Why UK's migrant barge evokes memories of its shameful history of maritime incarceration

Thousands were once crammed in horrendous conditions on former Royal Navy men of war

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In the words of one inmate, they were “schools of abominable pollution” and “nurseries of deep crime”, where “those who have been discharged from them have overrun England and spread vice and immorality everywhere in their track”.

Not conditions on board the migrant barge Bibby Stockholm, as some human rights activists might have us believe, but the words of Jørgen Jørgensen, a Danish adventurer unfortunate enough to be locked on a British prison hulk in the early 19th Century.

But while guests on the Bibby Stockholm have en suite bathrooms, free internet and three meals a day, many see a direct connection to the country’s past, when thousands were locked up in appalling conditions on decommissioned men of war known as “hulks”.

For Amnesty International, the migrant barge was like the "prison hulks from the Victorian era” and an "utterly shameful way to house people who've fled terror, conflict and persecution”.

The Guardian newspaper reported: “Prison ships have forever been associated with the worst excesses of English injustice.”

Columnist Tim Adams even quoted Napoleon on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, reminding his troops “Soldiers, let those among you who have been prisoners of the English describe to you the hulks, and detail the most frightful miseries which they endured!”

Cost effective

The UK government sees it differently. For Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Home Secretary Suella Braverman, the barge - built originally to accommodate offshore gas workers - is a humane and cost-effective way to house hundreds of young men who have illegally crossed the English Channel on small boats while their applications for asylum are processed.

But memories of the hulks - used to incarcerate prisoners of war and convicts awaiting transportation to Britain’s colonies - still linger, making such comparisons inevitable in the heated debate around illegal migration.

Their use is embedded in literature, like the convict Magwitch who escapes from one in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, or Jean Valjean, the hero of Victor Hugo’s, Les Misérables, imprisoned on the notorious Bagne of Toulon, former galley ships used by the French as hulks.

Using ships as prisons was first proposed by the British government at the end of the 18th Century, prompted by a shortage of jails on land. The War of Independence had made it impossible to transport convicts to the American colonies, and British prisons were overflowing.

The solution was “hulks”, former Royal Navy warships, stripped of their masts and weapons and moored on river banks. The first prison hulk opened for business in 1776 with the Justicia moored on the banks of Thames, and her inmates doing hard labour onshore during the day.

Between 40 and 50 of these hulks would be used as prisons during the 19th Century, including old warhorses like HMS Bellerophon, a 74-gun ship of the line that had fought at Trafalgar and the Battle of the Nile.

Masts removed, their decks could accommodate hundreds of prisoners, with the gun ports nearest the shore boarded up to deter escapes.

Phased out

During the American War of Independence, captured American soldiers were held on prison ships off the coast of New York. Conditions for those regarded as traitors to the crown were appalling, with around 10,000 dying in captivity - a worse casualty rate than in battle.

Poor food and hygiene combined with overcrowding were a general feature of the hulks on both sides of the Atlantic. They did little to deter crime, with an inmate called Williamson, sentenced to death in 1791, telling the press before his execution they were “A college of villainy – from whence every man comes out a master of arts; having taken every possible degree of scoundrelism”.

They had largely been phased out by the 1890s. One of the last was the Success, built in Calcutta in 1840 as a merchant ship, then converted to hold prisoners in Australia in the 1850s.

A contemporary description of life on-board reported “Leg-irons, spiked iron collars, straight iron jackets, body irons, with handcuffs attached, were also used on some of the prisoners doing their sentences on board the Success.

“The spiked iron collar was a shocking means of punishment, and was so constructed that the wearer was obliged to remain always in a stooping attitude, which induced ill-health in many, and was the cause of death to not a few.”

The ship was eventually bought by a group of entrepreneurs, hoping to cash in on her history as a floating museum. In 1907, the Success arrived on the River Liffey in Ireland, where the Weekly Irish Times called her ‘Britain’s Last Convict Ship’ and an “Ocean Hell.”

Still afloat in 1936, the women’s magazine Britannia and Eve called the ship “A floating chamber of horrors. But the 20th century would have many worse examples of floating prisons.

Among the worst were the “death barges” used by both sides in the Russian Civil War of 1918-19. Originally cargo barges they were moored on the River Volga, packed with prisoners in appalling conditions.

A doctor visiting a barge held by the “Whites”, as the opponents of the Red Army revolutionaries were known, found “festering wounds of those who were still alive and the noses and ears of the dead were crawling with maggots. An unbearable stench overwhelmed everyone who approached the hatch.”

There were also reports of at least one mass execution in March 1919, when as many as 4,000 prisoners of the Revolutionary Military Committee were thrown into the Volga, weighed down with stones.

Not to be outdone, the Nazis used ocean liners in Lubeck on the Baltic Sea to hold concentration camp inmates late in the Second World War. Attacked by the Royal Air Force, which mistakenly believed them military targets, three ships were sunk in May 1945, with the loss of up to 7,000 lives.

The British were not done with prison ships, though. During the Irish War of Independence, they deployed HMS Argenta, originally a cargo ship from Texas, to hold Republican prisoners of war.

During Northern Ireland’s Troubles, nearly 50 years later, the submarine support ship HMS Maidstone became a floating “internment holding area” in 1969, holding Irish Republicans without trial.

In the 1980s, two accommodation barges built in Sweden for the oil and gas industry were purchased by the New York City Department of Correction to reduce overcrowding in its prisons.

Both barges were later sold, with one becoming Her Majesty’s Prison Weare in 1997, moored at Portland Harbour on England’s south coast. Intended to relieve overcrowding, HMP Weare was eventually closed in 2005 as it was too expensive to maintain.

Temporary solution

Most modern prison ships used as a temporary solution for overcrowding, moored for as long as needed. The exception is the Vernon C Bain Correctional Centre, acknowledged by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s largest floating prison.

Opened in 1992, the massive structure, resting on a barge, has become a permanent fixture on New York City’s East River, close to the notorious Rikers Island jail. It can house up to 800 inmates, with facilities including a basketball ball court and a library.

Meanwhile, back in England, the first migrants have spent their first nights on the Bibby Stockholm. After a breakfast of cereals, eggs, cheese, jam and butter, some seemed happy, although one told the BBC it was like “entering Alcatraz” - the notorious island prison in San Fransisco Bay.

Others are taking legal action to avoid being sent to floating accommodation. Some, despite crossing to Britain by boat, are citing a fear of water.

Updated: August 11, 2023, 6:00 PM