Help with TV drama: 1830’s convict transports

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  • #18966
    Stephen M
    Participant

    Good morning! I am writing the screenplay for a TV series that centres around convict women in 1833, and features a voyage to Australia on a transport ship. The story is based on fact, and the ship is a 190′ bark of just over 200 tons, hastily converted for convict transportation by the addition of a poop just before she sailed with her cargo of convicts. I have a list of basic questions and seeking some help from a person knowledgable in such vessels. (If the series is greenlit, I could imagine there might be scope for further advisory work.)
    Starting with some simple questions:
    a) for a vessel to transport 100+ people in a converted merchantman’s hold, there would be a need for basic sanitary arrangements. I am assuming the “heads” (were they called that in 1830?) would be forward and vent directly into the sea. I believe prisoners’ arrangements would need to be kept be separate from the crew, but don’t have any documented evidence for this. Does anyone have any specific knowledge about how these would likely be arranged, and kept in reasonably hygienic conditions for the time? Lime?
    b) what kind of arrangements would likely be set up for keeping the prisoners warm on a cold voyage? eg were stoves in use in 1833 and how were they set up?

    That’s it for now- I hope someone gets to read this post and can help. Thank you in advance.

    #18974
    David Hepper
    Participant

    I am not an expert, but it appears that ships fitted out as prisoner transports had an internal section constructed in the hold, designated as a prison, with separate areas: sleeping berths, a “hospital” etc. The whole area was secured by guarded, padlocked door.
    Although the prisoners were allowed on deck for exercise etc., the intention was to keep them apart from the crew (as far as possible), so in regard to the heads (and yes, the term was in use at this time) it would suggest that they had their own facilities. Charles Bateson mentions that alterations included “bulkheads … removed, the location of

      privies

    altered…”. He also mentions that the prisoners were selected to assist with various duties – these included “hospital attendants, cooks,

      water-closet attendants

    , barbers and so on…”
    This would suggest that the ‘prison’ had its own facilities, within the ‘prison section’ and prisoners would not have been allowed to use the heads. Cleaning I cannot comment on, but would think that a bucket of seawater and a scrubbing brush ….?
    Warmth etc – it would seem that cold was not considered a problem, rather, the opposite, and I have found no reference to stoves etc. Bateson says that the “ …prison quarters were always dark and gloomy and utterly foul”, especially at night with the hatches and scuttles closed. In bad weather the air was “heavy and lifeless” and when passing though the tropics it was “stifling and oppressive”.
    Further, allowing prisoners access to a heated stove would have been considered dangerous – in 1832 onboard the convict transport John, some prisoners managed to smuggle a live coal from the galley into the prison section with the intention of setting fire to it, as part of a prisoner mutiny which did not succeed.
    Source of information: Charles Bateson The Convict Ships 1787 – 1868 (Glasgow 2nd Edition 1969)
    I would also suggest that looking at the transcripts of the Surgeon’s reports would give a glimpse of life onboard a convict ship …. see for example:
    http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C10372465
    http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C10554409
    http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C10378518

    #18973
    William Lindsay
    Participant

    Hi
    I might be able to help a bit. Not specifically about convict ships but about sailing in merchant ships in those days based on first hand experience. My great-great-grandfather was William Schaw Lindsay. He went to sea aged 16 in about 1832. He wrote extensively about his sailing days. About 20 of his diaries are in the Caird Library in the National Maritime Museum. I have transcribed most of them. Most of his work is unpublished. Here is a flavour, just a few snip its. :-

    “I am not of course aware under what circumstances Mr. Anderson bought the Isabella, or the price which he gave for her. She was a “Flush-ship” of about 450 tons register, only some three or four years old, built in Nova Scotia and, as proved afterwards, far gone with dry rot in her stern’s timbers. I had not been two days on board when I found that I had joined a very rotten ship, for my job was to carry away decayed timbers as the carpenter cut them out, or rather dug them out, from the stern frames. Those men I often heard say “this craft will be a coffin for some poor fellows”. It was indeed no pleasant beginning for me, but I resolved to stick by her, as I knew that there was little chance of getting another.”

    “Our work at Demerara was of the most laborious kind. We were “knocked out” that is roused from our hammocks by the thundering of a handspike over our heads on deck, every morning at gun fire, 5 o’clock. To be roused at that early hour, and in that summary manner every morning, after a sleepless night through suffocating heat, and that scourge of tropical climes, the ever annoying and restless hissing, stinging mosquitoes, was the reverse of pleasant. But go to work we must. George Anderson & Co., were the men to make hay while the sun shines, and with a ship of their own under their immediate care, and a tyrant mate who was utterly void of all feeling, we had no cessation of labour. From sunrise till 8 p. m. we were either working in a broiling sun on deck, receiving sugars or “pitching bricks” or breaking out huge casks of coals in the suffocating hold of the ship. And when short of employment on board George Anderson & Co, or their assiduous mate took care that there was plenty of work for us on shore in rolling casks down the wharf ready for shipment, or piling tierces of sugars in their stores, a description of work against which their own negroes rebelled. Our sailors very reasonably protested against this heavy labour, but we poor apprentices dare not make any complaint, but {32} were forced to submit to it. Any remonstrance on our part only caused McCastle to mark us in more ways than one.”

    “When our repairs were completed we proceeded to Dickty Quash, a place in the bay, to load a cargo of {35} deals and lumber, that which we landed at St. Andrews having been disposed of. The weather had then become rigorously cold, and we were completely exposed to it, as the vessel lay
    in a roadstead full three miles from the land. I slept in the forecastle with the men and, as the bow part was obliged to be open for the purpose of loading the cargo, our sleeping berths were really not much better than if they had been in the open air. It is true that at times we used to make a sort of fire in an old iron pot: but we derived little warmth from it and, as there was no chimney for the smoke to escape, we had to choose between the alternative of being suffocated or frozen. Upon the whole we preferred the latter, but in what way we contrived to keep ourselves alive in that miserably exposed place throughout that dreary six weeks of a most severe winter has often been to me a matter of astonishment. Our new crew seemed to feel the rigour of the weather much less than we boys, who had been accustomed to the tropical climate. So severe was the cold, and [so] intense the frost, that a tier of puncheons which stood at the after end of the forecastle where I slept, were, being filled with water, frozen in the course of one night into a single body of ice. My canvas trousers which lay beneath my hammock were always in the morning frozen so stiff that they stood upright, and before I could put them on – for my stock was very limited – I was compelled to go on deck to the {36} cook’s galley to thaw them. I have even found the blankets in my hammock frozen to each other, and that part of them on which I had been breathing during my sleep, formed a sort of fringe of ice round my neck. None but those who have lived in such a climate under similar circumstances can imagine the intensity of the cold.”

    If this should prove useful don’t hesitate to get back to me. Kind regards Bill Lindsay Mobile 07765 592901

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