In 1776 Parliament authorized the use of old ships as prisons for a temporary period of two years. The first hulks, with their masts were cut off, were anchored close together along the banks of the Thames at Woolwich where convict labour was needed in the development of the docks and in the protection of the riverbank from erosion.
During the day, the convicts were ferried out to work on hard labour, ten hours a day in summer, seven in winter. At night they were chained to their bunks to prevent them from escaping ashore.
Conditions in prisons might have been bad, but the hulks were worse. Large numbers of prisoners died because of the insanitary conditions and the use of water for all purposes from the polluted Thames.
HULKS FOR CHILDREN
336 boys were incarcerated on board, most of them between the ages of 12 and 15 years. However, nineteen boys were aged 11 years, twelve were aged 10 years, five were aged 9 years and two were aged just 8 years.
Twelve boys were transported to New South Wales from this hulk during this Quarter, ten of them aged between 11 & 14 years.
One lad, aged 13, died.
The grim conditions of the hulks were not just reserved for adult males. They were also used for children.
That is the sentence 11 year old John Fitzgerald received. His conduct record shows him as being good and attentive to his trade.
A life sentence for stealing a handkerchief from a person.
EURYALUS HULK, CHATHAM
QUARTER RETURN DECEMBER 1827
HMS York was converted to a convict hulk in 1819 and moored at London and Gosport.
In 1848 a rebellion broke out amongst the prisoners in protest against the terrible conditions on board.
The ringleaders of the revolt were taken to a land prison and soon after the ship was taken out of service.
Despite the fact that the hulks were meant to be for temporary use for two years they were to last eighty-two and were eventually established in many places, such as Chatham, Deptford, Portsmouth Harbour, Gosport, Plymouth, Sheerness, Ireland, Gibraltar, Bermuda and Australia.
THE HULK, DISCOVERY
The Discovery had rather more illustrious beginnings than during her later years.
She was commanded by Captain George Vancouver on his expedition to the northwest coast of America from 1791 to 1795 and was later converted to a bomb ship, part of a convoy under Admiral Nelson in 1801.
In 1808 she was reduced to a convict hulk at Sheerness where she remained for 10 years, then for 15 years at Woolwich before being finally broken up at Deptford in 1834.