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HULKS

HERE’S A GRAB BAG OF HULK RESEARCH. I HAVEN’T EDITED IT. I’LL ADD AS I FIND. 

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.

Lastly, sanitary and discipline conditions in hulks are to be considered. As to sanitation, it was poor. Hulks had much more prisoners than the maximum permissible numbers. Besides the windows were closed, or there were few openings, if any. So, the air was bad and foul. Each convict could not have his own hammock and blanket. They were insufficient as well as other everyday goods. Those who could not have them must resign themselves to sharing them with someone, or doing without them. As a result, it was natural that illness and disease should be spread all over the hulks, such as venereal disease, a skin disease, scurvy, tuberculosis, typhus (jail fever), dysentery, cholera and so on.

 remained in hospital one week and was then returned to the Justitia, where, because of my having suffered from paralysis, and my general good conduct, one of my leg irons was struck off. The feeling of having one leg fettered and the other free was very curious. On one leg was twelve pounds of iron and the other seemed as light as cork, and, do what I would, I could not get them both to act together. I wished over and over again to have my fetters arranged as before, instead of having all the weight on one leg. I actually asked the captain to have this done, but he only laughed at me and told me I should soon get accustomed to the change, as I shortly did.

I want here to particularly mention the Christian treatment of prisoners in England in the hulks as compared with the misery and hardships they had to endure in the colonial depots. The daily practice on board the Justitia was to choose a delegate, as we called him, from each ward, whose duty it was to receive all rations supplied, to inspect them, and refuse all he considered unfit for use, drawing, say, good pork instead of bad beef, or good biscuit instead of bad bread. We were frequently visited by a Church of England clergyman. This good man, before the sailing of any convict ship, would address the various drafts in a way so full of feeling that he often drew tears from his listeners. To the older men he would point out the rewards and blessings of reformation, appealing by sound and earnest counsel to their better feelings, rather than working on their fears. At the same time he did not fail to point out the punishment that would surely follow fresh crimes. To the young he would tell of the many opportunities they would have of securing for themselves the full rights of free citizenship in the land of their forced adoptions, and the chance of their becoming independent by integrity, frugality, industry and perseverance. More than once I heard him say that he hoped those who went across the wide waters would sometimes, whether in prosperity or adversity, have a kindly thought for the old minister who would always have the warmest wishes for their happiness.

Shortly before my turn came to be removed to the transport ship, our kind captain of the Justitia told me that as I had declared my innocence of the crime laid to my charge he had made all inquiries as to the magistrate who had committed me, and as to the captain of the flyboat upon which I had served with the boy who really stole the waistcoat. He had, of course, discovered that the magistrate was, as I have already stated, dead, and that the flyboat man had been executed for the canal murder. The captain of the hulk — whose name I cannot remember now — could therefore find out nothing to help me; but with the greatest kindness he told me he would manage to let me have the choice between Bermuda, Botany Bay, and Hobart Town, in Van Dieman’s Land.He said thought, if I chose Bermuda, I might get a remission of half sentence, the climate was deadly, and he would advise me to go to Van Dieman’s Land, and he would endeavour to make arrangements for me to be kept in Hobart’s Town. I thanked him, and assured him I would be ever grateful for his kindness, of which I was soon to have another proof in the treatment accorded me on the voyage.

On the hulk Justitia at Woolwich

After sentence I was condemned, previous to being sent to the hulks, to the treadmill in Stafford Goal. There being no corn to grind and no opposing friction to the weight of the steppers on the wheel, if ever mortal boy walked on the wind I did then. The turns were so rapid that should anyone have missed his footing a broken leg might have been the consequence.

This time came to an end, and orders were received for my being passed on with others to the hulks at Woolwich. Quarters were assigned me on board the Justitia Hulk. Before going on board we were stripped to the skin and scrubbed with a hard scrubbing brush, something like a stiff birch broom, and plenty of soft soap, while the hair was clipped from our heads as close as scissors could go. This scrubbing we endured until we looked like boiled lobsters, and the blood was drawn in many places. We were then supplied with new ‘magpie’ suits — one side black or blue and the other side yellow. Our next experience was being marched off to the blacksmith, who riveted on our ankles rings of iron connected by eight links to a ring in the center, to which was fastened an up and down strap or cord reaching to the waist-belt. This last supported the links, and kept them from dragging on the ground. Then we had what were called knee garters. A strap passing from them to the basils and buckled in front and behind caused the weight of the irons to traverse on the calf of the leg.

