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Sunday, February 14, 2010

The "York Hulk"

Prison Ship York at Portsmouth Harbour, ca.1829,
convicts going aboard,
by Edward William Cooke, 1811-1880
used by permission -  National Library of Australia

At Portsmouth the eleven state prisoners were taken aboard the prison hulk York,(1) “after bidding adieu to the soil of England, upon which [they] were never again to set foot.”(2) Here they would await the verdict for the test cases (Miller, Reynolds, and Grant), the verdict that would determine their fate as well. On January 9th, Linus Miller and his group of twelve were transported from Liverpool to London. Miller wrote that passing from the bustling city streets of London through massive doors of Newgate Prison was “like jumping from Empyrean into the lowest hell.”(3) Fortunately the Canadian state prisoners, during their six months at Newgate, were kept apart from the rest of the prison population, received good rations, and had fairly comfortable accommodations. Gammell and his group on the York were not so fortunate. James describes his first day on the hulk:

After our arrival in England, we were for some months on board the York Hulk, off Portsmouth. We were then taken into a square crib called a wash house, stripped naked, put into a big tub and well scrubbed by two convicts, our hair sheared quite close, and we attired in the convict garb.(4)

The prison garb and shaven head were particularly humiliating to Benjamin Wait. Thus transformed, he would have been unrecognizable to any of his former friends. The government had succeeded in changing men into “the world’s most degraded wretches,” and consigned them to an “undistinguishable state of debasement.”(5)

James was imprisoned for more than eight months aboard the York Hulk, moored in the harbor at Portsmouth about three quarters of a mile from shore. Hulks, or condemned ships, such as the York and the Leviathan, were used as prisons to alleviate the overcrowding at Newgate, and to house convicts awaiting transportation to Australia. The sight of the hulks at Portsmouth “had the look of slum tenements, with lines of bedding strung out to air between the stumps of the masts, and the gun ports barred with iron lattices…They were like floating Piranesi ruins, cramped and wet inside, dark and vile smelling.” Each convict was stripped of his clothing and all of his personal belongings. In exchange he received coarse convict garb and a 14-pound iron, riveted to the right ankle—“a practical discouragement to swimmers.” After a felon was shackled in irons, he was ready to go to work in the government dockyards from dawn to dusk.(6) Thanks to the intervention of kind friends from Liverpool, Gammell and other ten Patriots were not required to do hard labor. They were kept in a ward separate from the English prisoners, and were not required to wear chains—only a ring riveted around one ankle.(7)

Commander Pritchard of the Meteor had highly recommended the eleven men to the officers of the York: “All their conduct on board my vessel warrant the highest encomiums; and, I would add, they are intelligent, praying men.” Also, Mr. Greetham, a barrister of Portsmouth, had paid them a visit on the first day aboard the hulk. John A. Roebuck, the lawyer who would represent the twelve others in the case before the Queen’s Bench, had sent Greetham to act as the resident agent for the Patriot prisoners on board the York. He made arrangements for them to correspond with their friends on trial in London, and provided them “a good supply of paper, pens, and ink.” Greetham’s visit represented a huge concession by the hulk officers. Prisoners were never allowed more than one visit per year, and then only from a family member. For Benjamin Wait, knowing that they had an advocate calmed his mind, at least in the short term. He had for some time “great misgivings [about] being sent to the hulks; [he] felt certain that when placed on them, there would be no probability of leaving, until sent on the transport ship.”(8)

Part of the required routine aboard the hulk was the evening church service. At bedtime a convict would come to the door of the sleeping quarters and read the service. The prisoners would be required to answer “amen” at the end of each prayer. Because the Patriot prisoners were in the habit of holding their own devotionals, morning and evening, they were particularly insulted by this superficial form of worship. Wait made a petition to the commander, who then excused them from the prison ritual and permitted them to worship on their own:

Reading and praying, enabled us to look above for consolation, in the hour of suffering and sorrow; and to give place to that hope which would not only keep us from despondency, but lead us to feel that “all things would work together for good”—that God, in his all wise providence, would give us strength according to our need, and ultimately return us to our homes and to our families.(9)

