Fourteen members of the Aldington Gang, including their leader, George Ransley, were sentenced to death at the Maidstone Assizes of 12 January 1827. However, their sentences were subsequently commuted to transportation for life, and on Monday 5 February, the men were removed from gaol and boarded prison hulks pending their transportation to Van Diemen’s Land.
Ransley, Wilson, Giles, Hogben, Quested and the Wire brothers boarded the Captivity at Portsmouth. Denard, Gilham, Higgins, Pierce, Smeed and the Baileys boarded the York at Gosport.
With the exception of James Wilson, who died aboard the Captivity, the men sailed aboard the Governor Ready, arriving in Hobart Town in 1827.
The story of Ralph Rashleigh provides a vivid picture of life on the convict hulk, Leviathan, as the following edited excerpts reveal.
… the cry of “Lags away” warned those who were transported that the time had now arrived for their removal to the hulk; and shortly afterwards those who … had been respited from death … were placed in two large vans, strongly ironed, handcuffed and chained together, as well as to the van, which drove off at a rapid rate. [After an overnight journey the van made the Portsmouth dockyard and the convicts] were permitted to alight on a wooden wharf, outside of which lay the gloomy bulk of the old Leviathan.
This vessel, an ancient 74, after having for many years borne the victorious banner of Britain in every sea from pole to pole, was at last condemned to the vile purpose of a convict hulk. …. In a few minutes the newly arrived criminals were paraded upon the quarterdeck of this old hooker, mustered, and received by the captain of the hulk, after which the irons they had brought with them were taken off and given back to the gaol authorities, who now departed. the convicts in the mean time were all marched to the forecastle and ushered into a washing-room, where each man was obliged to strip, get into a large tub of water, and cleanse himself thoroughly. Each then received a suit of coarse grey clothing consisting of a jacket, waistcoat and breeches. A very rough twilled cotton shirt, striped with blue and white, a round-crowned broad-brimmed felt hat, and a pair of heavily-nailed shoes completed this unique costume; and when they had been divested of their whiskers and got their hair closely cropped, the metamorphosis was … complete … Here, too, each man was double-ironed with a pair of heavy fetters, and after this they again emerged on deck, where a hammock and two blankets, with a straw bed, were supplied every new prisoner, and they were now ordered to go below.
They followed one of the guards down what seemed … an endless succession of step-ladders. When they reached the bottom, a perfect chaos of sounds saluted their ears. The first glimpse of the lower deck of this convict hulk showed a long pasage bordered by iron palisading, with lamps hung at regular intervals. Within these rows of palisades were wooden partitions, which subdivided the deck into upwards of a score of apartments. In each of these about fifteen or twenty convicts slept and ate.
The author (James Tucker) goes on to tell how the old chums played pranks on the new so that they ‘slept but little’ on their first night, waking to the stench of a wooden tub containing breakfast, a ‘food composed of a very coarse kind of barley boiled up with the soup made from the meat which was allowed to the convicts every alternate day. …The dietary of the hulk, exclusive of meat and barley soup, was, three days in each week, a portion of a mysterious semi-petrification, very much akin to chalk both in taste and durability. Nay, it was even much harder; but by the courtesy of the contractors dubbed for the nonce cheese … ‘too big to swallow and too hard to bite’… For breakfast and supper, when meat was not allowed, each man received a pint of the barley before named, plain boiled in water… Besides the above articles, a pound of very black unpalatable bread formed the daily allowance of each man, with a pint of very bad vinegar, here dignified with the name of table beer.’
The whole of the convicts, save those employed on board in cleaning the hulk, cooking, and attending on the officers, were sent every morning to labour in the dockyard, where they were employed in large parties, most appropriately designated gangs, at various works. Ralph was placed in a timber gang, and was quickly yoked to a large truck with twenty others, each man having a broad hempen band or collar put over one shoulder and beneath the other arm, so that in pulling, his weight pressed against it across his breast. Each gang was under the orders of a veteran sailor of the Royal Navy, some of whom were glad to repay upon the wretched convicts they tyranny with which they had been treated by their officers in former times, while others were more occupied in screwing out money from those under their charge, to enable them to pay frequent visits to the Tap where they solaced themselves with repeated libations of Heavy Wet.
Death on board the hulks
As mentioned above, Aldington gang smuggler, James Wilson was to die on board the Captivity and Ralph’s story also tells us about the rather unceremonious end of those unfortunate enough to end their days on board a hulk:
One day three of the patients died, and as deceased convicts were then usually buried in a graveyard near a number of ruined buildings on the Gosport side which were among the prisoners called ‘Rat’s Castle’, some of the convalescent patients … were selected to go there and dig the graves. Accordingly, over the water they went, under the care of one of the old sailors … in a boat manned by the convicts.
The soil was very light, and their task an easy one. When it was done the guard made a signal by waving a handkerchief upon a stick. While they were awaiting the return of their boat … [the convicts] lay or sat … among the nameless, shapeless grassy mounds which filled the convicts’ graveyard, each marking the narrow resting-place of one who had died degraded, forgotten and unknown, his last moments uncheered by the voice of affection or the soothing sympathies of kindred, and whose remains were scarcely cold ere he was hurried into the rude shell, hustled off in the boat, amid jokes or oaths, as the prevailing mood of the boatmen might be, and finally thrust in the ground, without a prayer, scarcely six inches below the surface of the earth.