Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Laurence Butler- Ch. 8: Conditions on Convict Ships

Conditions on-board convict transport ships

Conditions on board these convict ships, whether humanely treated or not, would have been extremely uncomfortable. As the numbers of convicts onboard heavily outnumbered the numbers of military guarding them and the numbers of sailors, the convicts had to be carefully monitored, and on most transport ships the convicts were chained at night and the hatches locked down to prevent them taking over the ship. According to Sheedy, an account (unsourced) supposedly taken from the ‘Tellicherry’ in 1806, transporting Irish prisoners including Michael Dwyer, described:
For the men in the ship’s prison, 34 feet long and 27 feet wide, the voyage was less than idyllic particularly in bad weather;
The worst aspect of the trip out was being chained up at night, as this made the night very long. The system of chains being that you had a small chain attached to your wrist and the other end on a ring attached to a round iron bar. There were two of these iron bars, which ran the full length of our hold, in which there were one hundred and thirty men. This system allowed you to be able to use the sanitary convenience, which was situated at the end of the hold. For instance if you were number twelve on the bar, to use the convenience you had to get the eleven men in front of you to walk up to the convenience ahead of you. When any person was violently ill it often meant the unfortunate victim had to have several of his shipmates up all night with him to allow him to use the convenience, as it was impossible for these men to pass one another, the ring merely sliding along the rail. However, the worst position by far was when the ship struck a storm, as the refuse was usually baled out by pail up through the hatch, but with a big sea running the hatches were kept closed. On one occasion we were battened down for two days.”’ [i]
Whether the prisoners on the ‘Atlas 2’ were subject to these conditions is unknown.

Charles Bateson’s well researched and enlightening research gives us the following incite on transports ships:
The job of hiring the vessels used for the transportation of convicts was the responsibility of the Navy Boards. The Navy Boards stipulated that the convict’s quarters should be adequately ventilated and regularly cleaned and fumigated, the prisoners properly clothed and furnished with beds and bedding, space set apart as a hospital and an approved surgeon carried in each transport. The conditions on which the prisoners were to be admitted to the deck for fresh air and exercise were laid down, as also was the scale of rations. Provision also was made for the supply by the Government of medicines and anti-scorbutics, though, as experience was to show, on an insufficient scale.” [ii]
It was stipulated that each ship should carry wholesome provisions and a sufficiency of water should be furnished to each seaman, and that two windsails for ventilation purposes and an Osbridge’s machine for sweetening water should be in each vessel. This machine consisted of a hand pump which is inserted in a scuttle made at the top of a cask, and by means of it the water, being raised a few feet, falls through several sheets of tin pieced-like cullenders and placed in a half-cylinder of the same metal. The purpose of it is to reduce the water into numberless drops, which being exposed in this form to the open air as deprived of its offensive quality.” [iii]

However, in the absence of supervision from the authorities, the safeguards incorporated in the ‘charter-parties’ were too frequently ignored or evaded. Infringements were not cognizable before the courts of judicature in NSW and if they were to be prosecuted on return to England the witnesses had to be sent home. Thus the contractors were virtually immune from prosecution, and once the transports had sailed the convicts were entirely at the mercy of the ship’s officers and the contractor’s agents.[iv]

The Ship’s Surgeons:
A vital inclusion on the transport ships was the appointment of the ship’s surgeon, a competent and diligent surgeon making the difference between disembarking healthy convicts, or experiencing a high mortality rate and delivering the remainder in a weakened and diseased state.

The issuing of detailed instructions to the masters and surgeons was instituted by the Transport Commissioners prior to the sailing of several transports in 1801. The need for cleanliness and proper ventilation was emphasised, and the surgeon was directed to see that the ‘tween-decks, sleeping quarters and the hospital were swept and scraped daily, that at least twice weekly the bottom boards of the berths were carried on deck, washed with salt water and thoroughly dried before being replaced, and that all bedding was aired on deck daily. He was enjoined also to properly trim the windsails, to keep open the air scuttles and to have the air machines working. He was to see that the sick were given free access to the deck, and was to report to the master when prisoners because of illness or debility, should have their irons removed. He was to issue medications and comforts to the sick, to see that the hospital was kept neat and clean, and on no account to return a discharged patient to the prison without first having thoroughly fumigated his clothes “with the vapour of burning brimstone and the oxygenic gas.” The surgeon was also directed to see that each prisoner was admitted to the deck at least twice in every 24 hours, that no washing or drying of clothes took place in the ‘tween-decks, and that this part of the ship was regularly fumigated in the manner specifically detailed in his instructions. Lastly, the surgeon was advised to issue lemon-juice, sugar, sago, rice, oatmeal, peas and bread, with a proportion of wine and tea, to any persons showing signs of scurvy or other disease.” [v]

