Sydney's Prison Hulk - HMS Phoenix 1825-1827
This is our latest Convict Connections booklet. It complements our indexing of the prisoners held on the hulk Phoenix (on four CDs).
New South Wales used the hulk of the unseaworthy Phoenix as an extension of the old Sydney Gaol. It fell into utter disrepair in 1837.
If you had an ancestor who was on board the hulk then you should find this booklet of interest.
Not only convicts and ex-convicts were held on board. There were free settlers, natives, men born in the colony, and Crown witnesses waiting to appear before the Court.
The 60 page booklet is available through Convict Connections for $8.00 + $4.00 postage in Australia.
Following are some excerpts from the booklet –
…..Most of the prisoners on board the Phoenix were kept there only until a ship could transport them to a place of secondary punishment. It is necessary to point out here the distinction between the terms ‘convicts’ and ‘prisoners’. Convicts generally referred to those who were sentenced in, and transported from, any of the British colonies. If they re-offended in the colony they were still convicts until they completed their original sentences or were given pardons. They then became ex-convicts. When those who were free, freed or native born committed crimes in colonial Australia, and sentenced to serve time in gaols, they were prisoners. An ex-convict could become a prisoner on committing further crimes. Serious colonial crimes could result in prisoners being transported to harsher colonial penal settlements such as Port Macquarie, Norfolk Island, Moreton Bay and Van Diemen’s Land. Not all were sent to such places. Some prisoners served their time on the hulk.
……When the Phoenix was damaged at the entrance to Sydney Harbour on 6th August 1824, she was stuck on the reef for 24 hours. After being refloated and towed closer to shore, it was obvious that the dockyard could not make the necessary repairs to such a large vessel to make her seaworthy again. It was not until January 1825 that an auction was held to sell removable fittings. The hulk was then purchased to be specifically used as a prison ship to relieve the overcrowded condition of the Gaol in George Street. It would accommodate those who had received colonial sentences and were to be transported to penal settlements, as well as Government convicts who were in a poor state, and also Crown witnesses who were called to testify at criminal trials in Sydney.
…… In October 1830, a group of convicts who were due to be sent to Norfolk Island plotted their escape from the hulk. They had planned to overcome the guard. Their plot was uncovered and they were placed in heavy irons. The event triggered a tightening of security. Men who were to be sent to Norfolk Island had to remove their shoes in an effort to discourage attempts to abscond. The shoes were sent to the Island separately! After this attempt, the number of guards was also increased, and these guards were ordered to patrol the ship with loaded muskets. A pair of pistols; a cutlass; and ten rounds of ammunition were issued to the Superintendent of the hulk, the Assistant Superintendent and the boatswain (also spelt ‘bosun’). The latter happened to be George Lavender, after whom Lavender Bay was named when it was changed from Hulk Bay.
……The “Sydney Herald” on 2nd February 1835 reported on a coroner’s inquest into the death of John Smith. He was murdered by a “runaway convict from His Majesty’s Hulk Phoenix, under sentence of transportation to a Penal Settlement, who from laxity of that discipline which is indispensable in the control of this class, took an opportunity of escaping from his keepers, which led ultimately to the melancholy catastrophe ….”
Smith was a prisoner assigned to Mrs Finnis of Robertson’s Cottage on the North Shore. He died of wounds inflicted by a bushranger who demanded to know where money was kept. Smith was so badly beaten that a servant who shared the hut with Smith recognised him only by his hands. A box in the hut had been opened and clothing was missing from it.
The escapee, Thomas Weatherwick, was captured and identified as the murderer of Smith. He was described as being a mild looking young man about twenty-two years of age, and arrived in the Lord Lyndoch about two years ago, and was assigned to a Mr White of Port Stephens. He is a native of Hull, where he was employed as a merchant’s clerk, but subsequently entered the 14th Light Dragoons, in which regiment he committed a forgery, for which he was sent to this country for life. This man, according to his sentence, should have been long since forwarded to a penal settlement”.
The following is a report from a convict who was on the Phoenix Hulk in 1836. It is an extract from “Thomas Cook, The Exile’s Lamentation”. [North Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1978, pages 43-44.]
I was arraigned in the Quarter Sessions in May, 1836, and on of Guilty the plea of "Forgery" was sentenced to transportation to Norfolk Island for life. I was accordingly removed to that floating Den of Infamy, the hulk Phoenix, until opportunity offered for the Shipment of a draft of re-convicted prisoners to that place.
During my stay on board, scenes of depravity which human nature shudders to contemplate were exhibited with apparent delight. Nor were the means as resorted to by the Keeper for the punishment of slight Offences, at all calculated to lessen the successful spread of so demoralizing a contagion. The men of the adjoining Cell to that in which I and nine others were chained, had been smoking a Tobacco pipe one Evening, contrary to the Rules of the Establishment, when the Keeper came to our Cell and charged us as the Offenders.
He sent for ten pairs of Handcuffs, took our shirts, Blankets and clothes away, and manacling each of our hands behind our backs, he reefed the legs, which were very heavily Ironed, to the upper part of the Iron Staunchions of the Cell by means of a Bar outside, with the whole weight of our chains and bodies pressing on our Shoulder blades for the night, in a state of perfect Nudity. By the following morning, and for two days afterwards, I could scarcely regain the use of my Arms.
I have also seen men in a similar position, with the additional torture of a gagging instrument to silence their Cries, and the throwing of Buckets of Water over them when in that state. Numerous complaints had been made to the Authorities, but the capabilities of the Keeper and his aidants were such, that no prisoner could withstand the case they would make out to render futile the complainants' assertions; and thus these Outrages upon humanity commissioned with impunity.
The Keeper's predecessor, Captain Murray, who had practised similar cruelties, died in a state of Mental derangement, and the one in question (Mr McKeig) laboured under a similar malady, brought on by the excessive use of Ardent Spirits and it is to be hoped the Almighty had received their Souls.
Sydney Gazette Tuesday 7 November 1837 page 2
The old hulk Phoenix being now in a sinking state, an order has been given by the Government to have her sent on shore and sold by auction. Colonial shipbuilders would do well to examine this vessel and take a model of her, as the old Phoenix was well known to be one of the fastest sailing frigates that ever sailed from England.