Margaret Callow continues her series of posts covering themes and social aspects from her crime novel Rust, this time touching on the subject of capital punishment:
“So a convicted person, man, woman or child, must expect no mercy from the courts and should he or she be spared the death penalty or transportation and sent to prison, they would expect solitary confinement in the company of rats wearing a demeaning unsightly outfit embellished with arrows. Tasks set them such as working the crank or tread-wheel achieved nothing but their own exhaustion. Oakum picking shredded skin off their fingertips as a grater might the peel of an apple. Breaking boulders for stones left them toiling for hours in total silence often with only the company of the insane.
In the squalor of prison with minimal arrangements for hygiene, begging for a measly diet and hours of their own company one would think a convict might feel he was in torment in the most dreadful of places. Indeed oft times he was, but in truth he merely stood at the doorway of Hell. The honour of being that dreadful abyss of blackness itself fell to the convict ships otherwise known as the hulks.
Such abominations came about as the population increased and crime levels rose. By almost mid century, hanging seemed the answer to most crimes, but the numbers who were punished in this way caused much unease among the common folk. With the wondrous new world of Australia beginning to complain about being no more than a dumping ground for those with wicked ways and more criminals than ships to carry them across the world, the need for extra convict gaols has become critical.
Retired from active service, old naval ships rocking unsteadily in the harbours of the south or moored in the Thames were soon to become overcrowded and filthy abodes for felons. Stripped of anything which made them seaworthy, they took on another role and one which was much less dignified than their illustrious presence as a war ship on the high seas.
Be it you are to be confined to a floating hulk awaiting transportation to the colonies or to serve a prison sentence, be it for the theft of a goat, stealing a ladies purse or merely a crust of stale bread to ease the pangs of hunger, there is no distinction for a convicted felon. No matter your crime and without conscience or regret, the prison hulk is where you will serve your time. The hulk is a harsh mistress who inflicts you with hard labour by day and ankle shackles at night. All decency is lost, all compassion is forgotten and all kindness non-existent.
Take a walk through the dreary marsh and stand on the bank of the Thames river. Then catch the vile stench travelling on the wind and know from where it came. Maybe today it will be the unwholesome odour of cholera, tomorrow rotting flesh, dysentery or typhus. All the while rats who mind non of it, scamper freely through the woeful human cargo aboard these watery workhouses to spread even more disease. And remember the vermin who will bedeck your clothes like particles of snuff scattered freely wherever they so choose.
While Mr Rust awaits his hempen fate in 1846, some ten years later the hulks will follow his demise. And not before time, they will say. ”
Above: examples of convict ships or prison hulks
Rust, by Margaret Callow, will launch March from Grey Cells Press