Typical diseases found on board transport ships: typhoid, typhus, scurvy, dysentery, small pox, consumption /TB.
“One of these surgeons, Peter Cunningham, writing of the convict ships of the 1820’s described:
‘Three-quarters of a pound of biscuit being the daily allowance of bread, while each day the convict sits down to dinner of either beef, pork or plum pudding, having pea soup four times a week, and a pot of gruel every morning, with sugar or bitter in it. Vinegar is issued to the messes weekly; and as soon as the ship has been three weeks at sea, each man is served with an ounce of lime-juice, and the same of sugar daily, to guard against scurvy, while two gallons of good Spanish wine and 140 gallons of water are put onboard for issuing to each likewise- 3 to 4 gills of wine weekly and three-quarts of water daily, being the general allowance.’ ” [vi]

Convict ship the 'Success'- convict quarters


 On embarkation the prisoners were allotted numbers and divided into messes, usually six to a mess. They were then issued with their clothing, bedding and cooking and eating utensils. Each man received a bed and pillow and a single blanket, with two wooden bowls and a wooden spoon. Each mess was given a keg and a horn tumbler.
Each morning the convict had to roll his bedding and secure it with two pieces of sennit, but the space on deck for storing the bedding during the day was often insufficient. (taken from Journals W. Evans ‘Bencooen 1819 (Adm 101/7,3189’ G. Fairfowl ‘Asia’ 1847 (ibid 101/4, 3188); J. W. Johnston ‘Asia’ 1840 (Ibid 101/5. 3188); J. Rutherford ‘Hooghly’ 1834 (ibid 101/35, 3198); A. Millar, ‘Anson’ 1843-4 (Ibid, 101/3. 3187)
The prisoners generally elected their own mess captain, who besides drawing the ration, was responsible for the maintenance of tidiness and for the orderly conduct of his messmates. The other appointments seem to have been made by the surgeons, who might select half a dozen of the more deserving mess captains as captains of the deck or appoint a single convict to serve in this capacity, possibly on the recommendations of the hulk or gaol officials. They also chose those to serve as hospital attendants, cooks, water-closet attendants, barbers, and so on.
(Journals G. Thomson ‘England’ (Adm 101/26, 3195; J. Alexander ‘Almorah’ 1820 (Ibid 101/2, 3187); T.R. Dunn ‘Augusta Jessie’ 1839040 (Ibid 101/6, 3189); G. Fairfowl ‘Asia’ 1827 (Ibid 101/4, 3188)” [vii]
The prison was situated in the ‘tween decks. Stout bulkheads studded with nails and loop-holed, cut off the prison quarters from the main and fore hatchways. The height was typically 6 ½ feet between the beams and 5’7” below the beams. (ref  Dublin Chronicle 12 Jan 1792- NSWHR, ii, 792-3)
Surgeon Peter Cunningham described a 1820’s ship; “two rows of sleeping berths, one above the other extends on each side of the ‘tween decks, each berth being 6 feet square and calculated to hold four convicts, every one thus possessing 18” space to sleep in- and ample space too!” [viii]

