War and Peace: The History of British Prison Hulks, 1776-1864

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leicester
Department Name: Sch of Historical Studies


This doctoral project seeks to document the forgotten history of British prison hulks in the years of their operation, 1776-1864. Prior to 1775, transportation to American colonies had been one of the British government's primary means of punishing its felons. However, the outbreak of the American Revolution was to halt this process and very quickly, a growing backlog of both domestic prisoners and prisoners of war put a huge strain on capacities in British prisons. Government officials turned to hulks as a means to solve the prison housing crisis; primarily decommissioned naval warships which were not fit to sail but still habitable, hulks were stripped of their masts and fittings and reborn as floating prisons which could hold well over five hundred prisoners at any one time. This short-term solution was to continue well after peacetime, with hulks not only positioned around naval bases in Britain but also further afield, in the outposts of Bermuda and Gibraltar.
My research will consider hulks and their global networks, with a strong focus on the social and cultural lives of American prisoners during the American Revolution and War of 1812. With my thesis structured along loose chronological lines, I will explore hulks and their different administrative contexts, with likely themes to include identity, health, sociability, migration and labour. Ultimately, the project will create a multi-layered human narrative that tells us about daily life of prisoners on board, drawing on a range of archival materials; from government documents and newspaper reports to letters and journals. Though my primary research aim is to rectify a significant gap in the academic literature on prison hulks, my wider objective is to find new ways of presenting my work to non-academic audiences and make my work accessible, reconnecting the public with a forgotten era of our criminal past.


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Description I have designed a display case at the National Maritime Museum on the subject of prisoners of war, aimed at non-academic audiences.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description Caird Library Short Term Fellowship
Amount £1,600 (GBP)
Organisation National Maritime Museum 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2019 
End 07/2019