In this rig-out we were transferred to the hulk, where we received our numbers, for no names were used. My number was 5418 — called ‘five four eighteen’. I was placed in the boys’ ward, top deck No. 24, and as turfman’s gang our first business was repairing the butts, a large mound of earth against which the guns were practiced. After completing this we were employed some days at emptying barges, and then at a rocket-shed in the arsenal cleaning shot, and knocking rust scales from shells, filling them with scrap iron, etc., as great preparations were going on for the China war. At other times we would be moving gun carriages or weeding the long lanes between mounted guns. One particular job I had was cleaning ‘Long Tom,’ a 21-foot gun at the gate. During all this time I was never for a moment without the leg irons, weighing about twelve pounds, and indeed, so used to them had I become that I actually should have missed them had they been removed. Though our work was constant, we did not fare badly as regards victuals. Our mid-day meal often consisted of broth, beef and potatoes, sometimes of bread or biscuit and cheese and half a pint of ale. One custom of the times was that for each prisoner one penny per week was laid aside by the Government, with the object of securing the workers from the disgrace of being simple slaves. This money, any man, on recovering his freedom, could claim by proving to the proper authorities who he was; but it is hardly necessary to say that, for personal reasons, very few cared to go to this trouble.

At intervals the Chatham smack would come alongside and take a batch of the boys from Woolwich for Chatham. Although I was at the boys’ ward, I, being bigger and stronger than the others, was worked in the men’s gang, thus escaping being sent to Chatham, where the discipline on the hulks was much more severe than at Woolwich. I became boss of the boys’ ward and had to see that the regulations were properly carried out. I had to look to general cleanliness, lashing and stowing hammocks, and the victualling department. In all my time on this hulk my conduct was very good, and on only one occasion did I get into the slightest trouble. This happened in this wise: One of the boys, on my reproving him for neglect and carelessness in regard to this hammock, became obstinate and cheeky, and from words we came to blows. Instead of reporting him, I, then and there, lathered him, was complained of to the captain, and ordered to be flogged. With two others I was taken to the place of punishment, where victims were laid across a small cask, their feet and hands being extended to the utmost, to in this position receive, if boys, a certain number of stripes with a birch rod, or, if men, a certain number with the cat. The sight of the effect of the rod on the first boy’s skin positively made my flesh creep; but before my turn came both the captain and Twyman, the guard of the gang, pleaded so strongly for me because of my general good conduct that I was let off.

On board the Justitia Hulk there were about 400 of us, and occasionally the ‘Bay ships’, or transports, would come up the river to take off drafts from the different hulks. We always knew the transports by the number of soldiers on their decks. The drafts were, of course, for transportation to the various penal colonies.

At the distance of about a mile from our hulk lay the hospital ship, which I only once had the misfortune to visit. While at work one day I was seized with a paralytic stroke, entirely disabling one side, and making me almost speechless. After three days in hospital I nearly recovered the use of my side, also of my voice; but I was kept on board a short time longer, engaged in light duties among the patients.

In the berth next to me was an old man employed in the same way. I once found him in one of the funniest fixes I can ever remember. One day when I was at work in another part of the vessel I lost sight of the old fellow and, upon seeking for him, found that he had actually buried himself. The thing happened in this way: On board, stowed away in one corner, were a number of empty coffins. The day being hot, the old man got into one of these and fell asleep, not knowing that his resting-place had been used to hold pitch. The weather was warm, and the sleeper, when he woke up, found that he had sunk into the remains of the pitch, which still filled about a quarter of the depth of the coffin, and could by no means get out. The coffin had to be knocked to pieces to deliver him, and he received 25 lashes for neglect of duty and idleness.

I only remained in hospital one week and was then returned to the Justitia, where, because of my having suffered from paralysis, and my general good conduct, one of my leg irons was struck off. The feeling of having one leg fettered and the other free was very curious. On one leg was twelve pounds of iron and the other seemed as light as cork, and, do what I would, I could not get them both to act together. I wished over and over again to have my fetters arranged as before, instead of having all the weight on one leg. I actually asked the captain to have this done, but he only laughed at me and told me I should soon get accustomed to the change, as I shortly did.

I want here to particularly mention the Christian treatment of prisoners in England in the hulks as compared with the misery and hardships they had to endure in the colonial depots. The daily practice on board the Justitia was to choose a delegate, as we called him, from each ward, whose duty it was to receive all rations supplied, to inspect them, and refuse all he considered unfit for use, drawing, say, good pork instead of bad beef, or good biscuit instead of bad bread. We were frequently visited by a Church of England clergyman. This good man, before the sailing of any convict ship, would address the various drafts in a way so full of feeling that he often drew tears from his listeners. To the older men he would point out the rewards and blessings of reformation, appealing by sound and earnest counsel to their better feelings, rather than working on their fears. At the same time he did not fail to point out the punishment that would surely follow fresh crimes. To the young he would tell of the many opportunities they would have of securing for themselves the full rights of free citizenship in the land of their forced adoptions, and the chance of their becoming independent by integrity, frugality, industry and perseverance. More than once I heard him say that he hoped those who went across the wide waters would sometimes, whether in prosperity or adversity, have a kindly thought for the old minister who would always have the warmest wishes for their happiness.

