During the 17th and 18th centuries, and into the 19th, the British used former seagoing vessels as prisons for convict and prisoners of war. They were made unusable by removing rigging, masts, and rudders, reconfigured with jail cells, and moored.
Prison hulks provided a quick solution to the need for more prison space when land capacity was overstretched. During the Napoleonic wars, Britain faced the need to accommodate more than a hundred thousand prisoners at a time: French, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Greek, Croat, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Polish and American.
Officers signed a parole document promising not to escape, and were assigned a place to stay. Ordinary soldiers and seamen were imprisoned, and there just were not enough prisons. The prison hulks were one of the answers.
In 1806, twenty hulks were in use, the larger ones capable of containing 1200 men. By 1814, the number had climbed to fifty-one. The hulks were moored in groups in naval harbours, including Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth.
The British blamed Napoleon for the huge number of prisons. He, they said, changed the rules. He would not exchange prisoners; he detained civilians; he ordered returning officers to break the parole that was a condition of their return; and he would not allow invalids to go home. Furthermore, he refused to pay an allowance for the upkeep of each French prisoner in Britain. How uncivilised!
In fact, according to historian Gavin Daly, these practices of the old European aristocracy had been swept away by the French Revolution. Napoleon was not the instigator of change but the product of it. And the British were slow to react. The hulks were an ad hoc response to an unexpected situation.
During and after the war, the French decried the prison hulks for lack of food, overcrowding, the brutality of the guards, and exposure to disease. They spoke of horrendous mortality rates, and survivors who were nearly all disabled by their experiences. “Imagine a generation of the dead coming forth from their graves…and still you have no more than a feeble…idea of how my companions in misfortune appeared,” Louis Garneray wrote in The Floating Prison, the story of his nine years of captivity at Portsmouth.
This French perspective has dominated the historical narrative since Waterloo, but recent historians have questioned whether it might, in some particulars, be exaggerated.
The hulks were not palaces. They were overcrowded, and disease thrives in overcrowded situations. The average death rate was 3 to 4%, worse than most land-based prisons but slightly better than Dartmoor. But nothing like the death rate among ordinary criminals, which could be more than 20% on the hulks set aside for them.
(I tried to find a death rate for ordinary British soldiers in French prisons for comparison purposes, but the only estimates I found were in the counterpart overblown propoganda written by the British during and after the war. The only thing I can say for sure is that prisons weren’t nice places in either country, but it was better to be an English prisoner in France than a Spanish one.)
Back to the hulks. The competition for the role of commander of a hulk, evidenced by the waiting list for each commander position, hints at the opportunity for self-enrichment. Some sources claim that commanders or their officers regularly stole from the supplies, selling them for a profit and leaving the prisoners to go hungry and poorly clothed.
At the time, those in charge of the system countered such charges by claiming that the bored prisoners spent their time gambling, and those who went without were unsuccessful gamblers.
Historian Patricia Crimmins describes the food:
The prison diet was monotonous and dietetically unbalanced, but it compared favourably with that of civil prisoners in British jails and not unfavourably with the fare of British seamen. Prisoners had a quart (two pints) of beer, one and one-half pounds of bread and one-third of an ounce of salt daily; three-quarters of a pound of fresh beef on six days; half a pint of dried peas on four days; four ounces of butter or six ounces of cheese on Friday; but no fresh fruit or vegetables or wine except to the sick. British sailors had a pound of biscuit per day; and four pounds of beef, two pounds of pork, two pounds of peas, one and one-half pounds of oatmeal, six ounces each of sugar and butter, and twelve ounces of cheese per week, plus a gallon of beer and half a pint of rum per day.
Crimmins also writes of prisoners who obtained their release by volunteering to serve in the navy, and who found conditions so bad they petitioned to be returned to the hulks!