This paper explores the parallels between the British government’s current use of barges to house asylum seekers and the historical use of prison hulks, unseaworthy ex-naval and merchant ships used to house convicts in England awaiting transportation (1776-1857). The paper is in two parts. The first provides an introduction to the issues of asylum seekers and accommodation barges today, and shows how governments periodically turn to ships as the means to detain so-called ‘problem’ groups. The second outlines a series of key points arising from an analysis of the prison hulk establishment across the Georgian and Victorian periods, aiming to determine what lessons can be drawn from history and how this evidence should be recognised in tackling the problem of asylum accommodation today.
In April 2023, the UK Home Office announced plans to accommodate male asylum seekers in an accommodation barge in Portland, Dorset. Central to the decision has been cost: with a huge backlog in processing claims, estimates for hotel accommodation for asylum seekers amount to roughly £6 million daily. The number of people arriving in the UK who require accommodation has reached record levels, with more than 51,000 asylum seekers currently housed in hotels. Barges are one in a series of new sites based across the country designed to alleviate these costs; at time of writing, sites include RAF Scampton, MoD Wethersfield and Northeye, a former prison and military training centre in Bexhill. The Home Office claims that asylum seekers housed across these sites will be provided with basic, safe accommodation with 24/7 security, and will be as self-sufficient as possible, thus minimising the impact on local communities and services.
The Bibby Stockholm accommodation vessel was towed into Portland Port on 18 July 2023. The first group of 15 asylum seekers arrived on 7 Augus, but some refused to board the ship due to legal challenges. The policy is undoubtedly intended to act as a deterrent, and forms part of the rhetoric and action surrounding the 2023 Illegal Migration Bill, which aims to change the law so that people who come to the UK illegally will not be permitted to stay. The barge is owned by the Liverpool-based company Bibby Marine Limited; it can house up to 506 people in 222 en-suite bedrooms over three decks. It contains a gym, bar, restaurant and games room. Built in 1976, the ship has provided accommodation for various groups, including asylum seekers in Germany and the Netherlands, and construction workers in Scotland and Sweden. In July 2023, journalists accessed the ship and described the rooms as reasonably comfortable, with the basic facilities; a better standard than some of hotels housing asylum seekers. However, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director Steve Valdez-Symonds argues, ‘Reminiscent of the prison hulks from the Victorian era, the Bibby Stockholm is an utterly shameful way to house people who’ve fled terror, conflict and persecution
Governments periodically turn to ships to ease housing crises for so-called ‘problem’ groups. They have been used to provide temporary accommodation, as training ships for soldiers and militias, as reformatory ships for juveniles, as hospitals and quarantine centres – the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic saw cruise ships hit the headlines with the story of the Diamond Princess docked off Japan’s coastline. In 2022, Ukrainian refugees were housed on cruise ships MS Ambition and Victoria in Glasgow and Edinburgh to provide immediate places of safety until March 2023. Defending the government’s policy, Minister for Immigration Robert Jenrick referred to these ships in the Commons on 29 March 2023, but SNP member Alison Thewliss made clear that Scotland was ‘standing down that emergency humanitarian response’, emphasising the difference between refugees and asylum seekers.
Prisoners have been detained on ships from past to present, as a cheap and manageable alternative to housing on land. HMP Weare, a prison ship that was in use in Portland Harbour from 1997-2005, in the same area as the Bibby Stockholm, was the subject of long-running political controversy as it was both unpopular and costly to run. Yet once systems are up and running, it can be hard to close them down if they’re proving useful and cost-effective. In New York, the Vernon C. Bain Center, a floating prison barge that has capacity for 870 inmates, still operates in the Bronx today. It opened in 1992 as an emergency fix for a soaring prison population. Yet those who experienced life on board have likened its cramped conditions to a modern-day slave ship.
