Incredible Hulks: The Fearsome Prison Ships of the Former British Empire

(Image: author unknown, public domain)

Known as prison ships or “prison hulks”, these decomissioned vessels were used by Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries to house prisoners of war and those awaiting transportation to penal colonies. Rife with death, disease and despair, prison ships reflect a less-than-proud corner of Britain’s impressive maritime history. Moreover, some converted hulks were among the Royal Navy’s most celebrated vessels, from veterans of Trafalgar to the ship that took George Vancouver to the west coast of North America (HMS Discovery, above; below: HMS York).

(Image: Edward William Cooke, public domain)

History and use during the American War of Independence

Wikipedia maintains a full list of Britain’s prison hulks, many of which were moored in colonies from Gibraltar and Antigua to Bermuda and the United States. Due to their atrocious conditions, more Americans died aboard British prison ships through deliberate neglect than in every battle of the American War of Independence combined.

One decomissioned hulk, present at the Battle of Lagos in 1759, was HMS Jersey. Inmate Christopher Vail, of Southold, NY, 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… in the same manner as tho’ they were beasts. They were carried on shore in heaps… then… carried to the edge of the bank, where a hole was dug one or two feet deep and all hove in together.”

(Images: David Wyatt, cc-sa-3.0; John D. Hume, cc-sa-3.0)

So infamous were the prison ships that monuments to those who suffered and died in horrific circumstances below their decks have been erected on both sides of the Atlantic.  The above image shows the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument at Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, and the Covenanters’ Memorial at Deerness, Orkney.

Napoleonic Wars

(Images: Sir Charles Locke Eastlake, public domain; John James Chalon, public domain)

Prison ships were moored at various British ports, including Woolwich, Deptford, Portsmouth and Chatham. Many were former warships, such as the man-of-war HMS Bellerophon, on whose deck Napoleon Bonaparte surrendered to Captain Frederick Maitland in 1815.  A veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar, Bellerophon was renamed HMS Captivity in 1824. Maritime historians estimate that some 12,845 French prisoners died on British hulks between 1803 and 1814 due to a combination of neglect, starvation and disease.  (Below: HMS Warrior.)

(Image: author unknown, public domain)

The Fighting Temeraire

Arguably one of Britain’s most famous vessels to end up a prison hulk was HMS Temeraire, a 98-gun second-rate ship of the line and subject of J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting The Fighting Temeraire. The work symbolises the end of an era as the distinguished warship and veteran of Trafalgar is towed to the breakers yard by a steam-powered tug.

(Image: J.M.W. Turner via The National Gallery, public domain)

The ghostly appearance of Temeraire contrasts with the industrial bleakness of the tugboat. But in reality the masts and rigging that rise in stately splendour had been removed when the ship became a prison hulk at Chatham Dockyard. Employing artistic license, Turner created a painting beloved by the British people that symbolised the passing of an epoch in maritime history, while steering us away from the less glorious aspects of HMS Temeraire’s past.

New South Wales and later uses

(Images: via Longhair, public domain; UK Government, public domain)

In addition to prison hulks (like HMS Success, above), decommissioned vessels were also used as juvenile detention facilities in New South Wales, Australia. Meanwhile, more modern prison ships survived into the 20th century, including cruise liners in Portsmouth Harbour during World War One. Suspected Northern Irish paramilitaries were held on former depot ship HMS Maidstone (above right) during the 1970s, and the UK established a new prison ship – HMS Weare – in 1997 to temporarily ease overcrowding in conventional prisons.


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