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Written by Tracy W
(9/3/2005 10:19 p.m.)
in consequence of the missive, Questions about prison ships, penned by Line
You ask about why prison ships existed - it was due to overflow for land-based prisons. Prisoners were transported to Australia due to the overflow problem, but the ships came first. Hulks - ships too old for sailing, were anchored in the Thames or like places and used as prisons. Very few people could swim in those days so they were quite effective security-wise. All the ones I heard about were civilian ships, but there may have been some military prisons as well (though every case of navy justice I have heard about consisted of either whippings or hangings, rather than imprisonment).
By all accounts I have read they were very unpleasant places, but that is all from the prisoners' point of view. Prisoners might be kept in irons until they could pay money to have them removed. Prisoners were filthy - one convict who was an Oxford graduate wrote of waiting for transportation and noticing some of his friends from Oxford looking at the prisoners and being scared that they would recognise him, but they looked over him without a flicker of recognition, his condition was so altered. Judging by the old and replica ships I have seen they would have been quite uncomfortable to live on from a wife's point of view too - they were quite cramped even in the officers' quarters.
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