The decision to house asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm prompts dark comparisons to Britain’s historical use of prison hulks, infamous ‘floating hells’ that were used to house criminals from the late-eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries. Etched on public memory thanks to film and television adaptations of Charles Dickens’ 1861 novel Great Expectations, in which escaped convict Abel Magwitch attempts to cross the misty marshes of Kent, the story of the hulks shares striking parallels with today’s problem. The hulks were stopgaps that became symbols of all that was rotten with the British prison system during the Georgian and Victorian eras. But why them in particular? Newgate Prison – and its counterparts Millbank and Pentonville – were not without scandal or controversy. Yet the hulks, perhaps because they were not originally designed, built, and used as prisons, presented a paradox. They were at once floating prisons, mobile labour depots, and detention centres. Contrary to popular belief, not all convicts who served time on the hulks were transported; although it was one way to leave the hulks, there were three alternative routes: pardon, escape, or death.
Prison hulks were a stop-gap arrangement, originally put in place as a response to war. Prior to 1775, transportation to the American colonies had been one of Britain’s most common methods of punishing offenders. The practice of transportation, formalised through the 1718 Transportation Act, cost the British government very little; the Treasury paid merchants a small subsidy for each convict, and return voyages brought back tobacco and other goods. The majority of those transported were under 25 years of age, and four times as many men were transported than women. Between 1718-1775, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania attempted to impose prohibitive duties on transported felons and stop the flow, but they were opposed by Whitehall. Colonists feared for public safety, believing that the presence of convicts would lead to increased criminality and the spread of gaol diseases and distempers.
Tensions escalated, and the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War brought transportation to a halt. The haphazard administration and small scale of late eighteenth-century gaols and houses of correction meant that penal institutions were not able to cope with increasing numbers. Even larger prisons such as Newgate were poorly constructed and had not been built with large quantities of inmates in mind. In 1776, the government passed the Criminal Law Act (16 Geo. 3 c. 43), legislation that was to become known more simply as the ‘Hulk Act’. The Act authorised the detention of male prisoners awaiting transportation on board decommissioned and partly dismantled ships. It was a hastily conceived policy, as Britain expected the war with America to be resolved quickly. It was renewable every year, and initially authorised the use of hulks for five years, or until the war ended.
Although there were no hard rules on maximum capacity, prison hulks held similar numbers of men to the Bibby Stockholm: 500. No women were held on board, although wives and family members were allowed to visit. Convicts were rowed to shore and worked in the dockyards by day and were locked down at night. No matter how expedient a solution, prison hulks could only absorb 60% of those under sentence of transportation. More than 40 hulks were used over time, stationed at different locations across the Thames Estuary, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Bermuda and Gibraltar. Space remained limited. Prisons remained overcrowded as incarceration rates grew across the nineteenth century. Rishi Sunak announced on 5 June 2023 that the government had secured another two barges which will accommodate an extra 1000 asylum seekers. Yet the Home Office reported that over 45,700 people arrived in small boats in 2022. Expanding the number of ships and housing sites without also investing in immigration centres may well actually slow the system, creating further backlogs.
Since the 1980s, the government has increasingly used subcontractors to provide public services. The Bibby Stockholm will be managed by Australian firm Corporate Travel Management, the company that managed two Scottish vessels that housed Ukrainian refugees between 2022-3. The contract was awarded without competition. Contracting out can significantly reduce costs and bring expertise, but better public scrutiny is needed to ensure high performance, value, and transparency. The first superintendent of prison hulks at Woolwich in 1776 was a private contractor called Duncan Campbell, a merchant who previously held the contracts for transporting convicts from the Middlesex area to the American colonies. As that enterprise abruptly ended, Campbell lobbied amongst his allies in parliament to secure the hulk contract.
Management of the hulks was a lucrative business opportunity, but under Campbell the system was corrupt, lacked standardisation, and needed direct government regulation. The ships were badly modified, escape and mutinies occurred regularly, rations were poor, and disease was rife. In 1778, a Committee of Inquiry found that men were dying at a rate of one in four. Despite these shocking figures, the government – distracted by warfare and domestic problems – allowed the hulks to continue, with some small improvements. Campbell lacked clear instruction from the government, but his attentions were divided between the hulks and his slaving interests in Jamaica. In 1802, the contract was not renewed, and the hulks were handed to a stipendiary magistrate from the London police, Aaron Graham until 1814. After Graham, the hulks moved to direct Home Office control until they closed in 1857.
