THE HULK MASTERS
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For his opening scene in Great Expectations, Dickens created a lonely little churchyard on the edge of a great, ghostly marsh. Readers of Dickens will recall young Pip's harrowing encounter there with an escaped convict. It was "on a memorable raw afternoon toward evening." The escapee, "startled up from among the graves . . . was a fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg." He snarled at Pip, "Keep still you little devil or I'll cut your throat." But while successfully terrorizing the child Pip into doing his bidding, it was the convict, Magwitch, who was most beset by terror, as well as an obsession for vengeance toward another escapee who was skulking on the marshes that night.
After capture of the two convicts, Dickens has young Pip see by the light of the search party's torches "the black Hulk lying out a little way from the mud of the shore, like a wicked Noah's ark, cribbed and barred and moored by massive rusty chains, the prison ship seemed to [Pip's] young eyes to be ironed like the prisoners." Regrettably, we are denied a Dickensian description of conditions aboard the hulk from which Magwitch and his hated cohort escaped, nor is the ship identified. According to Dickens' biographers, the little churchyard in this unforgettable scene was inspired by the churchyard at Cooling, a remote Kentish hamlet that lies between the Medway and the Thames, a region known since antiquity as the Hundred of Hoo. Prison hulks were never stationed in that vicinity, however, and Cooling is not close to waters that would have provided a suitable hulk anchorage. Except for his wanting Pip's village to be "as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea," it would have well suited the novelist's purposes to situate the churchyard on the northern fringe of the Essex marshes that lay along the Thames, across from the town of Woolwich, a place where there were hulks as well as desolate marshlands.
If Pip was ten at the time of his encounter with the convict, a reasonable conjecture is that the year was 1841, a time when more than three thousand civilian prisoners were confined aboard nine hulks anchored in English waters, and three others in Bermuda. The English hulk stations were at Portsmouth, Deptford and off the Royal Arsenal docks at Woolwich.
Magwitch and the other convict would have escaped from the Warrior or the dilapidated old Justitia, unofficial flagship of the hulk fleet. Normally both ships would have been anchored off the south shore but either might have been towed by longboats to the Essex side, to be closer to a dredging task, or perhaps for reasons of sanitation. Or the hulk might have been stationed temporarily on the north side of the Thames because of unrest and escape plotting among the convicts. Escapes to the more populous Woolwich waterfront were more common than to the north shore. There was fear of the Essex marshes, long thought to be the source of pestilence and mysterious death.
In 1775 the War of American Independence ended Great Britain's century-and-a-half-old practice of regularly transporting criminal offenders to the North American colonies. William Eden, the Home Office secretary to whose lot it fell to deal with the resulting crisis, estimated that alternative accommodations would be needed each year for about a thousand convicts, far more than could be crammed into the already overcrowded gaols and bridewells of England. A decision was taken to retain in English waters certain of the ships engaged in the convict transportation, and to utilize them there as places of confinement. The arrangement was viewed as a temporary expedient, and thus it was first authorized by Parliament for only two years. It was an arrangement that had no defenders. Conservatives condemned it because of the likelihood of its exacerbating the criminality of offenders. Liberals agreed and furthermore deplored its inhumanity. But in spite of these constantly renewed expressions of chagrin from all quarters, it was an arrangement that endured for eighty years.
The Essex marshes have long since been enveloped by the metropolis, but before this century they lay desolate and foreboding along the north shore of the Thames. The Woolwich Warren was a labyrinth of workshops, warehouses, barracks, foundries, firing ranges and mountainous stacks of oak, teak and pine, spread along the Woolwich shore across the river from the marshes. A few miles upstream lay the Tower Hamlets, and the worst of London's 18th and 19th century slums. The Warren had been the site of naval ship building since about 1500. The Royal Arsenal was not officially established there until 1805, but the Warren had been the home of a bustling military arms works for more than a century before that time. An adequate river harbor was essential to the projects that were carried forward on Woolwich Warren.
In about 1775 it became apparent that major dredging needed to be done in order to overcome a drift of the channel toward the center of the river. Labor for this project, as well as for the development of the arsenal and arsenal docks, was provided by convicts housed aboard the Censor and the Justitia (an earlier Justitia than the ship we have assigned to Dickens' story.) These were the first of the English prison hulks, discounting several months confinement of convicts aboard two naval vessels in 1775 and brief initial use of the merchantman, Tayloe.
During the early decades of the hulk establishment, England was engaged in the Napoleonic conflicts, as well as protracted military action in North America. Indefinite custody was needed for several thousand prisoners-of-war. For this purpose, perhaps forty ships of the British Navy were converted for use as prison hulks. One was established at Gibraltar, others at Bermuda, at Antiqua, and off Brooklyn in Wallabout Bay. In view of the well-documented difficulties associated with shipboard confinement under the most favorable of circumstances, together with the British Navy's then-draconian approach to shipboard discipline, credence can be given to reports describing conditions of confinement aboard the prisoner-of-war hulks as worse than appalling.
Conditions aboard the civilian hulks, some of them no more than a half-day's carriage ride from Parliamentary scrutiny, were exceedingly bad, but perhaps less egregious than those that prevailed on the Navy's prison ships. The record concerning the civilian hulks, in fact, might not be quite the chronicle of unrelieved horror as has come to be assumed. The pages that follow will shed some light on this proposition.
No attempt will be made here to deal with the Navy's prisoner-of-war hulks. They deserve a separate examination. The author's interest is in the background of English and American criminal justice practices. This book will limit itself to a recounting of Great Britain's experience with the use of the hulks for civilian prisoners, from the time of their establishment until the Defense hulk burned off Woolwich Warren in 1857, bringing this unhappy epoch to a close.