During the late 18th and early 19th centuries there were few penal sanctions authorized by England’s criminal code. Fines, military service, floggings, penal servitude, transportation and death were the tariffs available but by the end of the 1700s more than 200 offences were regarded as capital crimes punishable by death.

Society’s attitudes towards the use of the death sentence began changing, however. As more and more sentences were commuted to transportation or imprisonment, the need for gaols increased to hold prisoners waiting for transport. Then came a series of wars resulting in over 200,000 prisoners of war being detained in depots and prison hulks between 1793 – 1815.

Discovery prison hulk Deptford

In particular, loss of the American colonies caused a crisis in finding places of confinement. Big city prisons and local village lock-ups proved inadequate to meet the needs of a country that would soon embark on other wars across the Channel.

The first civilian prison hulks were moored at Portsmouth and at Woolwich Warren on the Thames. The hulks were designed to be more than a place of detention. Stories about the terrible conditions circulated in newspaper accounts and broadsheets. Every so often stories appeared that offering a moral lesson and warning to would-be offenders.

Warrior prison hulk, Woolwich

In this story from The Kentish Gazette dated Tuesday 11 April, 1843 we hear about the tragic circumstances of a minister of the church, the Revd. Dr Bailey who might well have considered himself lucky. He was found guilty of ‘a most aggravated forgery’ a crime that carried the death sentence.

The story is interesting on a number of levels: It provides a strong first impression of the layout and conditions on board the hulk; there is surprise and concern on discovering the identity of the Revd. Dr Bailey who was known to the visitor; and we have a concluding moral lesson to consider.

The divine fall from grace

The article opens by informing readers that few subjects are less comprehended and understood by the public than the treatment of convicts held on the receiving ships prior to their “final expatriation”.

The writer goes on to say that it is “generally supposed that those convicts who have moved in superior stations, and whose offences are not marked by sanguinary turpitude are permitted to loiter in idleness during the time the vessel lies in the river. However, those conversant with the “secrets of the prison house” are aware that they are doomed to labor in some or other of the ordnance departments daily, until the anchor of the vessel is weighed which is to convey them to our antipodes.”

Readers are then introduced to a prison hulk tourist, an intelligent gentleman who lately went to behold the “sights” of a hulk at Woolwich. It is his experience we are about to hear.

The sight-seer wrote a graphic account about his encounter with a fallen divine – the Revd. Dr Bailey which “corroborates the Scriptural declaration that the way of transgressors is hard”.

The anonymous tourist saw many “wonders” which astonished him in the Woolwich dockyard after which he is ushered into the convict department:

“Having passed through the vast apartments filled with stores I entered the enclosure in which the prison is found. Here, one of the floating castles which once carried British sailors over the ocean to fight the battles of their country was seen converted into a lodging-house for 500 convicts.”

He notices some small cottage-style buildings within a fenced area. The first of them is the dead house where convicts are taken preparatory to interment. An adjoining building stores hammocks and bed-clothing.

It was in this store that one of the convicts is directed to open a blanket for the visitor to inspect.

“The prisoner seemed disposed to obey with an air of alacrity. He spread the flannel wide, so as to display the stripes introduced as a distinguishing mark, instead of the broad arrow of the crown.

“The prisoner was attired in the dark brown clothing and long oval hat, worn by the convicts. His jacket seemed to be quite a new one. His countenance, though not remarkably prepossessing, was intelligent. He was a man of small size, and without exhibiting hardihood, preserved an air of serenity and smiling resignation.  Once or twice his lips quivered as if he were doubtful whether a reply was not essential to one or two of the brief speeches addressed to him – but answer made he none.”

hulk prisoners

 Once away and out of ear-shot of the prisoner, the prison-hulk visitor asks the nature of the man’s crime.

“A most aggravated forgery, one that would formerly have been visited with death. It was viewed the more seriously, from the education of the man and the high and enviable position which he held.’ the visitor is told.

The tourist asks who he is. “Dr Bailey.”

“Can that really be Dr. Bailey,” exclaims the visitor. “Yes, the unhappy being wearing a convict’s sombre dress, the fetter on his left ankle, I had seen him who as a distinguished minister of religion had formerly warned from the pulpit against the temptations of life! Yet he, unhappily yielding to their seductive power, was now reduced to sigh –

“Ye cheating vanities, Where are ye now and what is your amount? – Vexation, disappointment, and remorse.”

 A few days later, this fallen divine would leave England, forever. He had written to his wife to visit him, but it is doubtful whether she arrived in time.


Benjamin Waterhouse, Prisoner of the British: Journal of a Prisoner of War in the War of 1812

British Newspaper Archives, Kentish Gazette, various dates.

Alan Armstrong, Economy  of Kent, 1640-1914

Frances Abell, ‘Prisoners of War in Britain 1756 to 1815′ Publisher Humphrey Millford, Oxford University Press. 1914.