 “The fact is that the prison quarters were always dark and gloomy, and utterly foul. The ventilation, particularly in the earlier convict ships, was bad. Ship’s officers for long had little faith in the air and ventilation machines or even in the windsails and despite clauses relating to their use in the charter-parties, they frequently refused to permit them to be employed or neglected to attend to them, so that they soon became useless.
In stormy weather it was necessary to keep the air scuttles closed, and aboard a vessel that laboured a good deal, they often could not be kept open even in moderate weather. Thus the air in the prison usually hung heavy and lifeless, and when the ship was passing through the tropics, it was stifling and oppressive.
J.G. Stewart, surgeon of the ‘Nautilus’, described the heat in the prison at night as “really dreadful” and the records kept by surgeons prove that often the temperatures at night below was between 90 degrees and 100 degrees F, although the day time temperature at noon in the shade was commonly between 76 degrees and 82 degrees and seldom exceeded 86 degrees. In 1843 the surgeon of the ‘Maitland’, A. McLaren, considered that whereas the true temperature on deck and in the prison was identical during the daytime when the latter was unoccupied, the prison was 10 degrees hotter when all the prisoners were crowded into it at night.
(Journals J.C. Stewart ‘Nautilus 1838 (Adm 101/56, 3205; A. McLaren ‘Maitland’ 1843-3 (Ibid 101/46, 3202; etc)” [ix]
Many of the transports were wet ships and in these, the prison was always damp and dank. The water seeped through the ship’s seams, and the convicts’ bunks and bedding could not be kept dry. In very heavy seas the hatches had to be battened down, but it was not uncommon for the prisoners to find themselves washed from their bunks by a swirling mass of water.” [x]
“The stench of the prison, crowded with perspiring humanity, was indescribable, and even prisoners inured to the fetid atmosphere of the insanitary gaols and hulks, it must have been well-nigh unbearable, particularly in the tropics. The acrid smell of stale bilge water and of mouldy rotten timber mingled in the still air with the foul odours of closely packed humanity.
Irish political prisoner John Boyle O’Reilly, transported to Western Australia in the ‘Hougoumont’, the last convict ship to Australia, but subsequently escaped to the US, wrote in a novel:
“When the ship was becalmed in the tropics, the suffering of the imprisoned wretches in the steaming and crowded hold was piteous to see. They were so packed that free movement was impossible. The best thing to do was to sit each on his berth, and suffer in patience. The air was stifling and oppressive. There was no draught through the barred hatches. The deck above them was blazing hot. The pitch dropped from the seams, and burned their flesh as it fell. There was only one word spoken or thought- one yearning idea in every mind-  water, cool water to slake the parching thirst. Two pints of water a day were served out to each convict- a quart of half-putrid and blood warm liquid. It was a woeful sight to see the thirsty souls devour this allowance as soon as their hot hands seized the vessel.” [xi]

Occupation and Daily Routines

“The voyage to NSW was long and tedious, and it was no easy problem to keep the prisoners occupied. Indeed, in the early convict ships little effort was made to help them pass the time, except to keep the endlessly scrubbing, scraping, swabbing and dry-holystoning the decks, according to the state of the weather. Within a few years a marked improvement was effected. Dancing and singing were encouraged and eventually small libraries were shipped, although these were mainly confined to works of a religious, devotional and moral nature. Schools were formed, and on the voyage many convicts learnt to read and write.” [xii]
“Peter Cunningham declared “Gambling is a prevailing device and requires great exertion to keep it under; dice, cards, pitch and toss, and various other speculations, soon became general, unless checked.” [xiii]

“The daily routine aboard ship began early. The convicts selected as cooks were the first admitted to the deck, being sent up in some ships as early as 4:30am., in others not until ½ hour or an hour later. At sunrise the prison doors were thrown open for all and the bathing tub was placed in position on deck, water being thrown over each prisoner from buckets. At 6 o’clock rations were served out to the mess-men, and while the rest were below, volunteers swabbed the deck, all beds then being brought up and stoved.
At 8 o’clock, breakfast was served, and afterwards the prison deck was cleaned, usually being dry-holystoned. School assembled during the morning, those not attending being kept on deck picking oakum or working at their trades. The lime or lemon juice, mixed with sugar and water to make a ½ pint of what was termed sherbert, was in some ships served just before the noon dinner, but in others the wine allowance was served before, and the lime juice after the meal. Most surgeons insisted upon the prisoners passing the tub in rotation and required them to drink their allowance before moving on, thus preventing trafficking.
School met again in the afternoon, and supper, usually served at 4 o’clock was followed by dancing, singing, games such as leapfrog for exercise. (Gambling became common)
The men were shaved twice a week and their hair was cut fortnightly and two days weekly were designated laundry days, when the men were required to wash their own clothes, although in some ships a few prisoner were appointed to do this work for all.
The beds were taken below before or after supper, and at sunset all were mustered below and the prison locked.
The routine was varied only by wet or stormy weather, or by the working of the ship, but individual surgeons had their own ideas as to the best way for carrying out the necessary duties and passing the time and there was some variation between shipboard life in individual ships. The general pattern however, was similar. (Sources- various Ships’ Journals- see note 39 Bateson)” [xiv]

