Wednesday 16 September 2009

Deptford, transportation and the hulks

From the seventeenth century, Britain punished large numbers of criminals by sentencing them to transportation. The Transportation Act of 1718 formalised this practice, and it was seen as a good alternative to hanging since long prison sentences had not yet become part of the penal system.

Transportees would be sent to a colony to work, and would have to stay there for a set period - usually between seven years and life. However, with no return ticket, they often had little choice but to stay even after their sentence was complete. As for anyone tempted to return early, they faced the death penalty if caught.

When we think of transportation, Australia usually springs to mind. However, until the Revolutionary War in 1775, the plantations of America were the favoured destination. Some of these convicts departed from Deptford, as the following snippet from a newspaper of 1732 illustrates:
Mr Forward's Ship the Caesar is now taking in her Cargo of Felons at Deptford, in order to carry them to the Plantations in America, she being speedily to sail for that Part of the World.
Deptford would continue to play a part in this penal process after 1775, when transportation stopped for a decade and convicts were instead confined to hulks (old ships with their rigging removed) in the Thames here. The hulks did not disappear, however, when transportation to Australia resumed. Instead, they continued to serve as overflow prisons and as temporary accommodation for those awaiting transportation. Indeed, they were used for eighty years despite growing protests at their appalling conditions: insanitary and overcrowded, they held prisoners who were chained up at night and forced to work on the river and docks (often still chained) during the day. Under such conditions, diseases including typhus and dysentry spread rapidly and mortality rates on the hulks could be as high as 30%.

The hulks were finally abolished in 1857. They are one aspect of the river's heritage which no one can have been sorry to lose.

Image: Deptford hulks shown in the Grand Panorama of London from the Thames, published by the Pictorial Times in 1844. (Click to enlarge)


Minnie said...

How interesting to have facts and figures on these events. I remember reading that most of the survivors of the Monmouth Rebellion (1685) were deported to the plantations in the West Indies (the infamous Chief Justice Jeffreys had about 300 rebels executed, if memory serves): that would be about 1,000 in toto. And the hulks were also used to house French military prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars.

CarolineLD said...

Ah yes, I used to live near the site of the Battle of Sedgemoor where the rebellion was finally defeated. The local church porch had marks allegedly made by rebels sharpening their pitchforks.