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Prison hulks: Australia’s floating prisons

There is a classic narrative in Australia that convicts spent their days in penal colonies like Port Arthur and Norfolk Island, which struck fear into the hearts of convicts and settlers alike. But many convicts weren’t even lucky enough to end up there. With prisons overflowing and nowhere to put the convicts who were continually being transported to the colonies, former seagoing vessels were quickly modified to accommodate inmates.

The need for prison hulks arose out of the dire situation in the United Kingdom during the 18th century. Prisons in Britain were dangerously overcrowded, so there was nowhere to house the many prisoners who needed to be transported to the colonies. The solution came in the form of decommissioned war ships. These expansive ships could no longer be taken out to sea, and were moored in rivers and at dockyards. This made these ships the ideal accommodation for hundreds of prisoners. The ships were known as prison hulks, and they became the saving grace for the British – it was far more convenient to house the growing number of prisoners in existing prison hulks than to build expensive new prisons.

Following the British example, the colony in Australia naturally began to use prison hulks when its convict facilities became overcrowded. Hulks were the perfect way to house prisoners who had a reputation for trying to escape or had committed a secondary crime after arriving at the colony. Both male and female prisoners were held on separate prison hulks.  

So, what was life like on prison hulks? Generally, the conditions aboard the dark, damp ships were atrocious. The prisoners stayed in cramped, filthy cells; there was a constant risk of contracting horrible diseases and many prisoners died as a result. Most prisoners worked long hours doing arduous manual labour and would be chained up on the ship for the night, while other prisoners were chained up in the ship all day, unable to leave and with nothing to do.

Prison hulks were used in Australia from more than 80 years, which is surprising considering that they were meant to be a temporary solution. They remain an important part of Australia’s convict history.

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