For the first few months aboard the York, James was confined to the hospital ward on the lower deck, fitted to accommodate over one hundred patients. He was sent to the hospital the very first night, most likely suffering from the effects of the bitter cold and rain during the hurricane. The other ten men were assigned to one of the sleeping wards that held forty men. It isn’t clear what James’ ailment was, but with their shaven heads and the bitter cold January weather, several of the men succumbed to “violent colds and catarrhs.” Wait had spent most of the first night on the hulk pacing quickly back and forth, trying to warm his numb hands and feet.(10)

A model of the York Hulk
on display at the
Australian National Maritime Museum
in New South Wales
(Photos courtesy of the photographer, Phil Barnard)

While James was ill, his friends kept him informed about the proceedings in London at the Court of the Queen’s Bench. They received occasional copies of the London newspaper Weekly True Sun, which reported all the arguments made in the trial of their fellow Patriots. By all reports it seemed obvious that the case would be won, and that their own cases would soon be investigated,(11) but by February Benjamin Wait realized that their London attorneys had abandoned them (the eleven men on the hulk.) Wait had been the spokesman for the group, writing letters of complaint about the intolerable food and frigid cold sleeping quarters, and insisting on better treatment, as well as due process under the laws of England. Some of the letters were actually published in a London newspaper. Those “independent minded” and brash North Americans soon became an irritant, and even a source of embarrassment, to the Under-Secretary of State, Mr. Fox Maule. On March 12, 1839,(12) with less than an hour’s warning, the Patriot prisoners on the York (with the exception of Beemer and Gammell, who was in the hospital ward) were loaded on the Marquis of Hastings to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land.(13) The British government didn’t want to risk the possibility of another embarrassing trial; the lawyers representing the Patriots made no objection, not wanting to jeopardize the outcome of the case in progress at the Court of the Queen’s Bench.
  1. Retired British Navy vessel HMS York (1807) became a prison hulk at Portsmouth in 1819.
  2. Wait, p. 95.
  3. Miller, pp. 130-134. 
  4. Gemmell, New York Plebian, transcription p. 9.
  5. Wait, p. 96-97.
  6. Hughes, The Fatal Shore, pp. 138-140.
  7. Miller, p. 227.
  8. Wait, pp. 86, 95-96, 104.
  9. Wait, pp. 101, 120.
  10. Wait, pp. 96, 99, 100, 122. It is possible that James had pneumonia.
  11. Wait, pp. 112-113.
  12. “The men were detained at Portsmouth until the decision of the Queen’s Bench. The decision of the Exchequer did not worry the Home Office. Orders were sent to the master of the Marquis of Hastings on 16 March that he need be detained no longer and to sail for VDL…” (Pybus, “Patriot Exiles in Van Diemen’s Land,” p. 190, 201.)
  13. Wait, pp. 87, 105-111, 121-124; Miller, pp. 213-214, 227. Wait had recognized early on that it was not philanthropy, but political partisanship (opposition against the Whig Party in power) that was the real motivation for bringing the case of the Patriot prisoners to trial.


  1. Hi. very good research. I am researching a transported convict who was on the York Hulk in 1827 and then shipped to Sydney also on Marquis of Hastings. This has helped paint a vivid picture.

  2. Hi Thanks very much for this excellent research, my great grand uncle was imprisoned on this ship in 1825, he survived and returned to his native Cambridgeshire.

  3. Hi thanks for this brilliant research, my great great grandfather John Kinsman is showing on the York in the 1841 census at Gosport.He was convicted for housebreaking at Bodmin assizes in 1838, he served seven years there before returning to devonport

  4. Delighted to come across this wonderful history. One of my family, Charles Dellar, was convicted at Essex Assizes of stealing a lamb, On October 15, 1839,and was sentenced to 15 years & transportation. A letter (dated 16 January 1840) from the Secretary of State, the Marquis of Normandy, was sent to the Chairman of the Quarter Sessions asking that he review the case. However, this failed and Charles was sent to Gosport where he was placed on the prison hulk, York, on November 14, 1839; he was then shipped from England on February 20, 1840, aboard the 424 ton ship Mandarin which arrived in Van Diemens Land (Tasmania) on June 30, 1840. He received a Conditional Pardon on July 20, 1852, and was a passenger on the ship Yarra Yarra which sailed to Melbourne on August 20, 1852. He died at Redfern (now a suburb of Sydney) in 1869. No idea if he married. Interested in finding if there are any descendants.