Torture Devices of the Old Convict Ships (Sep, 1930)

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Torture Devices of the Old Convict Ships

By C. Moran

Methods of torture used to punish convicts, in vogue in the last century, are graphically displayed aboard the old prison ship, “Success, ” used in the 1850’s to transport British convicts to Australia. The ship is now touring various American ports.

WHEN the jails of England overflowed with prisoners nearly 130 years ago, Great Britain sought to relieve the situation by chartering a fleet of convict ships to transport the “criminals” to Australia. For fifty years this practice was continued, until public revulsion against the inhumanities to which the prisoners on these ships were subjected caused its abandonment.

At that time there were more than 145 offenses for which the decreed penalty was death, but the hangmen were kept so busy that for the less heinous crimes the sentence of death was commuted to one of transportation for life, or where the crime was exceptionally trivial, in the light of the present day—as, for example, the theft of -a twopenny pie or a square of bleached linen—to a sentence of seven years, which was the minimum for a transported convict.

The convict ship Success, once more off the ways on her last American cruise, gives mute testimony of how not to solve the problem of more jails or less criminals. For forty years now, this ship, built in the year 1790, has sailed the seven seas as an exhibition in aid of prison reform. Aboard it may be seen the torture irons that broke men physically and mentally; the airless cells that rivalled the black hole of Calcutta; the branding irons which placed the ineradicable mark of the convict on prisoners.

Apart from its horrors of torture chambers, its “coffin” bath in which the wounds of lashed prisoners were swabbed with sea water, its flogging frames, its leg irons, and its punishment balls, the ship is a marvel of shipbuilding craft. Massively built of solid Burmese teak, the Success was first launched in 1790 as an armed East India merchantman with brass guns, and fitted handsomely for the reception aboard of princes, nabobs, and the wealthy traders of the Orient.

Her tonnage is 1100, and she is 135 feet long with 30 feet beam. Her solid sides are 2 feet 6 inches thick at the bilge, and her keelson is a solid teak baulk of great thickness, with sister keelsons little less massive. Her square cut stern and quarter galleries stamp her with the hallmark of antiquity, but her bluff bows show that she could never have distinguished herself for a high rate of speed.

The ship was chartered by the British Government in 1802 as one of a fleet of five convict ships to transport prisoners to Australia. Cells were constructed on the ‘tween and lower decks, and a large force of warders was employed to guard the prisoners. “Refractory” prisoners were immured in dungeons in the dark depths of the lower deck, their only exercise being restricted to one hour in every twenty-four, when they were marched from stem to stern upon the upper deck. The course they followed can still be perceived by tracing the grooved pathway worn into the original planks of the deck.

When a prisoner broke for freedom, and was captured, he was compelled to wear a heavy ball of iron, weighing 72 pounds, attached to his belt by a chain. The eyes of refractories on parade were sometimes lightly bandaged, and a “black gag” was used to silence their cries of pain, the gag consisting of a wooden bit in a leather bridle, the straps buckling around the convict’s head and neck. The blacksmith’s forge was under the fo’c’sle head, where the iron anklets and chains weighing from 7 pounds to 56 pounds were forged.

The corner cells on either side of the lower deck were the dreaded “black holes” in which prisoners who had been guilty of some breach of discipline or fractious conduct were punished by solitary confinement lasting from one to one hundred days, according to the gravity of the offense. These small and tapering torture-chambers measure only two feet eight inches across. The doors fit tight as valves and close with a swish, excluding all air except what can filter through a perforated iron plate over the bars above the door. A stout iron ring is fastened knee high in the shelving back of the cell and through this ring the right hand of the prisoner was passed, and then handcuffed to the left wrist. He was thus prevented from standing upright or lying down.

Constant applications of the “cat, ” imprisonment in the “black hole” and other punishments were the instruments relied upon for producing a reform. In each of the larger cells, on either side of the corridor, the floor is worn into hollows and grooves, close against the doorway by the constant jangling and friction of the prisoners’ leg-irons.

In 1851 the Success was permanently stationed as a receiving prison in Hobson’s Bay, Australia, but in 1857 the disclosures that had been made of the inhuman treatment accorded the prisoners created an outcry in Australia that resulted in 1868 in the abandonment of the hulk system. For some years later the Success was used as a women’s prison, then she became successively a reformatory ship and ammunition store, and later all the prison hulks were ordered to be sold on the express condition that they were to be broken up, and their associations lost to the recollection of the people of Australia.

By a clerical error, this condition did not appear upon the terms of sale of the Success, hence she remains the only British convict ship afloat on the seven seas. In 1885 she was scuttled and sunk in Sydney harbor where she lay under the waters of

Fort Jackson for five years. Then she was raised to be exhibited as an educational object lesson in prison reform. Since then the Success has been on exhibition in the Australasian colonies, has twice circumnavigated England and Ireland, has made one complete circuit of American ports, and now is on her last scheduled cruise in American waters.

The exhibits on the ship include a branding iron with which convicts were branded on the palms of the hand with a broad arrow. They were chained to a triangle while this operation was being performed. Dangerous prisoners were rendered helpless by the use of a body iron with handcuffs attached. There is an iron straight jacket, and a spiked collar, the chain of which was kept short to keep the convict in a stooping posture. The “silent guard” is a ringed stone of Australian blue granite to which twenty convicts were chained at a time. With wrists and ankles fastened to the flogging frame, the prisoner was at the complete mercy of the convict flagellator.

  1. Anne says: June 26, 20085:47 am

    Wow. Just… wow.

