Hell on High Water: Victoria’s Floating Prisons

No examination of Victoria’s penal system is complete without mention of the prison ships that were on use at Point Gellibrand in Williamstown through the 1850s and 1860s. The most renowned of these craft was Success, which toured the world as a floating museum until fire destroyed it in the 1940s.

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In the fledgling colony of Victoria crime was hardly worth a mention until the gold rush of the 1850s saw an influx of immigrants – honest and nefarious – in pursuit of the elusive metal. Naturally crime exploded and very quickly the prisons were full to capacity. The government was desperate for a solution and taking note of the increasing number of abandoned sea vessels in the ports around the colony an idea struck: by converting passenger craft into prisons the overpopulation problem would be immediately eased.

Deborah and Sacramento moored at Williamstown before they were scrapped

The Victorian government began acquisitions in 1852 and the first crafts purchased by the government were the Deborah, the Sacramento and the Success. Their middle decks were fitted out with cell partitions of a much smaller dimension than would be found in terrestrial prisons and a far cry from the communal spaces favoured by the prison hulks that had brought convicts to Australian shores. These ships had their masts removed and were anchored off Gellibrand Point and convicts were rowed to shore in work parties, each group allocated a different job. Work parties from the Deborah, for example, were tasked with clearing land for the roads while the Sacramento prisoners were rock breakers. Initially Success was the maximum security vessel but this soon changed. Each craft housed specific groups of prisoners – Deborah was for insubordinate seamen and deserters, Lysander for Aboriginal inmates, Sacramento for less troublesome inmates and Success for harder edged offenders.

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The next acquisitions were the Lysander and the President. The Inspector-General Samuel Barrow had made the decision to make President the maximum security craft where the worst of the worst were sent to live out their sentences in cruel and vindictive conditions. Cells on President were even smaller than on the other vessels and the solitary cells were in the bottom of the ship below the water line. A small window in the cell was covered with mesh and on a calm day was fine but when the water was agitated by tides or storms the cells were flooded. All prisoners on President were made to serve the entire sentence in irons that were riveted to their ankles and on occasion would be chained in their cells such that they were incapable of laying down, sometimes only held up by their thumbs. Upon admission their clothes were destroyed and they were given prison uniforms, and their faces and heads were shaved. Floggings were frequent, in many cases all inmates in a cell block being flogged for the misdemeanour of one or a small few in their number. This was in addition to punishments like having a rod jammed into the prisoner’s mouth and secured with a gag or having their hands chained to the ringbolts on the upper deck. When concerns were raised about the beatings men received the then Inspector-General John Price failed to see the problem. Reading was prohibited and Barrow himself stated categorically that the purpose of a prisoner’s time on President was to suffer.

On the rest of the ships food was frequently inedible and hygiene was a huge problem. While punishment on Deborah, Sacramento, Lysander and Success was not as horrific as on President the prisoners were just as subject to abuse and being punished severely over trivial infractions. Prisoners in the solitary cells were kept in silence and complete darkness for days, even weeks at a time.

Some of Australia’s most infamous bushrangers did time on the prison ships. Captain Melville, Owen Suffolk, Dan Morgan and Harry Power did time on Success while Ned Kelly was imprisoned on Sacramento for a time building seawalls. Captain Melville spent nearly a month in solitary on Success for attempting to bite off a guard’s nose. He later ended up in Melbourne Gaol for murdering ship warden Owen Owens while being rowed to shore with his work party. Harry Power, then known as Henry Johnstone, was one of the suspected accomplices in the murder. Dan Morgan was imprisoned on Success in 1855 as “John Smith” and was present when a gang of 36 disgruntled prisoners murdered Inspector-General John Price with rocks, shovels and pickaxes in 1857. Morgan also lost the tip of a finger in an accident during his time on the ship though details have been lost to time.

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An artist’s depiction of the attack on John Giles Price at Point Gellibrand.

By the 1860s the demand for the prison ships was dramatically decreased. With Pentridge Prison being completed the ships were adapted to be merely extensions of the prison with convicts being sent from Pentridge, Melbourne and other prisons to do time on Sacramento and Deborah as part of their sentence. Success was converted into a boys’ reformatory during this time but this was soon scuppered as sexual misconduct was rife on board, instead becoming a women’s prison. Deborah and President also housed boys and women before the prison ships were phased out entirely and the vessels once more repurposed as storehouses for the military.

In the 1890s Success was converted into a museum full of relics of the convict era (the vast majority of which were hoaxes such as the iron maiden) as well as very convincing waxworks of convicts to help illustrate the prisoner’s experience. Harry Power even went back to Success as a tour guide during this time but lack of profit resulted in a change of plans. Matters weren’t improved when Success partially sunk and was once more sold off. It toured the world as the world’s oldest ship still in operation (promoters claimed it was built around the time of the American revolution, it was actually built in Burma in 1840) and as a relic of convict transportation (it never transported convicts, though it was a passenger vessel originally). It ended up in America where fascination with the craft fizzled and a mysterious fire destroyed it in the 40s. Some of the relics and wax dummies were salvaged and can be found in museums.

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The Success meets her fiery end at Lake Erie

The remaining prison ships were ordered to be scrapped in 1885, their usefulness to the government having passed. Yet, the evidence of the era is readily visible in the timeball tower, roads, pier and seawalls at Williamstown that were all the product of convict labour. Some may say that these inhumane places deserve to be forgotten, yet they are a big part of the history of Victoria and of crime and punishment. As unpleasant and unpalatable as many parts of history are now to our modern sensibilities, they are still invaluable in mapping out our story as a society and understanding our human nature.

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The famous timeball tower was used to signal to the work parties at Point Gellibrand when to stop work and return to the ships.

Selected Sources:

http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/law-order/true-crime-scene/pictures-reveal-the-shocking-truth-of-melbournes-prison-hulks-a-floating-hell-for-notorious-prisoners-like-bushranger-harry-power/news-story/f9f80dd3cde2184d52a503c7d75a9db4

http://www.eriewrecks.com/shipwrecks/success/success.html

http://www.smh.com.au/comment/melbournes-cruelest-prisons-the-hulks-of-hobsons-bay-20170712-gx9hgu.html

The history of the convict hulk Success and Success prisoners: a vivid fragment of colonial history by Joseph C. Harvie

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