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Tools on 18th Century Convict Ships Sep 20

18 century pleasure boatingBack in the middle of the 18th Century, the jails in Britain were absolutely overflowing, there were so many criminals locked up. Believe it or not, but roughly 150 different crimes could get you the death sentence back then, so there were more people waiting for the gallows than could actually be hanged!

You may have heard that Australia was used as almost a prison island – well, this is how that started. Because there simply wasn’t enough room for all the convicts, we started to ship them overseas in specialised “convict ships”. These ships had their own unique tools, which were of course rather different to what we’re used to nowadays. Here are some of the most commonly used ones.

Torture Devices

Yes, sadly, we were still into torturing prisoners in those days. A number of the bigger convict ships had a selection of different torture devices built in to them, and the ship masters were often all too keen to make good use of them while they could.

On the infamous HMS Success, there was a wide range of torture chambers and devices made from solid iron. Any convict on board the Success was branded for life, so anyone they came into contact with would know.

One of the harsher punishments involved a liberal flogging – enough to open sizeable wounds – followed by a dunking in a seawater coffin bath. The salt would get into the open wounds, causing immense amounts of pain.


These chains were used for quite different purposes than the ones we buy from places like Shipserv these days – they certainly weren’t used for mooring or anchoring! No, these were attached to the ship and used to shackle the convicts so that they could not move freely.

Ostensibly to prevent an uprising of prisoners, the convicts would spend the majority of their time on board the ship being chained up in their cells. They were occasionally allowed out on deck so that they could get a lungful of fresh air (and a bit of exercise to prevent dystrophy of the muscles), but they would still be wearing the chains.


Not all ships had cells; some simply kept their prisoners chained up below decks. However, many ships did have them, and they were worryingly cramped. With barely any room for movement, they were comparable to how you might find the living conditions of modern day battery hens.

The only upshot was the hammocks for beds – because these swayed as the ship did, prisoners were less likely to fall out than they were in a normal bed.

Word soon began to spread among the general public back in Britain, and people quickly found out how appalling the conditions aboard the convict ships really were. With the uproar caused, the officials began to review exactly what was going on.

One of the earlier improvements was to ensure that there was a surgeon on board each ship, who was responsible for each prisoner’s wellbeing. This was only the beginning of the improvements, but convict ships were to fall out of fashion swiftly anyway, meaning the brutality was not able to continue.

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