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The British government deactivated the last of these doleful floating dungeons in the mid part of the 19th century. More than a hundred years passed before appearance of a fully documented book-length account of this ignominious episode in British social history. The Intolerable Hulks is the book that answered that need.

Poverty, which plagued England during the eighteenth Century, resulted in rampart crime. For almost a century the British Government had relied on a policy of shipping hundreds of convicted criminals each year to the North American colonies. "Out of sight, out of mind" was an apt adage for this policy. The system worked, after a fashion, until 1776 when the rebellious American colonies chose to no longer serve as a dumping ground for British convicts. Once again England had an excess of convicted "criminals," (many of them driven by hunger and desperation to committing minor offences.) What was to be done with the multitudes of unfortunate people continuing to be sentenced to transportation in the criminal courts of Great Britain?

The Intolerable Hulks provides a vivid, meticulously documented account of Great Britain's approach to solving the problem- by conversion of old merchantmen and deactivated naval vessels into prisons. These deplorable dungeons-at-anchor in the waters of southern England came to be known late in the eighteenth century as "the Hulks." They were first viewed as a "temporary expedient" but events and circumstances (including the apathy of the British government) resulted in the wretched old vessels' being used as prisons for eighty years.

Hardly less feared by the British criminal class than were the gallows, confinement on the hulks became a dreaded purgatory to be endured for months- sometimes years- by prisoners destined for eventual transport to Australia. The island continent was ripe for a melancholy sort of colonization by those people no longer wanted at home.