On the Hulk  Justitia at Woolwich[1]

After sentence I was condemned[2], previous to being sent to the hulks, to the treadmill in Stafford Goal. There being no corn to grind and no opposing friction to the weight of the steppers on the wheel, if ever mortal boy walked on the wind I did then. The turns were so rapid that should anyone have missed his footing a broken leg might have been the consequence.

This time came to an end, and orders were received for my being passed on with others to the hulks at Woolwich. Quarters were assigned me on board the Justitia Hulk.[3,4] Before going on board we were stripped to the skin and scrubbed with a hard scrubbing brush, something like a stiff birch broom, and plenty of soft soap, while the hair was clipped from our heads as close as scissors could go. This scrubbing we endured until we looked like boiled lobsters, and the blood was drawn in many places. We were then supplied with new 'magpie' suits -- one side black or blue and the other side yellow.[5] Our next experience was being marched off to the blacksmith, who riveted on our ankles rings of iron connected by eight links to a ring in the center, to which was fastened an up and down strap or cord reaching to the waist-belt. This last supported the links, and kept them from dragging on the ground. Then we had what were called knee garters. A strap passing from them to the basils and buckled in front and behind caused the weight of the irons to traverse on the calf of the leg.

In this rig-out we were transferred to the hulk, where we received our numbers, for no names were used. My number was 5418 -- called 'five four eighteen'. I was placed in the boys' ward[6], top deck No. 24, and as turfman's gang[7] our first business was repairing the butts, a large mound of earth against which the guns were practiced. After completing this we were employed some days at emptying barges, and then at a rocket-shed in the arsenal cleaning shot, and knocking rust scales from shells, filling them with scrap iron, etc., as great preparations were going on for the China war. At other times we would be moving gun carriages or weeding the long lanes between mounted guns. One particular job I had was cleaning 'Long Tom,' a 21-foot gun at the gate. During all this time I was never for a moment without the leg irons, weighing about twelve pounds, and indeed, so used to them had I become that I actually should have missed them had they been removed. Though our work was constant, we did not fare badly as regards victuals. Our mid-day meal often consisted of broth, beef and potatoes, sometimes of bread or biscuit and cheese and half a pint of ale[8]. One custom of the times was that for each prisoner one penny per week was laid aside by the Government, with the object of securing the workers from the disgrace of being simple slaves. This money, any man, on recovering his freedom, could claim by proving to the proper authorities who he was; but it is hardly necessary to say that, for personal reasons, very few cared to go to this trouble.

At intervals the Chatham smack would come alongside and take a batch of the boys from Woolwich for Chatham. Although I was at the boys' ward, I, being bigger and stronger than the others, was worked in the men's gang, thus escaping being sent to Chatham, where the discipline on the hulks was much more severe than at Woolwich. I became boss of the boys' ward and had to see that the regulations were properly carried out. I had to look to general cleanliness, lashing and stowing hammocks, and the victualling department. In all my time on this hulk my conduct was very good, and on only one occasion did I get into the slightest trouble. This happened in this wise: One of the boys, on my reproving him for neglect and carelessness in regard to this hammock, became obstinate and cheeky, and from words we came to blows. Instead of reporting him, I, then and there, lathered him, was complained of to the captain, and ordered to be flogged. With two others I was taken to the place of punishment, where victims were laid across a small cask, their feet and hands being extended to the utmost, to in this position receive, if boys, a certain number of stripes with a birch rod, or, if men, a certain number with the cat. The sight of the effect of the rod on the first boy's skin positively made my flesh creep; but before my turn came both the captain and Twyman[9], the guard of the gang, pleaded so strongly for me because of my general good conduct that I was let off.

On board the Justitia Hulk there were about 400[10] of us, and occasionally the 'Bay ships', or transports, would come up the river to take off drafts from the different hulks. We always knew the transports by the number of soldiers on their decks. The drafts were, of course, for transportation to the various penal colonies.

At the distance of about a mile from our hulk lay the hospital ship, which I only once had the misfortune to visit. While at work one day I was seized with a paralytic stroke, entirely disabling one side, and making me almost speechless. After three days in hospital I nearly recovered the use of my side, also of my voice; but I was kept on board a short time longer, engaged in light duties among the patients.