Robert Hughes in his book “The Fatal Shore” described conditions for the convicts on board the transport ships in the First Fleet.
 “No craft, then or later was ever designed specifically to carry convicts; that would have cost the owner too much for too specialised a vessel. It became practice to dump the bulkheads, sleeping racks and iron grills in Sydney before the ships sailed north to China for their cargoes of tea on the home run.
Four transportees lying in a space 7 ft by 6 ft, the dimensions of a modern king size bed, were the norm. There was little headroom; “Scarborough”, the second largest transport, had only 4 ft. 5 in, so that even a small woman had to stoop and a full grown man had to bend double.” [xv]

The prisoners’ quarters had no portholes or sidelights, such things were an innovation and perhaps a security hazard. The lower decks were as dark as the grave, as lanterns and candles were banned for fear of fire. The only fresh air the convicts got was from a windsail rigged to scoop a breeze down a hatchway. In a storm, when the hatches were battened down, there was no fresh air below. In calm weather, the prisoners could exercise on deck.”  [xvi]

 As the fleet entered the tropics, waves of vermin crept out of each vessel’s woodwork, up from the bilges- rats, bedbugs, lice, cockroaches, fleas. Officers and convicts alike were tormented by them and fought back as best they could with “frequent explosions of gunpowder, lighting fires between decks, and the liberal use of that admirable antiseptic, oil of tar. The bilges were foul in all of the ships- a fermenting, sloshing broth of sea water mixed with urine, puke, dung, rotting food, dead rats etc.” [xvii]
 John White in his “Journal of a Voyage to NSW” in July 1787” described: “When the hatches were taken off, the stench was so powerful that it was scarcely possible to stand over them.” [xviii]

Little progress was made in transportation conditions for the convicts between the arrival of the first fleet and the voyage of the ‘Atlas 2’. Some ship’s masters treated their human cargo more humanely than others, but the physical conditions on board would have been basically the same.

Reports and journals written by passengers/crew on the ‘Minerva’ exist and can therefore help to enlighten us on the experiences Laurence would have endured. The following information and accounts of the voyage of the ‘Minerva’ were sourced from the following: “Victims of Tyranny” by Brendan Whiting, pp56-90,  pub 2004 Harbour Publishing- Strathfield NSW, who in turn, sourced “The Minerva Journal of John Washington Price” by John Washington Price, transcribed and edited by Pamela Jeanne Fulton, pub 2000 Melbourne University Press; “The Memoirs of William Cox ” by Edna Hickson, pub 1901 William Brooks & Co, reprinted by the Library of Australian History 1979.

Embarkation at Waterford and Cork

Unable to take any of their belongings with them, the prisoners were taken on board and assembled on the quarterdeck and released from their fetters and chains, closely watched by Marines, armed with muskets. Forming a line before a Marine officer at a desk, each man was brought forward to give his name and to state the crime for which he had been convicted. At the completion of the muster the prisoners were shackled and chained, this time in pairs and led into the hatchway, down steps and into their new quarters, a between deck prison, a dimly lit space 50 feet long, 50 feet wide and 5 feet 10 inches high- too low for many men to stand up straight on the walkway. There were double-tiered berths on both sides of the walkway, each 5 feet 6 inches square, room enough, supposedly for three persons. There were 14 such berths, making 28 in total; with three persons to each berth, this allowed for 168 men to be accommodated in a 2500 square feet area.
(The ‘Atlas 2’ carried 192 convicts, and was a larger ship.)

