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A prison ship, historically sometimes called the prison hulk, is a vessel used as a prison, often to hold convicts awaiting transportation to penal colonies. This practice was popular with the British government in the 18th and 19th centuries.


The vessels were a common form of internment in Britain and elsewhere in the 18th and 19th centuries. Charles F. Campbell writes that around 40 ships of the British Navy were converted for use as prison hulks.. Other hulks included HMS Warrior, which became a prison ship at Woolwichmarker in February 1840, One was established at Gibraltarmarker, others at Bermudamarker, at Antiguamarker, off Brooklynmarker in Wallabout Bay, and at Sheernessmarker. Other hulks were anchored off Woolwichmarker, Portsmouthmarker, Chathammarker, Deptfordmarker, and Plymouthmarker.Private companies owned and operated the hulks holding prisoners bound for penal transportation.

British Use During the American War of Independence

During the American War of Independence, more Americans died as prisoners of war on British prison ships through intentional neglect than died in every battle of the war combined. During the war, 11,500 men and women died due to overcrowding, contaminated water, starvation, and disease on prison ships anchored in the East Rivermarker; the bodies of those who died were hastily buried along the shore. This is now commemorated by the "Prison Ship Martyrs Monument" in Fort Greene Parkmarker in New York Citymarker. One such British ship during the War of Independence was the HMS Jersey.

Christopher Vail, of Southold, who was aboard Jersey in 1781, later wrote:
'When a man died he was carried up on the forecastle and laid there until the next morning at 8 o'clock when they were all lowered down the ship sides by a rope round them in the same manner as tho' they were beasts. There was 8 died of a day while I was there. They were carried on shore in heaps and hove out the boat on the wharf, then taken across a hand barrow, carried to the edge of the bank, where a hole was dug 1 or 2 feet deep and all hove in together.'

In 1778, Robert Sheffield of Stonington, Connecticutmarker, escaped from one of the prison ships, and told his story in the Connecticut Gazette, printed July 10, 1778. He was one of 350 prisoners held in a compartment below the decks.
"The heat was so intense that (the hot sun shining all day on deck) they were all naked, which also served the well to get rid of vermin, but the sick were eaten up alive. Their sickly countenances, and ghastly looks were truly horrible; some swearing and blaspheming; others crying, praying, and wringing their hands; and stalking about like ghosts; others delirious, raving and storming,--all panting for breath; some dead, and corrupting. The air was so foul that at times a lamp could not be kept burning, by reason of which the bodies were not missed until they had been dead ten days."

British Use in Napoleonic Wars

A typical British hulk, the former man-of-war HMS Bellerophon, was decommissioned after the Battle of Trafalgarmarker and became a prison ship in October 1815. Anchored off Sheernessmarker in England, and renamed HMS Captivity on 5 October 1824, she usually held about 480 convicts in woeful conditions and HMS Discovery, which became a prison hulk in 1818 at Deptfordmarker. Another famous prison ship was the HMS Temeraire which served from 1812–1815.

British Use in Australia

New South Wales

In New South Wales, hulks were also used as juvenile correctional centers. Vernon (1867–1892) and Sobraon (1892–1911) - the latter officially a "nautical school ship" - were anchored in Sydney Harbor. The commander of the two ships, Frederick Neitenstein (1850–1921), introduced a system of "discipline, surveillance, physical drill and a system of grading and marks. He aimed at creating a 'moral earthquake' in each new boy. Every new admission was placed in the lowest grade and, through hard work and obedience, gradually won a restricted number of privileges."

List of decommissioned prison hulks of the British Empire

Nazi Germany

Nazi Germany assembled a small fleet of ships in the Bay of Lubeckmarker to hold concentration camp bound prisoners. These consisted of the passenger liners Cap Arcona and the SS Deutschland, and the vessels Thielbek and Athen. All were sunk by British aircraft, killing all but a few prisoners aboard.

Modern uses

Military regime in Chile

Reports from Amnesty International, the US Senate and Chilean Truth and Reconciliation Commission describe Esmeralda as a kind of a floating jail and torture chamber for political prisoners of the Augusto Pinochet regime from 1973 to 1980. It is claimed that probably over a hundred persons were kept there at times and subjected to hideous treatment. , among them the British priest Miguel Woodward.


Venicemarker uses boats to ferry convicted criminals around the city.

United Kingdom

HMS Maidstone was used as a prison ship in Northern Irelandmarker in the 1970s for suspected Nationalist guerrillas and non-combatant activist supporters held without trial. The current president of the Nationalist political party Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams, spent time on the Maidstone in 1972. He was released in order to take part in peace talks.

In 1997, the United Kingdom Government established a new prison ship, HMP Weare, as a temporary measure to ease prison overcrowding. Weare was docked at the disused Royal Navy dockyard at Portlandmarker, Dorsetmarker. On 9 March 2005 it was announced that the Weare was to close. Since then, the government has advertised for a contractor to supply 800 prison ship spaces to alleviate overcrowding.

The Weare is an example of an innovative solution to the problem of providing the right type of accommodation in the right location at the right time.
The Weare was used as a floating barracks during the Falklands war, and was subsequently purchased by the new york department of Corrections for use as a rehabilitation centre for those involved in drug crime. The Weare is a flat bottomed barge, and its superstructure consist of steel containers stacked on top of one another provide five level of category C accommodation . It arrived in Portland Harbour on 13 March 1997, But there was no planning permission . The application had been rejected at the beginning of february mainly on the grounds that it would be a blight to tourism.

United States

In the United States, the Vernon C.marker Bain Correctional Centermarker is a prison barge operated by the New York City Department of Correction as an adjunct facility to Rikers Islandmarker. However, it was built for this purpose rather than repurposed.

In June 2008 The Guardian printed claims by Reprieve that the US military is holding people arrested in the War on Terrorism on active navy ships, including the USS Bataan and USS Peleliu, although this was denied by the US Navy.

Other types

Around the Mediterraneanmarker, convicts and prisoners-of-war were used as oarsmen on galleys as late as the 19th century.

In literature

Charles Dickens' novel Great Expectations opens in 1812 with the escape of the convict Abel Magwitch from a hulk moored in the Thames Estuarymarker. In fact, the prison ships were largely moored in the neighboring River Medway, but Dickens combined real elements to create fictional locations for his work.

In the early stages of Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables, Jean Valjean is a convict on the galleys at Toulonmarker in Francemarker.

French artist and author Ambroise Louis Garneray depicted his life on a prison hulk at Portsmouth in the memoir Mes Pontons.

See also


  1. Colledge, p. 109
  2. Colledge, p. 331
  3. Colledge, p. 375
  4. Brad William, The archaeological potential of colonial prison hulks: The Tasmanian case study
  5. Colledge, p. 51
  6. Prison hulks on the Thames
  7. Australian Dictionary of Biography, Neitenstein, Frederick William (1850–1921)
  8. Niegan libertad en crimen de sacerdote en la Esmeralda, La Nacion, 3 May 2008

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