Shortly before my turn came to be removed to the transport ship, our kind captain of the Justitia told me that as I had declared my innocence of the crime laid to my charge he had made all inquiries as to the magistrate who had committed me, and as to the captain of the flyboat upon which I had served with the boy who really stole the waistcoat. He had, of course, discovered that the magistrate was, as I have already stated, dead, and that the flyboat man had been executed for the canal murder. The captain of the hulk — whose name I cannot remember now — could therefore find out nothing to help me; but with the greatest kindness he told me he would manage to let me have the choice between Bermuda, Botany Bay, and Hobart Town, in Van Dieman’s Land.He said thought, if I chose Bermuda, I might get a remission of half sentence, the climate was deadly, and he would advise me to go to Van Dieman’s Land, and he would endeavour to make arrangements for me to be kept in Hobart’s Town. I thanked him, and assured him I would be ever grateful for his kindness, of which I was soon to have another proof in the treatment accorded me on the voyage.

I have now arrived in my story at the year 1839, when I was about to say good-bye to the old country, with now knowledge when or how I might again set foot in it. On the arrival of our ship, the Asia ‘5th’ — so called from the voyage on which she was starting being her fifth one to the colonies — we were ranged on the quarter-deck of the hull, and two smiths freed us from our irons, now endured for nine months. The sensation of having the twelve pounds struck off from one leg was exactly the same as that felt on the taking off of the first iron. Our irons being off we were taken by boats in batches to the Asia, there to be guarded by a detachment of the 96th Regiment.

Previous to our removal the doctor of the Asia came on board the hulk, when the captain, following up on his former acts of kindness, pointed me out to him, said that my conduct had been very good, and that he believed there was in me the making of a good man. this was the means of making my life on the long, weary voyage somewhat more comfortable than it otherwise might have been. On being put on board the Asia there were served to each man his cooking, eating, and drinking utensils, with a small keg for water. We were then told off to the bunks, which held four each. Besides these bunks there were some hammocks, and, through the captain of the Justitia having spoken of me to the doctor, I was given a hammock at the bottom of the hatchway, and soon appointed to a billet. A sailor was sent to show me where the water and pumps stood, and my duty was to fill the men’s kegs. Some time after, having made friends with the steward’s assistant, he managed to put a bag of biscuits close to a partition, so that, by putting my arm through a chain hole, I could just reach it. My friend filled up the bag again when it got low, so that I was provided with extra bread throughout the voyage.

After arriving at Portsmouth, and just before starting again, the bumboats came alongside, and those who were lucky enough to have any money were allowed to buy. Very few had anything to spend, but I had been careful to save up the little that I had received while at Woolwich. I had in all eight shillings. Part I spent at Portsmouth, and the rest at Teneriffe.

I WAS TAKEN INTO CUESTY – The story of George Reading

George Reading wrote a letter to his brother Mark, which began “I was Taken into Cuesty and Taken To Gaol and thear I remained …” The letter was in the form of a diary, beginning from the time when he was taken into custody on Saturday 5 February 1841 and continuing until it was posted at “Timones Bay” near the Cape of Good Hope, where he had arrived on Wednesday 29 December on his way as a convict to Van Diemens Land (Tasmania). Mark was my great-great-grandfather.

On Monday 14 February George appeared before the magistrates. His crimes, as reported in the Coventry Standard of 19 February, were that as a letter carrier he had the previous November “stolen from a letter addressed to Miss Masters, dressmaker, High Street, Coventry, two yards of black satin” and also stolen “from a letter sent by Mr Wm Baker, silversmith, of Shrewsbury, to Mr Powell, watchmaker, St John Street … a five pound Bank of England note”. The Coventry Herald and Observer of the same date reported that the black satin “was found by Mr Prosser, Chief Constable, on the 6th of the present month, in a box in Reading’s bedroom”, and that the £5 note “from being paid into the Coventry & Warwickshire Bank … was traced back in the clearest possible manner to the possession of Reading, who obtained change or cash for it from Mr Russel, of the Cranes Inn”. Since in both cases the articles were traced as having been in the possession of the prisoner, he was committed for trial at the Assizes.

