recorded that, "By the 10th of February the whole of the convicts , numbering 140, were embarked, but, the number being too great for the ship's prisons, 7 cases were returned to the "York". The number of women was increased to 6, and that of the children to 10, which, including the ship's company, made the total number on board 205". However, by the time the ship left Spithead on the 19th of February, the number had been reduced to 203, one woman and one seaman having been left behind. (17)
According to Joseph Mason, the sea during the first night in the Channel "was rough and most of the men were sick". They took "a farewell look at the hills of Cornwall on the 22nd" and "saw many ships but no more land until the 12th March when they saw two islands, namely Porto Santo and Medeira (sic)". Towards the end of the month they passed by "two more islands named St.Antonio and Bravo ( Boa Vista of the Cape Verde Islands ?)". "On Easter Sunday we met an American ship , the City of New York .... the captain of which took many letters", including those from the Mason brothers. The Eleanor crossed the Equator on Robert's birthday, and no more land was seen until, on 27th April, they sighted "the rocks and mountains around the Cape of Good Hope. About noon the ship cast anchor in Simon's Bay." (8) Apart from the first day out from Portsmouth "the weather ... had been, in general, very favourable, the heat at no time rising above 84". (17)
The stay in port was longer than was usual because the master of the Eleanor, Capt. Robert Cook, had been instructed to take on board three convicts condemned in the colony. The delay made possible the taking on board of fresh beef and vegetables of "which the people had a liberal allowance" while in port. It also meant that "every mess was able to take to sea a small stock of soft bread, potatoes, onions etc.". This unusual diet was the main reason for "the excellent condition in which the prisoners were disembarked".(17)
The ship left the Cape on 3rd May and met "rather rough and contrary winds for about 10 days". On the 30th two islands named Amsterdam and St.Paul's were sighted, but no more land was seen until they reached the straits between Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania) and the mainland of Australia on 21st June. (18)
The weather on this part of the voyage was very changeable. "Gales of wind, succeeded by light airs with dense fogs and small rain frequently took place". Even so there was more often than not "strong breezes with clear cold weather.". This "was a fortunate circumstance as the vessel was very laboursome and shipped such quantities of water that it was frequently necessary, even in a fresh breeze, to have the hatches battened down for two or three days together, leaving only sufficient space for one person to pass up or down", a situation which cannot have improved the condition of the prisoners herded below deck. However, there was, overall, "a greater proportion of fine weather than was normal on such a voyage", and this was the second reason for the excellent state of the prisoners' physical condition. "The fine weather", wrote the doctor, "was more efficacious", in maintaining a high standard of health than the attention which he gave "to cleanliness, dryness and ventilation, and, as far as could be done, the constant occupation of the prisoners.". (17)
The Eleanor kept close to the coast-line of New South Wales until, about noon on the 25th of June, the lighthouse on the South Head at the entrance to Port Jackson was sighted. Capt. Cook immediately hoisted a Pilot Flag, but, owing to a calm setting in, the ship did not cast anchor in Sydney Cove until about nine o'clock in the evening. (18)
On the morning of the 26th of June, which was a Sunday, those who were allowed on deck would have had their first sight of Sydney and of the country in which they were more than likely to have to spend the rest of their lives. The outlook must have been a forbidding one, "without charm or beauty. Sandy bays fringed by stunted trees opened far inland between harsh, rocky headlands, with dense forests of gloomy green covering the background". It would have appeared "as a primeval, uncultivated region, bare of any evidence of the softer, tamer results of the work of man. The embattled fort (Fort Macquarie) at the entrance to Sydney Cove, and the straggling row of cottages which stretched along the high ground", which was that part of Sydney known as "the Rocks", must have seemed "an unpretentious specimen of civilisation in the raw". The town of Sydney itself consisted of "narrow straggling streets lined with one-storey houses scarcely more than large huts, with half a dozen decent residences, and a few miserable cottages appearing through the trees on the north shore of the harbour. There was not a patch of cultivated land to be seen from the ship even thus close inshore". (14) According to Robert Mason, however, it was a "pretty town", which, the sailors told him, was "much like Algiers"; the houses were "mostly of stone and face one of the prettiest bays in the world." (18)
The day following their arrival the Colonial Secretary, the Chief Superintendent of Convicts and other officials would have come on board. Each man was called and full particulars taken of his name, age, religion, birthplace, trade and so on, all of which were entered in a register together with a minute description of his personal appearance. When such formalities had been concluded and the officials had departed, a more general class of visitor was allowed on board; some of this group were just curious for news of the old country, some had come to greet expected relatives, while others were there to enquire whether there were any skilled workmen or tradesmen among the convicts whom they might have assigned to them. (14)
Although "the Military Guard was relieved on July 1st" the convicts remained on board until the 11th when all of them "were disembarked in an excellent state of health". The doctor noted that "No set of convicts under similar circumstances ever suffered less from disease". (17) The names of only 11 convicts appeared on the general list of sick, and of these "several might with great propriety have been omitted". Two men from south- west Berkshire appear on this list. They are :-
3rd February - Joseph Tuck, aged 21, Rheumatism - Discharged.
8th July - William Oakley, aged 24, Bowel complaint - do. (17)
Normally before being paraded preparatory to going ashore the convicts were issued with a new suit of clothing, that with which they had been issued in England being of such poor quality that, by the time they reached New South Wales, it was worn out. According to Robert Mason an exception was made of the "Swing" men who were permitted to disembark in their own clothes, which was "a great indulgence and considered an extraordinary thing by the people of Sydney" by whom they (the "Swing" men) were held to be "down-right honest men." (18)
REFERENCES. CHAPTER 8.
(1) "The Adventures of Ralph Rashleigh" (hereafter referred to as A.R.R.)
(2) Reading Mercury, 7th February, 1831,
(3) "The Martyrs of Tolpuddle" (T.U.C., 1934) (hereafter as T.U.C.)
(4) G. Loveless, "Victims of Whiggery".
(5) A. Somerville, "The Whistler at the Plough".
(6) J.Vaux, "Memoirs".
(7) Reading Mercury, 31st January, 1831.
(8) P.R.O. ADM. 101-23.
(9) C.H. Bateson, "The Convict Ships".
(10) P.R.O. H.O. 8-27,51.
(11) C.H. Bateson, "The Convict Ships", to whom I am indebted for most of the material on the convict ships and their personnel.
(12) M. Clarke, "His Natural Life.".
(13) G. Loveless. op.cit.
(14) A.R.R. (15) T.U.C.
(16) P.R.O. H.O. 8-27.
(17) P.R.O. ADM. 101-23.
(18) A.M. Coulson, unpublished M,A. Thesis. London Univ,, 1937.
Part 1 - Berkshire:
Part 2: To "Botany Bay"