hulkUnnamed prison hulk c 1810. Notice the washing


The late Georgian period was a time of high bread prices and starvation unless you were a horse. Horses were indispensable; a hungry horse would not work, and more importantly during the war with Napoleon, would not fight. Horses were feed mostly on oats- the kind of food that in the 1810s a large number of the lower classes could not afford. It was proposed after Waterloo that that money could be saved by feeding the King’s horses a lower quality of oats, but this was abandoned when it was realised that this would put the King’s horses in direct competition with the King’s subjects for the same food, raising the price for both.

William Waterhouse of the Swan with Two Necks Coaching Inn owned 400 horses, which he used to pull stagecoaches for their first part of the journey out of London. By 1817 he claimed to be spending £2 per horse on food, accommodation, tax .Waterhouse  had distribution centres all over the Home Counties, including a warehouse in South Mimms in Essex. Essentially, he owned one of the biggest stores of food in the country. IIt needed to be defended from the starving and desperate.

It needed to be defended from Thomas Dawkins, an agricultural labourer and carter who was also from Essex- born in Brentford in 1796. We have no idea of his economic circumstances beyond a good guess, but what is absolutely certain that he would have settled for the £2 a week that was making Mr Waterhouse’s horses very comfortable. If he was working in agriculture he might be earning £6 a year- if he was working as a carter it might be 15 shillings a week.

Like many substantial property owners during the Regency, Waterhouse used the law regularly to protect his assets against the crime wave that engulfed Britain after Waterloo. The law was vicious to those who were caught, but the state provided no resources to catch criminals, so they wealthy had to do it themselves. Waterhouse paid money to guard his food; he had already suffered losses as the crime wave continued, so he employed Thomas Young, a chaff cutter (who cut up straw or hay)to hide in the hay all night.. Young deposed ( via Oldbaileyonline);

I had orders to watch, I laid among the straw by the corn in; between twelve and one o’clock at night, the prisoner, and another, man came up and filled five sacks with oats, and took them away to the road-side, I followed after the other man, leaving the prisoner behind in the granary; I told the foreman, after which I went to look for the corn and found it on the road side ready to be put into the cart which was drawing up, loaded with hay, which was going to town that morning; the prisoner had been Mr. Waterhouse’s servant.

Dawkins claimed to have been sleeping in the hay due to homelessness and poverty, a likely scenario and possibly still true, while not contradicting the evidence of Waterhouse’s employers. Thomas was clearly unemployed and desperate.

Dawkins played a high price for the attempted theft . He was transported to Australia for seven years. Technically, this was a correct sentence- the food was worth £5, and this was therefore grand larceny. However, transportation was usually for repeat offenders, people who the magistrates were sick of seeing, but this does not seem to be the case this time. It was a particularly difficult time for law enforcement and availability of food, so a message was being sent out to others who might want to steal.

He was finally sentenced on 17 September 1817 , but he did not arrive in Van Diemen’s Land- modern day Tasmania- until 17 November 1820. In the meantime he had had three experiences that were arguably just as bad as working in Australia- Newgate Prison, a prison hulk and a long journey to Australia.

Newgate was an anarchic, overcrowded hell hole. The condemned cells were full of people awaiting execution or reprieve, the rest of the prison was full of hardened criminals and petty offenders, some doing their time and some awaiting transportation. They shared a kitchen which had been recently opened to prevent prisoners cooking their own food in any corner of the prison with the subsequent mess and dirt that was produced. Prisoners received no bedding or clothes- rich inmates would buy them; the most powerful would steal them and the weaker ones would soon be naked. There was no supply of soap. If you had no money of your own, there was no supply of anything. Thomas is registered there in 1820; he is 5 foot three, with brown hair and eyes. He probably keep his head down.

From his sentence in September 1817 to July 1820, Thomas was on the prison hulk ship Bellerophon in Sheerness harbour. The ship was as old as Thomas himself, had had a exemplary record during the Napoleonic war and once held Napoleon himself. It 1816, it was unromantically stripped down and became a prison for a different type of enemy of the state. It was not the worse of the prison hulks- the Retribution was the worst. That prison is described in my book ‘Dark Days of Georgian Britain

It was a largely privatised prison service; we in the UK today know the problem with this. Like all Regency prisons it was overcrowded. Dawkins would have been stripped and washed in cold water, given a coarse suit to wear and, if refractory, put in irons. A record exists from the hulk showing that Thomas was given shoes and stockings, as were the rest of the prisoners, probably as a basic hygiene measure.
Each ankle would have an iron fetter attached by a chain, attached in the middle to a belt around the waist to stop the chain dragging on the ground. Some men were physically deformed for life by this double chaining, not so much when it was worn as when it was taken off.

Most inmates would be expected to work, mostly at government owned military bases on the mainland. Ten hours a day working was common in summer. They would perform various labouring jobs in groups of twenty overseen by prison wardens who were, in the words of another hulk prisoner, James Vaux ‘most commonly of the lowest class of human beings, wretches devoid of all feeling, ignorant in the extreme, brutal by nature and rendered tyrannical and cruel by the consciousness of the power they possess’

The diet was as cruel as the workload. The hulks were run by private enterprise contractors who bought the cheapest provisions they could find to feed the inmates. Breakfast was boiled barley which was so bad that there was often some left to feed pigs; there was meat four days a week but it was from animals that had died of old age; on days when no meat was served (banyan days in navy parlance) there was a vegetable or corn bread stew called burgoo; when there was cheese it was an inferior type made with skimmed milk.

Dawkins left Britain in July 1820 as one of the 150 convicts on the Caledonia. We know little about the journey. Another transportee, the trade unionist Thomas Holden caught jaundice, nearly starved to death and lamented the fact that the solidarity of the poor that he had witnessed and encouraged in England was destroyed by the long sea journey.

How did Thomas fare in Australia? He settled in Hobart Town and continued his job as a carter, presumably without stealing the property of others. He seemed to have been a law abiding man. Luckily we have the conduct books from the Archives Office of Tasmania, which list the type of bad things the convicts were doing –neglect of duty, drunk and disorderly, sheep taking, abusive language and medical history, including those who died. Thomas’s record is empty, and that was very rare. We know that he was a witness in a government enquiry while he was there- it seems to have been as a source of information rather than as a miscreant, as this would have been on his record. It does not even mention the end of his captivity on 7 October 1824, as his seven year stretch was calculated from his conviction in Britain rather than his arrival in Australia, although he might have had his punishment reduced for exemplary behaviour.

 We lose track of Thomas at this point.  There are plenty of Thomas Dawkins, Agricultural Labourers in the UK censuses but they are unlikely to be him. Only about five percent of transportees ever returned to Britain. Let’s hope it went well for him. He paid a high price for five sacks of oats.

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