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The National Archives in conjunction with Ancestry.co.uk have released over 200,000 records relating to prisoners incarcerated in prison ships which were commonly known as ‘hulks’. Many of these prisoners were awaiting transportation to Australia and held in dreadful conditions.
The records consist of registers and letter books and detail the prisoners’ names, year of birth, age, place of conviction and offence committed. Some have character reports written on them.
Prison ships were often former naval vessels which had fought in many of the most famous Napoleonic sea battles. But now they were a sad sight. Stripped of their masts, rudders and rigging, hundreds of convicts would be crammed into the ships in unhygienic conditions.
Essex prisoners include Charles Savage, a boy of 14, sentenced to transportation for 7 years in 1837. He was held on prison ship Euryalus at Chatham. His character was described as bad.
While George Staff, aged 44, never made it to Australia, he died before he could embark on a transport vessel – perhaps as a result of the living conditions. Described as a shoemaker who had been in prison before, he had been sentenced to transportation for 10 years for killing four donkeys.
Amongst these hulk records are details of the Polley gang, who must be quite an unusual criminal family. Thomas Polley 1771 from Braxted (not sure whether Little or Great) was first sentenced to a term on a hulk in the 1820’s for stealing horse-flesh, along with son William. In the 1830’s his 3 sons, Thomas, William, and Robert were all separately tried and transported for similar crimes, though father Thomas remained in Little Braxted. Robert, born c 1803, went on to have a bigamous marriage in Australia then died there in 1897 a successful farmer.
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