Monday, September 20th, 2010


Records of Dickensian ‘prison hulks’ reveal unique Australian stories published online for the first time today –

 - Hulks were huge decommissioned warships that were converted into floating prisons
 - Records reveal character assessments, living conditions and charges of 200,000 Victorian inmates including the rise of Parramatta’s first Mayor, John Williams
 - From highwayman to bushranger – even criminals moved down the social ladder in, Australia’s number one family history website1, today launched online for the first time the Prison Hulk Registers and Letter Books, 1802-1849 - the incarceration records of almost 200,000 convicts who were imprisoned on giant floating gaols known as prison hulks.

The records, the originals for which are held by The National Archives in Kew, UK, provide a fascinating insight into the Victorian criminal underworld and conditions aboard the Dickensian ships, which were introduced to ease overcrowded London prisons, often holding inmates prior to transportation to the Australian penal colonies.

In the collection, has uncovered the tale of John Wilson Isaac, who was baptised in August 1817 in Surrey, England, but who later changed his name to John Williams.

John was tried as a pick-pocket at the Old Bailey, found guilty and sentenced to 14 years transportation to New South Wales, although like many of his fellow convicts he first spent time aboard a hulk, in this instance HMS Fortitude.

Conditions aboard the hulks were tough, with the convicts engaged in hard labour such as dredging the Thames by day and then by night held on board the cramped, cold and wet ships. For John, the nightmare of the prison hulks was short lived as after just five months on board he set sail for Australia in September 1834, arriving in January 1835.

In stark contrast to his ‘criminal’ past, in Australia John’s life took a dramatic change of direction. In 1841 he was granted his ticket of leave, after which he married, and then in 1844 was granted a Conditional Pardon. Over the next 10 years, John acquired publican’s licenses to run three hotels, before becoming the first Mayor of Parramatta.

During the 18th Century, the hulks became a common form of internment as decommissioned warships from concluded naval conflicts were converted into huge floating prisons, after being stripped of their masts, rudders and rigging.

Despite their squalid end, these vessels had once been involved in some of the era’s most famous naval battles and voyages, including HMS Bellerophon, which saw action during the Napoleonic Wars, HMS Retribution (American Revolutionary War) and HMS Captivity (French Revolutionary Wars). In total, 18 hulks feature in the collection.

Typically, each hulk held between 200 and 300 convicts, all in dire conditions. Disease was rife and spread quickly as there was no way to separate the sick from the healthy in the cramped conditions. This meant mortality rates were high, with around one in three inmates dying on board.

The records reveal insights into the lives of the convicts who were imprisoned on the hulks, detailing each inmate’s name, year of birth, age, year and place of conviction, offence committed, name of the hulk and, most interestingly, character reports written by the ‘gaoler’ (prison officer) which provide intriguing insight into each convict’s personality.

While Michael Howe is not the first name you think of when you hear the term ‘bushranger’, he found himself before the courts in July 1811 as a highwayman for “Assault with intent to rob on the Highway”, and was sentenced to transportation for a period of seven years. Before setting sail to New South Wales, he was held aboard the aptly named prison hulk HMS Captivity for nine months, and then spent another six months on board HMS Indefatigable.

Upon arrival, Howe was assigned to work in Tasmania where he escaped and became a feared bushranger, going by the name of “The Governor of the Ranges”.

As well as featuring murderers, thieves and bigamists, the records also reveal examples of rough justice. Several eight-year-old boys were imprisoned on the hulks, as was 84-year-old William Davies, who was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for sheep stealing, and later died on board the hulk HMS Justitia. Other interesting examples include:

 - John Dawson, Joseph Robinson, William Wade and John Taylor – the quartet of criminals led by the ‘ringleader’ Dawson were convicted of stealing and described by their gaoler as ‘drunken, resolute, daring thieves [that] have been a terror to the inhabitants of Bradford’. They received between seven and 10 years imprisonment each
 - George Sweet – 28-year-old labourer, George Sweet was sentenced to life for stealing a sheep however his character seemed to match his friendly name, with his gaoler report reading ‘character believed good’, despite having been previously imprisoned
 - Samuel Phillips – 16-year-old labourer Samuel Phillips received the seemingly harsh sentence of life imprisonment for burglary. His record reveals he was unable to read or write and that he was a ‘doubtful character’ who had been imprisoned before Partnership Development Manager, Brad Argent comments: “The records provide Australians with a fascinating insight into the personalities of many major – and minor – criminals of the Victorian age who may be the missing link in their family history, as well as documenting a rather unique solution to prison over-crowding.

“The records will be useful for family and social historians as they detail the rather bleak conditions those who fell foul of the law would have found themselves in, before possibly being shipped to Australia as convicts."

The new collection completes the journeys of a number of convicts who appear within other criminal record collections at, including 1.4 million criminal trials in the England & Wales Criminal Registers, 1791-1892 and those who were transported to Australia in collections including the Convict Transportation Registers: 1788-1868.


Jacquie Potter OR Lauren Sewell

Contact Profile

Officially Australia’s leading website for family history resources, contains more than 920 million records in its Australian and UK collections including the Australia Birth, Marriage and Death Index, the Australian Convict Transportation Registers, the Australian Free Settlers, Australian Electoral Rolls, New South Wales SANDS Directories, as well as the most complete online collection of England, Wales and Scotland Censuses and the England and Wales Birth, Marriage and Death Indexes. was launched in May 2006 and belongs to the global network of Ancestry websites (wholly owned by Operations Inc.), which contains five billion records. To date more than 18 million family trees have been created and 1.8 billion names and 40 million photographs and stories uploaded. (Figures current as of 30 June 2010)

The Ancestry global network of family history websites: in the US, in the UK, in Canada, in Australia, in Germany, in Italy, in France, in Sweden and in China.

1. comScore, 2009, based on genealogy related websites selected from the Family and Parenting sub-category under the Community category
Jacquie Potter
P: 02 8281 3893
M: 0414 449 070

Lauren Sewell

P: 02 8281 3804
M: 0457 605 706




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