Maritime Cork: The history and use of prison hulks in Cork Harbour

Maritime Cork: The history and use of prison hulks in Cork Harbour
A prison hulk vessel similar to the 'Surprise' that was located in Cork Harbour for many years.

Two hundred years ago a British Naval Officer suggested that a prison hulk should be anchored in Cork Harbour.

The proposal was intended to solve a problem at Elizabeth Fort, the main military barracks in Cork, where the Convict Depot established two years before, in 1817, was not able to cope with the number of convicts. These were destined to be transported to Australia and Van Diemen’s Land.

The proposal, put to the Navy Board by Lieut. Lewis based in Cobh, was approved.

Wooden warships that had come to the end of their useful life were used as prison hulks. Their masts, apart from lower sections remaining for stability and armaments were removed, turning them into floating prisons which could have two or three decks. Fearsome locations, with minimal facilities for convicts, crowded together and most often manacled, disease and illness were rampant.

The hulk, HMS Surprise, was towed to Cork Harbour in May 1823, The 23-gun frigate had been turned into a hulk at Plymouth after being withdrawn from active service. She was moored in Monkstown Bay, off Rocky Island, across from Whitepoint. The first 37 convicts were brought there from the Kerry Assizes in May 1823. Another hundred were loaded aboard the following month, from the Convict Depot at Elizabeth Fort.

On July 1, convict Timothy Riordan made the first escape. Because his legs were ulcerated, his manacles had been removed while he worked on deck. He jumped overboard, swam to Whitepoint and wasn’t recaptured until five days later in the city.

Rather surprisingly he was recaptured near the New Barracks on the northside, which replaced Elizabeth Fort as the main military base. It later became Victoria Barracks and then Collins Barracks.

Riordan was one of six hundred convicts held between HMS Surprise and the Cork Convict Depot. Male prisoners were housed on the ship, females at Elizabeth Fort.

Conditions aboard the hulk were the worst, but it was not until August of that year, that the first convicts were transported from there on the prison ships Isabella, Medina and Castle Forbes, to Australia.

The following Summer, July 1824, prisoners tried to set fire to the hulk. The alarm was raised and the fire quickly put out.

In 1825 British Government Inspectors criticised the lack of using convicts on Surprise for forced labour, because it was anchored and not tied to the shore. They wanted convicts to build Spike Island prison. The prison was not built another 20 years, by which time hulks were no longer used for incarceration.

However, hulk prisoners were used for the most common form of hard labour - picking oakum. They had to untwist old rope into strands and roll it into mesh.

In April 1827 the noted prison reformer Mrs. Fry, was amongst a group which visited the hulk Surprise and Elizabeth Fort she concluded that Elizabeth Fort, used for female convicts was “defective as to its conformation,” but both it and the Surprise “appeared to be cleanly, comfortable, and well superintended”.

Not all the convicts appeared to agree! There was a pitched battle between convicts aboard Surprise in August 1828 with injuries before they were subdued. 

Two further escape attempts were made in July 1834, the first when a prisoner named Whelan was at large for five days until recaptured in Galway. Two other prisoners also jumped overboard. One was recaptured from the water, taken back aboard the hulk, got away from guards again, jumped overboard a second time, but was again recaptured. The other prisoner got ashore at Whitepoint and made good his escape, with no report of him being recaptured.

The following year on March 24, 1835, three fires were set in different locations by prisoners aboard the hulk. All were put out without damage. In August faction fighting broke out between prisoners, armed with metal barrel hoops. Injuries were caused before it was suppressed.

A year later, in 1836, the use of floating hulks ended. mainly because they were costing more in security than land-based prisons. In September the prison ship, St.Vincent, transported the last convicts from the hulk, Surprise, to New South Wales.

The Surprise was sold for £2,000 in June of 1837.

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