  2. galessa says: June 26, 20082:59 pm

    Thanks god nothing like this happens these days, except in primitive places like Abul Graib and Guantanamo.

  3. Rick Auricchio says: June 26, 20086:01 pm

    “…at the complete mercy of the convict flagellator.”

    There’s a title for someone’s business card: Convict Flagellator.

  4. Bill S. Preston Esq. says: June 26, 20089:14 pm

    Iron Maiden??? Excellent!

  5. Steve Trousers says: October 19, 200810:57 am

    Be careful Galessa. Some (I doubt all, but some) of the people in those places would wish that these sort of punishments really did come back.

  6. patriot says: November 27, 200811:54 pm

    Paul McNulty former #2 at DoJ now at Baker McKenzie advocated reviving these ships and devices. Baker McKenzie would have done it under McCain and Palin!

  7. pan-chan says: December 9, 20082:12 pm

    Nice. And people think that the death penalty and other corporal punishments are inhuman. Bring back these devices and watch crime rates plummet.

  8. coolkhush says: January 19, 20093:11 pm

    i sware to god its good that nothing like this happens today ..

  9. jessica says: February 23, 20098:14 am

    i swa the movie it was a different experience to me …….

  10. ted says: June 24, 20091:41 am

    Brand all gov. officials. as Liars.

  11. Joe Dokes, Jr. says: July 13, 200910:07 pm

    yeah … we have it compartmentalized around the Middle East ,,,,beheadings are the norm ….WAKE UP

  12. Cassandra says: February 10, 201010:35 am

    We are complete fools for removing those barabaric ways, now we have millions of prisoners and many are being let out early due to over crowding. I believe we should make prison into a Hell inorder to keep people from doing their wicked deeds and to keep people from repeating the act ever again.

  13. JMyint says: February 10, 20106:05 pm

    No punishment or threat of punishment has ever prevented crime. Even in places with the most sever punishment crimes are still committed. Prevention of crimes and rehabilitation is the the best route. Things like education and employment go far towards preventing crimes. Treatment for mental illness and drug addiction, education and jobs go far towards rehabilitating criminals.

    That said, capital punishment does have a function for those who are two dangerous to be rehabilitated.

  14. Jari says: February 11, 20109:42 pm

    JMyint: I mostly agree. One problem is repeat offenders. They get a change to get a profession, but still, when they are released, the first thing they do is to rob or beat someone up….. As with capital punishment, I disagree, there’s been cases, when innocent people has been executed for crimes they didn’t commit. Found out when forensics sciences have gotten better. Prison sentence for life is enough. Hmmm, on a semi-ligher note, perhaps something like a system from Judge Dredd would be in order (comic, not the movie)….

  15. Robin says: September 15, 20101:41 pm

    Interesting but very fanciful. You have to remember that this ship was purchased to be an exciting tourist attraction in the 1930s – there is no way that the ‘iron maiden’ had any relationship to this ship other than the owners trying to attract more customers.
    Compulsary baths there may have been but that’s no suprise, and certainly not as some sort of torture.
    British prison hulks were a way to deal with prison overcrowding – they were as tough as any western prison but you should take this 1930s article with a pinch of salt

  16. Chips says: September 29, 20101:19 pm

    “In 1851 the Success was permanently stationed as a receiving prison” – can not be true as she arrived in Victoria, from Britain with emigrants, on 31 May 1852

  17. Firebrand38 says: September 29, 20102:00 pm

    Chips: Do you have a source for that? There are actually a couple different dates given here
    I mean, Wikipedia says 1852 but then again its Wikipedia

  18. Chips says: September 29, 20102:21 pm

    (official) Victoria State record VPRS 14 (Register of Assisted British Immigrants 1839-71) gives the arrival of the Success as May/June 1852.
    URL :-…

    As you say “then again that’s Wikpedia”

  19. Chips says: September 29, 20102:31 pm


    “This, however, was not the most tragic phase of the existence of the Success, for though she continued to carry convicts to Australia until 1851.”

    She certainly wasn’t carrying convicts on her 1852 trip from Britain !!

  20. Firebrand38 says: September 29, 20102:32 pm

    Chips: That would be better but the link you provided doesn’t work

  21. Firebrand38 says: September 29, 20102:38 pm

    Firebrand38: Let’s try this one instead…

    Now there’s a proper link.

  22. Firebrand38 says: September 29, 20102:44 pm

    I can’t help but notice how several people with identical names arrived in May and June. It baffles science!


  23. Chips says: September 29, 20104:15 pm

    You’ll probably find that one – 5A 216 – is from the Arrival/Ships Manifest (31 May) and the other – 8 67 – is from the the Landing Manifest (early Jun).

    Simple Customs logic – Arrival/Ships Manifest should = Landing Manifest – if not the Master has some explaining to do – death/birth onboard ?

  24. Firebrand38 says: September 29, 20105:24 pm

    Chips: Excellent stuff! Thanks for that!

  25. Nikola says: October 20, 201010:42 am

    @ Bill S Preston Esq. MOST EXCELLENT !

    BTW Nowadays we pay money to get whipped in some dark dungeon, in those days FOR FREE !

  26. Anonymous says: September 11, 20117:11 pm

    There was something even worse: slave ships. In that case the slaves were chained to shelves in the ship’s cargo bay. I bet captains kept a couple shelves empty to punish crew members. “Twenty lashes or a few days in the cargo bay?” Try googling “slave ship” yo find out about those atrocities.

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