At the forward end of the walkway was a slop bucket, the prisoners’ only latrine. [xix] The stench from this and from the filth of unwashed bodies and body odours was indescribable, and was overpowering for anyone entering the prison quarters.
Notably Captain Musgrave recorded in his Journal that the convicts' “water closet pipe” broke in a storm. As the 'Atlas' was a newly built ship, it appears to have had a more modern form of latrine than the slop buckets or barrels used on older ships. However, even the use of a water closet shared between 100 or more convicts would have posed many difficulties.

The only effective ventilation was provided by a windsail that brought fresh air in from the hatchway and benefited those prisoners who occupied the closest berths. Those further inside had to rely on the less efficient scuttles behind some of the bunk spaces. [xx]

Any slight movement by either prisoner shackled together would make the iron shackles bite into their ankles.[xxi] The chaffing of the leg-irons on their ankles would produce ulcerated sores. The prisoners were not given a choice of whom they would be fettered to and confined within such close contact for the next few months of the voyage. (One wonders if Laurence was chained to someone compatible. However, Musgrave’s Journal gives the impression that the prisoners were not fettered on this voyage.)

Vermin such as lice would crawl over the prisoners, and rats would share their living quarters. When the weather turned foul and the rain poured down, the hatches had to be shut, and during prolonged periods of rain, could remain closed for days. The air in the enclosed space became so heavy and putrid that it was difficult for the men to breathe. [xxii]  This was particularly difficult the closer the ship sailed to the tropics, where the heat and humidity would become overwhelming.

The ‘Minerva’ was anchored in Cork Harbour for a number of months preparing for the voyage and taking on enough supplies to last the long weeks at sea before they were able to stop to resupply the vessel.  The ‘Friendship’ arrived in Waterford Harbour at the end of June 1799 to embark the New Geneva Barrack’s prisoners. Having got them on-board, they sailed on the 16th July, arriving at Cork on the 18th. Delayed when a fever broke out on board, said to have been brought on-board by the New Geneva prisoners, the prisoners were taken off while the ship was fumigated and whitewashed. They sailed on the 24th August in company with the ‘Minerva’, although the ships separated during the voyage as the ‘Friendship’, being a smaller vessel, could not keep up with the ‘Minerva’.
The convicts on the ‘Atlas 2’ was similarly delayed for a month in Waterford Passage before the ship sailed, and it must have been a long, boring, uncomfortable wait for the prisoners on board. During this time they would have become accustomed to the daily routine expected of them, such as washing their clothes, airing their bedding etc. When the time came for the ship to set sail from either the Cove of Cork or Waterford Harbour (as in the case of the ‘Atlas 2’), a procedure would be followed:

A general muster of the male prisoners was conducted on the quarterdeck. There they were released from their shackles, stripped of their stinking clothes and ordered to scrub themselves from buckets of water. Standing there semi-naked with a fresh breeze blowing off the harbour, was a bracing experience, even for the weakest. Then they had their heads and beards shaved. This was followed by their provision with new clothes- each man’s issue comprising two pairs of trousers, jackets, canvas shirts, pairs of socks and shoes, a hat and cap and flannel vest, a rug, a pair of blankets, a flock mattress, needle and thread, a clothes bag and a bread bag.

The Captain would then address the prisoners, telling them their destination, that the voyage was expected to take five to six months. He would tell them they would be well treated, as long as they behaved and followed directions. Following the Captain, the ship’s Quartermaster would address the men and read out the rations that would be issued to each of them and which would have to last until they reached land again. These comprised 12.5 kilograms of biscuits, 12 of beef, 3.5 of pork, 3.5 of flour, 3.5 of oatmeal, 0.5 of butter, 1.0 of cheese, 0.15 of suet and 0.3 of raisons. [xxiii]
Again, one wonders whether Laurence dreamed of his wife’s cooking. On the ‘Minerva’, some of the more wealthy Protestant rebels, the Protestant rebel general Joseph Holt, the Protestant Rev. Henry Fulton from Dublin, and two rebel schoolteachers Farrell Cuffe (a Protestant who had surrendered on terms of self-exile) and William Maume, a Catholic teacher of Greek and Latin, were afforded cabin accommodation. Their special consideration would appear to have been a result of interference by influential acquaintances, as indicated by Surgeon Price’s journal entry about Holt-:
“The reason that so many of the noblemen and gentlemen of Ireland- took notice of and interfered for Holt- was- that whilst he commanded the rebels, he preserved the estates and properties of many of them, from plunder- in the Counties of Wexford, Wicklow, Carlow, Kildare etc.” [xxiv]
In contrast, the Catholic priest on the ‘Minerva’, Fr. Harold from Dublin, was directed to the ship’s prison [xxv], and the priest Fr. James Dixon reportedly suffered severe health problems without proper treatment or sympathy, on the voyage on the ‘Friendship’. There is no evidence that Laurence, or any of the other prisoners on board the ‘Atlas 2’ were afforded those concessions.

