Sentencing to Departure - Prison Hulks & Convict Gaols
The sentence of transportation was usually carried out in three parts. Prisoners started their sentence in the local gaol, followed by a period in a convict gaol or on the prison hulks before finally being transported.
It was normal for prisoners under sentence of transportation to spend the first part of their sentence in the prison where they had awaited trial, usually in solitary confinement. They stayed there until the secretary of state ordered their removal to a convict facility.
Prisoners arrived at the convict facility with their 'caption papers' (Which stated the offence, the date of conviction and length of sentence). In the early 19th century, most prisoners awaiting transportation were sent to the ' hulks' in London before being assigned to a convict ship and leaving England.
The hulks were old navy ships, anchored along the banks of the Thames and at ports such as Portsmouth and Plymouth. As the prison population increased, it was decided to use them as gaols. Parliament authorised their use for a two year period in 1776; they continued to house prisoners for 82 years!
The conditions on the ships were terrible, especially in the early days, and far worse than in the prisons. The standards of hygiene were so poor that outbreaks of disease spread quickly. Typhoid and cholera were common and there was a high death rate amongst the prisoners.
In the day time the Convicts were put to hard labour on the docks or dredging the Thames. At night the prisoners were chained to their bunks to prevent them escaping ashore. Convicts could be punished for crimes on board by being placed in heavy irons or flogging.
Even though conditions slowly improved, they were still worse than in the prisons. In later years some prisoners carried out their whole sentences on the hulks in England, instead of being transported.
Lobbying over the poor conditions on convict hulks continued long after transportation to Australia began and, as a result, Millbank prison was eventually built in 1816 next to the Thames River in London.
The prison was run using the 'separate system' where prisoners were kept in isolation. The building layout was in the form of a six pointed star round a central core which made it the appear that the prisoners were under constant surveillance.
At this time it was the largest gaol in England and could confine 1200 convicts in separate cells. Many convicts (male and female) spent part of their sentence here before being transported. Every prisoner had religious instruction. They would be put to work, turning the crank, picking oakum (picking apart old tarred rope), making shoes or stitching mail bags.
Although clean and ventilated, it was still very damp and unhealthy due to its locality. Fatal outbreaks of cholera occurred. Unfortunately, due to its management regime and architectural design (3 miles of passageways!), it was thought to be unsuccessful and was closed in 1890.
Reformist pressure and objections by colonists to transported convicts continued and led to the development of further 'model' penitentiaries, including Pentonville, Portland (1848), Dartmoor (1850) they adopted colonial type labour regimes (Pointless hard work in order to earn food).