Even under the Home Office, hulks were still vulnerable to corruption and mismanagement.. Although the mid-nineteenth century saw public services becoming increasingly centralised due to Whig legislation, reforming prison hulks was a slow process. After a high-profile medical scandal, the hulks were passed to the first Surveyor-General of Prisons, Joshua Jebb, and a newly established body, the Prison Inspectorate. This shift towards specialist knowledge and experience led to greater criticism of the system from within: Jebb and his colleagues argued that the spatial layout of open ships’ decks hindered discipline and observation. The ships represented the antithesis of the lauded penitentiary system, which epitomised order. Conversely, as the walls of the hulks were wooden, prisoners could talk freely with each other and dockyard workers, and guards could be bribed. The Prison Inspectorate recognised the faults of an unstandardised system, and brought it to a halt.
The government’s factsheet, ‘Asylum accommodation on a vessel in Portland Port’ (18 July 2023), states that the Bibby Stockholm has been contracted for 18 months. At the close of the eighteenth century, prison hulks were also conceived as a temporary measure, but lasted for around 80 years in England, and longer in the colonies. Their longevity can be attributed to three things:
Passing legislation was not a simple process, and many plans to solve the prison housing crisis were met with strong objections in parliament. Across the 1770s and 1780s, alternative proposals were put forward to transport convicts to other British colonies; places as diverse as New Zealand, Chile, Peru and New Caledonia. A disastrous attempt in the 1780s to send convicts to the slave coast of West Africa to secure territory there was abandoned after deaths, mutiny and piracy. Facing public and parliamentary pressure, it was decided that Botany Bay in New South Wales would be the primary site for transportation. Between 1787 and 1868, a total of 164,000 male and female convicts were transported to New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) and Western Australia. Tens of thousands of male convicts would have first experienced life on board the hulks, which acted as an interim stage between sentencing and transportation.
Opinion on the penal housing crisis was divided across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, split between advocates for transportation, and reform. The British government’s reliance on transportation was divisive, and attracted criticism from politicians, reformers and free settlers. Commissions of Inquiry as early as 1818 found that transportation stirred animosity between diverse factions of colonial society. It was even felt that would-be criminals were not deterred by the prospect of being transported. Rather, some saw it as an opportunity to build a new life. With the election of a Whig government in 1830 which was sympathetic to the penal reform movement, the political landscape began to change. A major report published in 1837 by Sir William Molesworth – though not without controversy – proposed that transportation to the Australian colonies should end and be replaced by punishment by hard labour at home or abroad.
The decline in transportation coincided with the adoption of a new penal system: the penitentiary. Construction at Pentonville Prison was completed in 1842 – built on a huge scale, the prion stood on a six-acre site. Inside, rows of single cells were arranged in tiers based in separate blocks feeding into a central hub that was visible to staff. Pentonville represented modernity: as prison systems across the country pushed for standardisation, the hulks stood out. But the ships operated for so long because they provided the state with a source of cheap labour; convicts undercut the work of free dockyard labourers, costing the government next to nothing in wartime and post-war periods. A combination of factors finally led to the closure of the hulks; in the 1850s, the demand for dockyard labour slowed; as transportation was gradually phased out, it was replaced by investment into penitentiaries, and the remaining wooden ships were not repaired.
In June 2023, the government awarded travel firm Corporate Travel Management a £1.6 billion contract for managing the asylum barges over two years, with scope to extend beyond 2025. Ministers have not detailed project costs but have insisted they will be cheaper than hotels. The overall figure is set to be alarmingly high, as the government has not factored in policing and healthcare costs, and council fees. Yvette Cooper, Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary states: ‘This is an incredibly expensive contract with no clarity on whether proper procedures have been followed, and the barges come on top of costly hotels, not instead of them, because of the government failure to take asylum decisions.’ Hasty procurement, and a reluctance to tackle central issues – the backlog in asylum claims – could result in higher costs over time. Reports published by NGOs suggest that the most generous daily saving the Home Office can make by substituting barges is only £9.28 per person.
