Gaol Fever, Public Humiliation and Floating Prisons

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the UK’s prisons remained squalid and brutal places, with little or no programmes for reform. Punishments were severe, with a strong emphasis on retribution and deterrence. Penalties were often public events designed to shame and discourage, including the ducking stool, the pillory, whipping, branding and the stocks. Other common punishments included public humiliations, such as court orders which required offenders to recite the details of their crimes in a marketplace or after Mass. The sentence for many other offences was death.

Disease-Ridden Cells

Jails were rarely used to imprison people as a long-term punishment. Instead, they tended to be used to keep people secure before trial or while awaiting punishment. Prisons were badly maintained and seriously overcrowded. There was little or no categorisation of offenders, with everyone from children to murderers kept together. Many people were imprisoned for debt and made to pay for their accommodation and food. Deaths were common and jails were often plagued by diseases such as gaol fever, which was spread by the bites of lice and fleas, and caused headache, fever and a rash of red spots.

Joining the Army

By the end of the 17th century, Houses of Correction, which had been created to control the growing number of homeless people on the streets of London, had been absorbed into the prison system under the control of the local Justices of the Peace. Juries gradually become reluctant to sentence people to the gallows for petty crime and some offenders were offered the option of joining the Army or Navy in exchange for a pardon. With flogging and other disciplinary measures common, the army was an unpopular profession, and the government gave officers the power to forcibly recruit men, usually from the poorest parts of society, in order to boost the dwindling troops.

Floating Prisons or ‘Hulks’

By the 1700s, the UK’s prisons were dirty and over-crowded. The system was full to capacity, partly due to a surge in the number of convicted debtors and – towards the end of the century – prisoners of war from conflicts with Napoleonic France. The prison system couldn’t cope and the government turned to decommissioned ships to be used as floating jails. Although the scheme was only initially authorised in parliament for two years, the Act was regularly renewed and lasted for 80 years. The hulks were crudely converted, with rigging, masts and rudders removed, and were generally kept in harbours. Conditions aboard the three first Hulks were poor and many inmates died. On Justitia, for example, inmates slept in tiered bunks with an average of 5ft 10inches of space each. Meals consisted of biscuits and pea soup, with a weekly ration of ox cheek and porridge twice a week. None of the ships had proper quarantine facilities and contamination was a constant danger, due to the flow of excrement from the sick bays.





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