In the berth next to me was an old man employed in the same way. I once found him in one of the funniest fixes I can ever remember. One day when I was at work in another part of the vessel I lost sight of the old fellow and, upon seeking for him, found that he had actually buried himself. The thing happened in this way: On board, stowed away in one corner, were a number of empty coffins. The day being hot, the old man got into one of these and fell asleep, not knowing that his resting-place had been used to hold pitch. The weather was warm, and the sleeper, when he woke up, found that he had sunk into the remains of the pitch, which still filled about a quarter of the depth of the coffin, and could by no means get out. The coffin had to be knocked to pieces to deliver him, and he received 25 lashes for neglect of duty and idleness.

I only remained in hospital one week and was then returned to the Justitia, where, because of my having suffered from paralysis, and my general good conduct, one of my leg irons was struck off. The feeling of having one leg fettered and the other free was very curious. On one leg was twelve pounds of iron and the other seemed as light as cork, and, do what I would, I could not get them both to act together. I wished over and over again to have my fetters arranged as before, instead of having all the weight on one leg. I actually asked the captain to have this done, but he only laughed at me and told me I should soon get accustomed to the change, as I shortly did.

I want here to particularly mention the Christian treatment of prisoners in England in the hulks as compared with the misery and hardships they had to endure in the colonial depots. The daily practice on board the Justitia was to choose a delegate, as we called him, from each ward, whose duty it was to receive all rations supplied, to inspect them, and refuse all he considered unfit for use, drawing, say, good pork instead of bad beef, or good biscuit instead of bad bread. We were frequently visited by a Church of England clergyman. This good man, before the sailing of any convict ship, would address the various drafts in a way so full of feeling that he often drew tears from his listeners. To the older men he would point out the rewards and blessings of reformation, appealing by sound and earnest counsel to their better feelings, rather than working on their fears. At the same time he did not fail to point out the punishment that would surely follow fresh crimes. To the young he would tell of the many opportunities they would have of securing for themselves the full rights of free citizenship in the land of their forced adoptions, and the chance of their becoming independent by integrity, frugality, industry and perseverance. More than once I heard him say that he hoped those who went across the wide waters would sometimes, whether in prosperity or adversity, have a kindly thought for the old minister who would always have the warmest wishes for their happiness.

Shortly before my turn came to be removed to the transport ship, our kind captain of the Justitia told me that as I had declared my innocence of the crime laid to my charge he had made all inquiries as to the magistrate who had committed me, and as to the captain of the flyboat upon which I had served with the boy who really stole the waistcoat. He had, of course, discovered that the magistrate was, as I have already stated, dead, and that the flyboat man had been executed for the canal murder. The captain of the hulk -- whose name I cannot remember now -- could therefore find out nothing to help me; but with the greatest kindness he told me he would manage to let me have the choice between Bermuda, Botany Bay, and Hobart Town, in Van Dieman's Land.He said thought, if I chose Bermuda, I might get a remission of half sentence, the climate was deadly, and he would advise me to go to Van Dieman's Land, and he would endeavour to make arrangements for me to be kept in Hobart's Town. I thanked him, and assured him I would be ever grateful for his kindness, of which I was soon to have another proof in the treatment accorded me on the voyage.

I have now arrived in my story at the year 1839, when I was about to say good-bye to the old country, with now knowledge when or how I might again set foot in it. On the arrival of our ship, the Asia '5th' -- so called from the voyage on which she was starting being her fifth one to the colonies -- we were ranged on the quarter-deck of the hull, and two smiths freed us from our irons, now endured for nine months. The sensation of having the twelve pounds struck off from one leg was exactly the same as that felt on the taking off of the first iron. Our irons being off we were taken by boats in batches to the Asia, there to be guarded by a detachment of the 96th Regiment.

Previous to our removal the doctor of the Asia came on board the hulk, when the captain, following up on his former acts of kindness, pointed me out to him, said that my conduct had been very good, and that he believed there was in me the making of a good man. this was the means of making my life on the long, weary voyage somewhat more comfortable than it otherwise might have been. On being put on board the Asia there were served to each man his cooking, eating, and drinking utensils, with a small keg for water. We were then told off to the bunks, which held four each. Besides these bunks there were some hammocks, and, through the captain of the Justitia having spoken of me to the doctor, I was given a hammock at the bottom of the hatchway, and soon appointed to a billet. A sailor was sent to show me where the water and pumps stood, and my duty was to fill the men's kegs. Some time after, having made friends with the steward's assistant, he managed to put a bag of biscuits close to a partition, so that, by putting my arm through a chain hole, I could just reach it. My friend filled up the bag again when it got low, so that I was provided with extra bread throughout the voyage.