In the 1770s, the cost of building new prisons to deal with the housing crisis was seen as too expensive. Cost was the deciding factor; a 1792 report outlined that maintenance for each convict on the hulks was one shilling and three halfpence a day. Contractor Duncan Campbell was paid £17,023.7s.2d. that year for keeping convicts on the Thames (around £1.3 million in today’s money). The hulks were seen as cheap because convict labour was a huge money-saving device. Hulks were moored across Royal Naval Dockyards and towed according to labour needs. Men were paid a nominal sum, and the government’s strategic sites –important in years of trade, empire and warfare – were thoroughly restructured. During wartime, convicts were also drafted into the Army and Navy, providing manpower in return for reduced sentences. Those transported to the Australian colonies were also employed as manual labourers, farm workers, and servants. When their sentences expired, most became settlers. Though dispossessed, they essentially served British imperial ambitions by laying claim to the land.
Prison hulks remained crowded, unsafe, and expensive but continued to answer the state’s labour demands, which offset their costs. However, prices steadily rose; the cost of the Antelope hulk when it arrived in Bermuda came to 1824 came to £7,065.6s.3d., around two thousand more than the Leviathan at Portsmouth, at £5,101.19s.10d. By the 1830s, growing opposition to transportation led to a report that concluded prior estimates of £439,000 per annum spent on transportation to the Australian colonies were too low and the figure was actually closer to £488,000; the overall expense of keeping convicts at home now marginally outweighed transporting them. By 1849, the cost of fitting up the Defence hulk in Portsmouth amounted to an expensive £8,060.9s.5d. Prison official Joshua Jebb argued that centralisation of all prisons was the most economical choice. Convict labourers were put to work building prisons on land, at Chatham, and Portland. Investment in the hulks ceased, and they were gradually shut down.
Protests and widespread public and parliamentary criticism have met the arrival of the Bibby Stockholm in Portland. Concerns have been expressed about fire safety, security risks and local community services facing pressure. Residents fear tourism will be affected, with cruise ships already re-routing tours to the Jurassic Coast due to protests. Refugee charities label the plan cruel and say that many asylum seekers are victims of warfare and persecution, of trafficking and other forms of modern slavery, and should therefore not be held in ‘detention-like’ conditions. Members of parliament, including senior Tory backbenchers, have also objected; Dorset MP Richard Drax insists the barge has been ‘dumped on our door’ without consultation. On social media, the barge is being called a ‘floatel’, and the hashtag #NoFloatingPrisons and #ShipofSorrow are trending with slogans like ‘No to the barge’.
Outspoken criticism of prison hulks by parliament, the press, and prison officials can be traced across 1776-1857, echoing the rhetoric surrounding the Bibbby Stockholm today. When the hulks arrived in Woolwich, locals complained of noise and their proximity to prisoners. They feared they would be attacked by escapees and robbed. Corruption was a key concern in parliament: the hulks were seen as refractory spaces that might spread rebellion as revolutions swept the continent. In 1810, lawyer and politician Samuel Romilly criticised the hulk establishment in the Commons, stating ‘the vices of it are inseparable from the system’. Opinion did not change; in 1847, one speaker in the Lords stated that ‘many convicts were made worse, rather than improved, by being placed in the hulks.’ It was particularly concerning that children were held on the hulks – until reforms were passed, boys as young as eight lived alongside grown men.
Social reformers and prison officials shared the same negative viewpoint that hulks were unfit for habitation. In 1854 Joshua Jebb and his colleagues at the Prison Inspectorate claimed the hulks faced ‘radical and irredeemable disadvantages’ when it came to implementing changes. Even prison chaplains spoke frankly; George William Livesay at Portsmouth stated in 1848 that hulks would ‘never become a powerful engine of reform’ as long as prisoners were not separated. Thanks to a shift in newspaper reporting, the reading public stopped thinking of convicts as dangerous — instead, they began to see them as having been let down by the state. In 1852, after a series of articles including letters printed by convicts publicly petitioning for better treatment at home and overseas, The Sherbourne Mercury reported that the hulks were ‘probably the worst penal settlement in this country’. People felt differently about the hulks in the context of widespread reforms.
