Sunday, October 18, 2015

'Mutiny at Woolwich Dockyard' (1802) - attempted escape by hulk prisoners

During the 18th and 19th centuries, many ships no longer fit to sail the seas were converted into floating prisons. In the London area these 'prison hulks' were located in the Thames by Woolwich and Deptford.

This account of an  'Mutiny at Woolwich Dock Yard' (Morning Post, 2 August 1802) describes an attempted escape by prisoners who had been brought ashore from a prison hulk to work: 'for several months... above five hundred men have been employed in erecting a new wall at the back of the Governor's house. For some time, it since appears, they had planned an escape'.

On a Friday morning, 'about a dozen of these desperadoes went up to the keeper, armed with clasp knives, and demanded the key of the inner gate. The keeper refusing to deliver it up, he was knocked down, and the key taken by force from his pocket'. About 'fifteen or sixteen got into the outer yard' but still faced a 26 foot high wall, which only four managed to climb. By this time the keepers were armed, and two of convicts were shot, one killed. 

The army was mobilised from the nearby garrison, and 'the whole military force, about 2000 men, was placed at every avenue leading out of the town. The horse were stationed in Hanging Wood and its environs, and the foot marched instantly to the Dock-yard... After a very strict search of several hours in the Hanging Wood and the town, the whole were found concealed in different places about the Dock-yard. The four supposed to have have escaped into the wood were found by the military concealed under a quantity of timber in the front yard, near the principal entrance from the high road, and one of them refused to leave the place of his concealment until a shoulder ran his bayonet four inches into his shoulder. The offenders were carried to the dungeon and chained down until they receive their punishment'.

(The Hanging Woods covered an area that included what are now Maryon and Maryon Wilson Parks)

Morning Post, 7 August 1802
Conditions aboard the hulks were notorious. Writing in the last days of their use, Henry Mayhew and John Binny ('The Criminal Prisons of London and Scenes of London Life', 1862) devoted a detailed chapter to 'The Hulks at Woolwich':

'The idea of converting old ships into prisons arose when, on the breaking out of the American War of Independence, the transportation of our convicts to our transatlantic possessions became an impossibility. For the moment a good was effected, for the crowded prisons were relieved; but from the time when the pressure upon the prisons ceased, down to the present, when the hulks may be said to be doomed, all writers on penology have agreed in condemning the use of old ships for the purposes of penal discipline...

Some idea of the sanitary condition of these establishments, even so recently as 1841, may be gathered from the report of Mr. Peter Bossy, surgeon of the "WARRIOR" hulk, off Woolwich, which shows that in that year, among 638 convicts on board, there were no less than 400 cases of admission to the hospital, and 38 deaths!There are still officers in the Woolwich hulks who remember a time when the "Justitia"... contained no less than 700 convicts; and when, at night, these men were fastened in their dens - a single warder being left on board ship, in charge of them! 

Even so late as 1849, we find the "Unité", hospital ship at Woolwich, described in the following terms- "In the hospital ship, the 'Unité,' the great majority of the patients were infested with vermin; and their persons, in many instances, particularly their feet, begrimed with dirt. No regular supply of body-linen had been issued; so much so, that many men had been five weeks without a change; and all record had been lost of the time when the blankets had been washed"'.

'A view near Woolwich in Kent showing the employment of the convicts from the Hulks'
(the hulks are the ships without sails in the background, not sure of date of picture)

No comments: