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Records reveal horror of 19th century prison ships

The lives of some of the 200,000 inmates jailed in dire conditions on prison ships in the nineteenth century were highlighted as the records were made available online for the first time today.



The disease-ridden floating jails known as prison hulks were created to ease overcrowding in prisons and housed inmates aged from eight to 84, according to the Prison Hulk Registers and Letter Books, 1802-1849.

Prime Minister David Cameron suggested re-introducing prison ships earlier this year as a quick and "cost effective" way of increasing the number of cells and easing the pressure on Britain's close-to-capacity jails.

But the controversial move was widely criticised by politicians and campaigners, with Labour - who rejected the idea - saying it would waste millions of pounds of taxpayers' money as it was more cost effective to build new prison places on land.

The records, held by The National Archives in Kew and published online at Ancestry.co.uk, reveal the lives of the convicts, including character reports written by the "gaoler".

Young boys, including eight-year-old Francis Creed, were imprisoned on the hulks alongside murderers, thieves and bigamists.

Francis was jailed for seven years on board HMS Bellerophon for stealing three shillings worth of copper after being convicted in Middlesex on June 25, 1823, the records showed.

William Davies, 84, was also sentenced to seven years imprisonment for sheep stealing while Samuel Phillips, a 16-year-old labourer, was jailed for life for burglary.

Unable to read or write, he was described as a "doubtful character" who had been imprisoned before.

Other convicts included Thomas Bones, who was described as "a bold daring fellow, not fit to be at large in this country", and George Boardman, who was "neglected by his parents" and "connected with bad company", the records showed.

Each hulk held between 200 and 300 convicts in conditions where disease was rife and spread quickly as there was no way to separate the sick from the healthy in the cramped conditions.

Mortality rates were high, with around one in three inmates dying on board.

Dan Jones, international content director of Ancestry.co.uk, said: "The records provide a fascinating insight into the personalities of many major - and minor - criminals of the Victorian age, as well as documenting a rather unique solution to prison over-crowding.

"The records will be of use to family and social historians, and anyone with an interest in the UK penal system. They detail the rather bleak conditions that those who fell foul of the law would have found themselves in."

Britain's last floating jail, HMP The Weare, was sold in 2005 after eight years holding prisoners off Portland, Dorset.

The ship's temporary stint as a jail was controversial, with the Chief Inspector of Prisons denouncing it unfit for purpose because of the lack of access to fresh air and exercise.

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