[Prison hulk loading], Samuel Atkins, 1787–1808, watercolour. Rex Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia: an5601463
In the 21st century we are accustomed to thinking of imprisonment as one of the more obvious forms of punishment for convicted criminals.
This was not so in the past.
The industrial revolution, social change and war caused great changes in the lives of British people in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Extreme poverty was a fact of life for many, and desperate people resorted to crimes such as theft, robbery and forgery in order to survive.
If caught and convicted, they faced a harsh and complicated criminal code.
Imprisonment was only one of a range of sentences that judges could inflict and, with no national prison system and few purpose-built prisons, it was often not their first choice.
Instead, most criminal offences were punishable by death, public humiliation in the form of branding, whipping, hair cutting, the stocks or the pillory, the imposition of a fine, or transportation overseas.
British authorities had used the transportation of criminals overseas as a form of punishment since the early 17th century, particularly to provide labour in the American colonies.
The American War of Independence (1775–1783) put an end to this human export.
Convicts sentenced to transportation were sent instead to hulks, old or unseaworthy ships, generally ex-naval vessels, moored in rivers and harbours close enough to land for the inmates to be taken ashore to work.
Although originally introduced as a temporary measure the hulks quickly became a cost-efficient, essential and integral part of the British prison system.
Prison-ship in Portsmouth Harbour, convicts going aboard, Edward William Cooke, 1828, hand-coloured etching. Rex Nan Kivell Collection, National Library of Australia:
Once tried and sentenced convicts were sent to a receiving hulk for four to six days, where they were washed, inspected and issued with clothing, blankets, mess mugs and plates.
They were then sent to a convict hulk, assigned to a mess and allocated to a work gang.
From 1776 to 1802 all English hulks were operated by private individuals such as the shipowners Duncan Campbell and James Bradley, under contract to the British government.
These included the Justitia, Censor, Ceres and Stanislaus on the River Thames at Woolwich, the Chatham and Dunkirk at Plymouth, the Lion at Gosport and La Fortunee at Langstone Harbour near Portsmouth.