Looking back to the history of Britain’s prison hulks can show us red flags and policies that should not be repeated. This paper has pointed to parallels between asylum barges and historical prison hulks – but it is important also to understand the differences. Convicts held on the hulks had been found guilty in a court of law; they were sentenced to transportation for stealing food, livestock, for committing murder, robbery or assault. Asylum seekers are being housed for illegally entering the country, and the government has been insistent that they are ‘non-detained’, meaning they will have some freedom of movement. When curfews are broken, teams will ‘make a call to ascertain their whereabouts’. On the hulks there were no such freedoms; convicts fought tooth and nail against corrupt guards, were prey to sexual assault, plotted escapes, and died from disease, workplace accidents, and violent outbreaks. Despite 24/7 security, there are still concerns for asylum seekers’ mental health and overall safety when on board the Bibby Stockholm. They too will be separated from their families, with uncertainty ahead.
In the context of today’s plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, the Home Office is undoubtedly promoting a policy of deportation that owes a debt to history. Prison hulks were lynchpins in the transportation system, the starting point for many thousands of journeys. Another difference should be noted: in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, one of the end goals of transporting male and female prisoners to New South Wales, Tasmania, and Western Australia was colonisation. Of course, the policy reduced strain on prisons and effectively placed a ‘problem’ group out of sight. But convicts became settlers; their labour built the colony, and fed back to the home economy. The present-day Rwanda scheme proposes to relocate asylum seekers whose claims are not being considered by the UK, offering them the opportunity to apply for permission to remain in Rwanda. There is no ambition of colonisation, just deportation. As of 7 August 2023, ministers have suggested that they are reassessing proposals to send asylum seekers to Ascension Island, an isolated volcanic island about 1,000 miles from the coast of Africa; the policy was first suggested by Priti Patel in 2020.
It took decades for the Whig government to undo the knots tied by its predecessors and bring the hulk system to an end. We are facing something similar today: on 6 August 2023, Shadow Immigration Minister Stephen Kinnock stated that Labour would have ‘no choice but to deal with the mess we inherit’ and keep using migrant barges until the backlog in asylum applications is tackled. Policymakers need to focus on channelling investment into safe and efficient immigration centres that will allow them to better deal with rising numbers. History shows us that time, money, and resources will be saved by directly dealing with the issue, rather than diverting funds into stop-gap solutions. Beyond any ethical considerations, barges and mass deportations will not resolve the backlog – these policies did not work historically and are unworkable today.
This paper has outlined key points that are relevant to today’s policy and should be borne in mind: prison hulks were seen to be cost-effective but were in fact more expensive to run than investing in prisons; placed in the hands of private contractors, the ships were not well-regulated or maintained; they were highly unpopular, and the subject of protracted public and political criticism; as a short-term solution, they in fact operated for around 80 years in England, and longer in the colonies – in Bermuda they ended in 1864, and Gibraltar’s hulks ended as late as 1875. Negative press coverage and political rhetoric brings a real danger of equating people who seek asylum - irrespective of their reasons for doing so - with criminality. Politicians and policymakers should be mindful that using asylum barges, with all their connotations, enforce that view. The barges are one further strategy that are set to create more problems than solutions; they will cost more money, create unnecessary extra bureaucracy, and will delay direct action: steps should be taken to end them.
Clare Anderson, Convicts: A global history (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022).
Charles Campbell, The Intolerable Hulks: British Shipboard Confinement, 1776-1857 (Cirencester: Heritage Books, 1994).
Emma Christopher, A merciless place: The fate of Britain's convicts after the American Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
Simon Devereaux, ‘The making of the Penitentiary Act, 1775–1779.’ The Historical Journal 42.2 (1999): pp.405-433.
Hamish Maxwell Stewart, ‘Convict transportation from Britain and Ireland 1615–1870.’ History Compass 8, no. 11 (2010): pp.1221-1242.
Lucy Mayblin, Asylum after empire: Colonial legacies in the politics of asylum seeking (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).
Anna Lois McKay (2021) ‘Allowed to die’? Prison Hulks, Convict Corpses and the Inquiry of 1847, Cultural and Social History, 18:2, 163-181, DOI: 10.1080/14780038.2021.1893917.
Gwenda Morgan and Peter Rushton, Eighteenth-Century Criminal Transportation (London: Springer, 2003).
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