At the Coventry City Assizes on 24 March George Reading was found guilty of “Stealing letters being a servant of the Post Office”, and sentenced to transportation for 10 years. His age was recorded as being 44, and his Degree of Instruction as imperfect (Criminal Register, England and Wales 1841, HO 27/65). On Saturday 21 April he was taken from Coventry to a prison hulk at Woolwich, arriving at about half past three in the afternoon, where he says “I was Striped of my Clous and then I was Put into a tub of water and well washed all over and I neaver Saw my Clous after and then I Put on thear dress which was Course brown dress and then I had a hion Put round my leage and that was Fastned on my leage and I weared it day and night and it was Three Pounds and I wared it day and night”.

George was set to work in the dockyard, where he “youst To onload and load Shiping of all sorts of Stors Such as Iron and wood and Copper and Stone and bricks and all kinds of things For work”. Later, he worked on the building of the 120 gun Royal Navy ship Trafalgar, whose figurehead was Nelson, and which he said was “the largest Ever built at woolwich”. George saw the Trafalgar launched on Monday 21 June by queen Victoria, and recorded that “the queen was thear and her attendance and a great many nobles and ladies of all ranks I never Saw So many People togeather in my life”. The Times reported the event at great length the following day, beginning “We do not suppose Woolwich ever witnessed so gay a scene as that by which it was yesterday enlivened”. It was a very hot day, and the launching was at half past two; the Times reported that soon afterwards “the rain which had kept off, as if in expectation of the event, began to descend in torrents”

George lived on the prison hulk Warrior, which held up to 800 prisoners, and was entered as a “Convict labourer” in the 1841 census. The Quarterly return of Prisoners for 1 April to 30 June 1841 (HO 8/68) listed 757 prisoners, including George Reading who was number 962 on the ship’s book. The surgeon’s report showed him to be “Healthy”, and his behaviour during the quarter was reported as being “Good”; the report was signed by Richard Armstrong, Overseer of the Warrior, on 8 July 1841. The Letter Book for the prison hulks Ganymede and Warrior for the period 1837 to 1844 (HO 9/12) reported that George Reding’s character was “Bad”, but this seems to be at variance with George’s own comment that “the hulk that I was in was Veary Clean and Veary holsom and thear was a Veary large Chappel in the Ship … and I youst to go Twis in a week”.

George was taken from Woolwich on Saturday 21 August to Chatham, and put on board the Tortoise on which he would be transported to Van Diemens Land. They sailed firstly to Sheerness and then on to Portsmouth which they reached on Friday 27 August, and where the ship’s surgeon Thos Brownrigg reported in his log book (ADM 101/71/8) that some prisoners had to be transferred to a convict hospital ship, and then on to Plymouth where some prisoners were transferred to the convict ship Stirling Castle. The Tortoise weighed anchor and set out for Van Diemens Land at four o’clock on Sunday 3 October, but George recorded that they “went through the English and Irish Channel Till we Came to the bay of bisey and then the Gentlemen on bord thought it was not Safe and we Came back again”. After making some repairs and transferring more prisoners to the Stirling Castle, they set off again on Tuesday 26 October, again facing bad weather until they were off the coast of Africa.

Life for the four hundred men on the convict ship does not seem to have been too hard. George says that after three days “I had my iron Taken of my leage … and I Veary Glad as it was Veary Great Easment to my mind”. The weather for most of the voyage was very hot, and he wrote that “I do not wear nothing but my Sheart and Trousers and Shues”. Near the equator he wrote that “I heave not Sleap on my bed for 4 weeks and the men Sleep in all directions on the deck … I my Sealf Sleep on the deck with my blanket under me”. The normal sleeping arrangement was in bunks, with four men to one bunk which was seven feet square. To provide fresh air in the crowded quarters there were three air pumps which had to be hand operated day and night. George seems to have had some responsibility for these pumps, and wrote “and I have to look over twenty men to See as thea due thear little work and I never Sile my hands for any thing”

The journey had its interests. George reports having seen porpoises, dolphins, and flying fish, and also wrote that “we have had a howell Come to hus and the Saiolers Caut it and I had it in my hands … and thea killed it and Stuffed it”. However, it also had its dangers, and he reports that “the men Drink a great deal of Vinegar to keep the Scurvy away and I due not drink it my Sealf but I rub my temples with it”. He also wrote how “wone of hour Prisnors died and he was buread in the afternoon and he was buread in the deep”; the ship’s surgeon reported in his log that three prisoners died during the voyage.

George’s letter was posted in South Africa. He said that he “rote to my Poor dear unfortunate wife”, and ends by saying to his brother “and I have sent wone to you all as you may keep it for my sake and God bless you all till you hear from me again”. The family did keep it, but as far as I know he did not write again.

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