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An Act to provide for the future Confinement of Male Convicts, removed from the General Penitentiary, and now on board Vessels in the River Thames

Date: 12 April 1824
315 x 195 mm
Medium: Ink on paper
Credit Line: ANMM Collection
Object Name: Act
Object No: 00040602

User Terms

    In the 17th and 18th century Britain and Ireland had very few purpose built prisons instead convicted criminals received sentences of capital punishment (death by hanging), corporal punishment (branding, whipping, hair cropping etc), a fine or transportation.

    In the case of Transportation convicted criminals were sentenced to work in a colony overseas, such as North America. The loss of these colonies following the American War of Independence created a major problem for the British and Irish authorities, who faced with overcrowded jails, converted old, unseaworthy sailing ships into floating prisons or convict hulks.

    Although introduced as a temporary solution convict hulks remained in use until at least 1860.
    SignificanceFrost, Alan. Botany Bay Mirages
    1995 Illusions of Australia's Convict Beginnings.
    Melbourne University Press.

    Robson, L.L. The Convict Settlers of Australia
    1973 Melbourne University Press.

    Shaw, A.G.L Convicts and the Colonies - A Study of Penal Transportation from Great 1978 Britain and Ireland to Australia and other parts of the British Empire.
    Melbourne University Press.

    HistoryExtreme poverty was a fact of life for many in 18th and 19th century English society. In desperation, many resorted to crimes such as theft, prostitution, robbery with violence and forging coins as the means to survive in a society without any social welfare system or safety net. This was countered by the development of a complicated criminal and punishment code aimed at protecting private property. Punishment was harsh with even minor crimes, such as stealing goods worth more than one shilling, cutting down a tree in an orchard, stealing livestock or forming a workers union, attracting the extreme penalty of 'death by hanging'.

    Until the early nineteenth century, except for the King's Bench, Marshalsea, Fleet Prisons and Newgate Gaol which were all Crown prisons attached to the central courts, prisons were administered locally and were not the responsibility or property of central government. They were used for the correction of vagrants and those convicted of lesser offences, for the coercion of debtors and for the custody of those awaiting trial or the execution of sentence.

    For nearly all other crimes the punishments consisted of a fine, capital punishment or Transportation overseas. Since the early 1600s European societies used the transportation of criminals overseas as a form of punishment. With the introduction of the Transportation Act of 1718 to combat a perceived increase in crime, transportation became used as a large-scale criminal deterrent. Transportation to the British colonies in North America, became a popular form of sentence.

    The American War of Independence (1776-1781) put an end to the mass export of British and Irish convicts to America and many of the convicts in Great Britain's jails were instead sent to the hulks (de-commissioned naval ships) on the River Thames and at Portsmouth, Plymouth and Cork (Ireland) where they were employed on river cleaning, stone collecting, timber cutting and dockyard work whilst serving out their sentence. The establishment of the prison hulks, moored at Plymouth, Portsmouth, in the Thames and elsewhere, marked the first involvement of central government in the ownership and administration of prisons

    Although first introduced as a temporary measure, to hold prisoners sentenced to transportation, the use of hulks continued for more than eighty year and in England was marked by four distinct phases of hulk administration. Private Enterprise (1776 - 1802): When the hulks were controlled and operated by private contractors such as Duncan Campbell and Henry Bradley. The First Government Inspectorate (1802 - 1815): Hulks still operated by private contractors such as Stewart Erskine, James Bradley and Andrew Hawes Dyne but under the direct supervision of Aaron Graham, the Government appointed Inspector of Hulks and The Navy Board. The Superintendent of Prisons and Hulks Establishment (1815 - 1847): Decline of private operators, increasing number of Government operated hulks with professional crew and guards all supervised by The Home Office. And The Prison and Hulks Managerial Committee (1847 - : All hulks and prisons come under direct government control.

    In 1784, under the Transportation and Penitentiaries Act, felons and other offenders were exiled to colonies overseas which included Gibraltar, Bermuda and in 1788, the colony of NSW. In January 1788 just over 700 convicts and their guards arrived at Port Jackson to establish one of the most isolated European colonies in the world. Over the next 80 years a further 160,000 convicts were transported from England to various parts of Australia to found or work in penal settlements that have become bywords for crime, pain and punishment.

    Although used as places of incarceration and punishment hulks were also used to hold male and female convicts waiting transportation to overseas colonies and as places of reformation and education where inmates could be taught a trade and if well behaved could be rewarded with early release and a Ticket of Leave.

    Between 1800 and 2005 the British Government converted more than 150 ships into guard, prison, convict, accommodation, receiving, hospital, and school hulks. Great Britain's last prison hulk, HMP Weare in Portland Harbour, Dorset, was closed in May 2005.

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