After arriving at Portsmouth, and just before starting again, the bumboats came alongside, and those who were lucky enough to have any money were allowed to buy. Very few had anything to spend, but I had been careful to save up the little that I had received while at Woolwich. I had in all eight shillings. Part I spent at Portsmouth, and the rest at Teneriffe.

References and Comments:

[1] This is Chapter VIII of the book "Old Convict Days" by William Derricourt (a.k.a.Day) edited by Louis Belke, The New Amsterdam Book Company, New York, 1900. This is a memoire written by Derricourt in later life. It is interesting to see how much detail he recalls of this time in his life.

[2] Derricourt had two or three run-ins with the law after fleeing his apprenticeship. He ultimately was convicted of stealing a waistcoat (which he denies having done -- see text), and sentenced to be transported. Convicts so sentenced were often kept at a local prison until enough were available to arrange  for them to be sent in a group to a hulk. As is seen in this biography, after some time on the hulk, the convicts were then sent to a colony on a transport.

[3] Warships which were no longer suitable for battle service were often converted into hulks. This was done by removing the sails, masts, guns and various other equipment which made the vessel seaworthy and ready for battle, leaving the hull. The gunports might be sealed shut. Such hulks were used by Navy for such purposes as hospitals, schools and quarters for sailors. They also were used by the government as prisons. They were so used for prisoners of war during the Napoleonic wars and down to modern times. Starting at least as early as the 1700's they were also used for political and criminal prisoners. For example, after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, many Scots were imprisoned in hulks prior to transportation to America. Depending on the number of prisoners on board, the treatment they were given and the way they behaved such hulks could be very unhealthy and/or smelly.

[4] The Justitia . . .It would have been moored, off-shore (there were no piers at that time), and likely the gunports facing land would have been sealed. Justitia was one of four hulks moored at Woolwich in 1838-9 according to Dada Adler in "The Medway Convict Hulks", Chatham Dockyard Historical Society, 1994. (The Medway is the river at Chatham). By 1847 there were just two hulks left at Woolwich, the Justitia and the Warrior.

[5] The hard scrubbing, hair trimming and new clothing were intended to minimize the risk of disease being brought on board. The newly arrived criminals would not necessarily have received any prior sanitary treatment and would be wearing the clothing in which they had been convicted (unless supplied with alternate clothing by friends). They could easily be infected with lice and diseases. The close proximity of life on the ship made disease something to be particularly feared on board. The 'magpie' suits had the additional advantage of making it difficult for an escaped prisoner to avoid detection, once at large.

[6] The segregation of boys, or there inclusion in the same wards as older convicts was a subject of considerable discussion amongst those who were trying to have convicts 'rehabilitated' for a return to society and those who considered convicts unredeemable. In 1838, as a result of this discussion, Parkhurst Prison had been created as a reformatory for boys. Not all boys were sent there and not all ships segregated children (some as young as 7 years of age) from older criminals. In this regard the Justitia seems to have been the exception rather than the rule.

[7] The criminals on hulks were used as a labour force for government works and consequently the hulks were located at such places as Woolwich, Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth were extensive fortifications were constructed during the 19th century. Derricourt was part of a group that were involved in groundskeeper type duties and also in ammunition manufacture at the Armories in Woolwich. Woolwich was part of the military fortifications that were created after the attack on London, by the Dutch, during the mid 1600's.

[8] The food and payments described by Derricourt was fairly lavish by the standards of the time -- so much so that there was considerable backlash from the public about how well criminals were being treated (echoed in our own time by complaints of television sets in prison cells)

[9] It is interesting to note that Derricourt remembers the name of his guard but not of the captain who he indicates did so much for him.

[10] While 400 persons on a hulk might seem crowded to us, this was probably about the number of sailors that would have been on the ship when she was sailing.

ŠKenneth Scott and others

last modified 27 October 2001