© B.A. Butler

Contact email address:  butler1802  (NB. no spaces)

Link back to Introduction:

Links to all the chapters in this blog:

The 1798 rebellion
Laurence Butler's trial for his role in the Rebellion
Analysis of Butler's trial
Laurence Butler at the Battle of Tubberneering
Laurence Butler's imprisonment
Butler's life and family in Wexford
Laurence Butler's transportation to Sydney in 1802 on the Atlas 2
Conditions on Convict Ships
Life as a convict in Sydney
Laurence Butler's property investments in Pitt Street Sydney
Sydney Town in 1800-1810
Laurence Butler's petitions to the Governor
Laurence Butler's 100 acre land grant in District of Petersham
Butler's membership of the Commercial Society of Sydney
Laurence Butler's court cases
Laurence Butler's business interests in Sydney
Laurence Butler's cabinet making business
Laurence Butler's property investments in Sydney
Laurence Butler's colonial family
Laurence Butler's death in 1820
Laurence Butler's issue- Walter, Lawrence Junior and Mary Ann
The Catholic Community of Sydney up until 1820
Genealogy- Butler's possible ancestry and possible descendants in Ireland, and BDM records
Butler's fellow Irish rebels transported to Sydney
Conclusion about the life of Laurence Butler

[i]  S.H. Sheedy: Mitchel Library (Sydney) MSS 1337 pp24-5 op.cit. NB. Sheedy claims to have sourced his information from private journals written by his ancestors, viz. James Sheedy (transported 1806 ‘Tellicherry’) and his brother Michael Sheedy (1818 ‘Earl St Vincent’). However, the journals are no longer available for viewing, and therefore cannot be verified.
[ii] Charles Bateson, The Convict Ships 1787-1868, Brown, Son & Ferguson Ltd, Glasgow 1st Ed 1959, 2nd ed 1969, p12; Batesons’s ref:  J A Nixon “Health and Sickness” in C. Northcote Parkinson (Ed) “The Trade Winds” (London 1948), 122 citing Sir Gilbert Blane
[iii] Ibid, p13
[iv] Ibid, p18-19
[v] Ibid, p47
[vi]  Ibid, p67; (Batesons’s ref: Peter Cunningham “Two Weeks in NSW”, 2v, (London 1827), ii, 216-7)
[vii] Ibid, p68
[viii] Ibid, p69; (Peter Cunningham “Two Years in NSW”, 2v, (London 1827), ii, 216-7)”
[ix] Ibid, p70
[x] Ibid, p71
[xi] Ibid, p72; (J.B. O’Reilly “Moondyne, A Story of Life in Western Australia” (Melbourne 1880), 186, 189)
[xii] Ibid, p76
[xiii] Ibid, p77
[xiv] Ibid, p80
[xv] Robert Hughes, Fatal Shore, Collins Harvill, London, 1987, p.69
[xvi] Ibid, p70
[xvii] Ibid, p79
[xviii] John White, Journal of a Voyage to NSW  in July 1787 ,pub London 1790- p39 quoted in “Fatal Shore
[xix]  Brendan Whiting, Victims of Tyranny, Harbour Publishing, Strathfield NSW, 2004, p56
[xx] Ibid, p58
[xxi] Ibid, p56
[xxii] Ibid, p58
[xxiii] Ibid, p62
[xxiv]  Pamela Jeanne Fulton (Transcriber and editor), The Minerva Journal of John Washington Price: A Voyage from Cork Ireland to Sydney NSW 1798-1800, Melbourne University Press, 2000, p20
[xxv] Brendan Whiting, Victims of Tyrnanny, op.cit, p67