Solved: riddle of Halifax Luddites

Grim:  a floating prison in Portsmouth harbour. Conditions inside were appalling.
Grim: a floating prison in Portsmouth harbour. Conditions inside were appalling.

Last month in Nostalgia I related the story of the Halifax Luddites who were condemned at York to seven years’ transportation in January 1813 for administering an illegal oath (“Twist in tale of Luddite ‘sting’”, September 8).

Until this year it was always assumed that John Baines and the other Luddite sympathisers had been been exiled to New South Wales or Tasmania. This now turns out not to have been the case, as fresh evidence has led to the discovery that the Halifax men did not embark for Australia. So what became of them?

Conditions on board the floating jails were appalling.

Conditions on board the floating jails were appalling.

None of the late 19th-century writers on the Luddites, nor those since, had apparently checked that there was no record of their passage in the convict transportation registers. Their fate was actually located in the hulks registers. Our Halifax men had served sentences of hard labour on old ships moored near Ports-mouth and none had reached the southern hemisphere at all. This was a fascinating discovery.

Abel Magwitch, in Charles Dickens’ great novel Great Expectations, was a convict who had escaped from a hulk moored in the marshes of north Kent, having been condemned to 14 years’ imprisonment. At some stage he managed to escape, and met young Pip.

Prison hulks were decommissioned ships which the authorities used as floating prisons in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They were not convict ships; the latter were used to transport felons from their place of conviction to their place of banishment.

Prison hulks were former warships, converted by the removal of the rigging, masts, rudders and other features required for sailing and thus rendered inoperable or unseaworthy. They retained only their ability to float.

Their internal structure was reconfigured with various features, including jail cells or wards, so as to accommodate convicted offenders or, occasionally, prisoners of war.

Hulks were typically loc-ated in harbours and they were not operated by the Navy but by guards. The prisoners on board were always kept in irons and their restraints were regularly checked by the guards.

The ordinary working day on a hulk usually began for convicts about 5.30am. The men were then mustered on deck and as soon as they had finished breakfast one of the three decks on the ship was washed down. Then the convicts stowed their hammocks and, having been searched, left the ship in gangs to work in the dockyards or elsewhere on shore.

The work gangs usually consisted of 10 men supervised by a free overseer. They were closely guarded to make sure that they didn’t slack off or attempt to escape and there were frequent musters to check all were present.

In the evening, on their return to the ship, the prisoners were again searched and their irons examined. At around 9.30pm lights were put out.

Violence aboard the hulks was common; small issues could blow up and cause major incidents. Some former prisoners later testified that after lights out the intensely-crowded lower decks became places where convicts robbed one another, quarrelled, fought, swore and apparently did much as they pleased.

One expert has noted: “From almost whatever hulk witnesses came, the phrase ‘hell upon earth’, or something very like it, finds its way into the evidence.”

Those held on the hulks were invariably men but the lists include eight-year-old Francis Creed, confined for seven years on HMS Bellerophon in 1823 for stealing copper worth three shillings (15p).This little boy served his term in the company of thieves, bigamists and murderers, some aged over 80.

These, then, were the horrific conditions in which the five men from Halifax found themselves in February 1813. They were listed in the hulks registers among a group of 12 prisoners from York, received at Portsmouth on February 4, a month after their conviction.

The list unfortunately does not name their ship but if they served on the same vessel as the batch of men listed immediately above them they were held on the Bellerophon. The Portsmouth hulks were apparently moored in Langstone Harbour, between Portsea Island and Hayling Island.

And that is where the lives of John Baines senior and John Baines junior came to an end. The registers record that the younger man died first, on March 13, probably in 1815 .

John Baines senior, the republican Halifax hatter, died on December 21, again probably in 1815. The cause of death is not recorded but conditions on board those awful floating jails were appalling and disease rife.

But what of WilliamBlakeborough, George Duckworth and CharlesMilnes, the three younger men, who also served sentence on the hulks? They survived and on January 3 1816 they were each granted a free pardon.

Did they return to Halifax? I do not know – but here is scope for further research.