Image Convicts from hulks, Woolwich, England, 1779

TLF ID R3010

This is a hand-coloured engraving of convicts from the hulks at Woolwich labouring in the docks area. Two hulks are anchored offshore with rowboats shuttling to and fro. Beneath the image is inscribed 'A View near WOOLWICH in KENT showing the Employment of the CONVICTS from the Hulks'. The engraving measures 29.8 cm x 44.9 cm.

Educational details

Educational value
  • This asset illustrates part of the daily lives of convicts who were kept in old naval ships at Woolwich (England) after transportation of convicts to the American colonies had ceased in 1776 because of the American War of Independence - initially a temporary measure, the 1776 Hulks and House of Correction Act introduced the concept of prisoners, debtors and people awaiting trial being held in hulks and performing hard labour, including dredging the Thames River; convicts were confined for months or years in the hulks before being transported to Australia between 1787 and 1856, when the hulk system ceased.
  • It shows the first two hulks (the 'Justitia' holding 256 men and the 'Censor' holding 250), used to house convicts sentenced to transportation for their crimes, at anchor off Woolwich - in the 18th century, gaolers charged convicts board and lodging and a gaoler named Duncan Campbell managed the Woolwich hulks as a private franchise; the convicts were poorly fed and often in ill-health with epidemics of cholera and malaria killing many in the crowded and poorly ventilated hulks; those who died on the hulks were buried in nearby marshes, and human remains have also been found at the site of the Royal Gun Factories and near the proof butts (the large black structure on the right).
  • It shows convicts building a proof butt (used to test cannons built at the nearby military compound called 'the Arsenal'), pile-driving large wooden piles to build the Convict Wharf, levelling the ground around and removing soil in wooden wheelbarrows - convicts also dredged mud from the river, which was screened to remove sand and gravel for public use, including reclamation of marshland at the Arsenal.
  • It demonstrates the use of manually operated pile-drivers (the four tall wooden structures with pulleys at the top) - each pile-driver had a rope that went over the pulley and was attached to a heavy weight; men would pull the rope, then let go, causing the weight to drop onto a wooden post and 'drive' it into the ground; there was a ready supply of prisoners for manual labour, but they were often poorly fed and too ill for such hard work, so construction eventually became uneconomical as projects took many years to complete.
  • It includes several rowboats that were used to transport convicts between the hulks and the dockyard.
  • It features four well-dressed members of the upper class (left-hand side), who appear to be members of the public curious to see convicts hard at work - two genteel women wear skirts with 'panniers' or padding underneath and small hats over elaborately tall hairstyles, and one has a muff to keep her hands warm; the men accompanying them wear 'frock coats', cut away at the front with long 'skirts' at the back; all the men wear tricorn hats and breeches that end at the knee with stockings below; the two men holding canes or walking sticks (in front of central white building) may be guards employed to supervise the convicts.
Year level

5; 6; 7; 8; 9; 10; 11; 12

Learning area
  • history;
  • studies of society and environment
  • History/Historical knowledge and understandings
  • Studies of society and environment/Time, continuity and change

Other details

  • Content provider
  • Copyright holder
  • Organisation: National Library of Australia
  • Remarks: Reproduced courtesy of National Library of Australia
  • Author
  • Date of contribution: 1779
  • Name: Carrington Bowles
  • Remarks: publisher
  • Publisher
  • Date of contribution: 30 Aug 2013
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia
  • Address: Melbourne VIC 3000 Australia
  • URL:
Access profile
  • Device independence
  • Hearing independence
Learning resource type
  • Image
  • Microsoft Internet Explorer - minimum version: 8.0 (MS-Windows) - maximum version: 9.0 (MS-Windows)
  • Firefox - minimum version: (MS-Windows)
  • Safari - minimum version: 5.1 (MacOS)
Operating systems
  • MacOS - minimum version: 10.6
  • MS-Windows - minimum version: XP - maximum version: 7
  • © Education Services Australia Ltd and National Library of Australia, 2013, except where indicated under Acknowledgements