Phoenix Hulk

The 589 ton Phoenix ship was built on the Thames. On 21 July 1824, the Phoenix arrived in Van Diemen's Land with a load of convicts from England. Under the command of Captain Robert White, the Phoenix picked up a pilot just outside Sydney Heads but on entering the harbour struck the Sow and Pigs Reef. The keel was found to be so damaged that it could not be repaired. The ship was sold to the NSW Colonial Government for ₤1000 and converted to a prison hulk for those awaiting secondary transportation to Norfolk Island and Moreton Bay. The Phoenix Hulk was usually moored in Lavender Bay in Sydney Harbour. By the end of 1837 it was described as being in a sinking state and was auctioned for ₤145, the prisoners being temporarily housed on Goat Island.

Selected articles

The Sydney Gazette Thursday 23 June 1825 p.2

We are happy to learn, that the Phoenix hulk is almost ready to receive prisoners. Under the inspection of Mr. Sleight, the vessel is fitting up in a superior and confortable style ; and it strikes us that those afloat will be much better off than their miserable associates in crime on shore. Cleanliness in a prison, or any where else in fact, is very desirable ; but where it is disregarded no compliment is due to those who neglect a quality which has ever been esteemed as secondary only to "godliness." We anticipate much lasting benefit to result from the judicious step exercised by our considerative Executive in the procurance of the Phoenix as a hulk :–it will have no small influence on the bush-ranging system, as escape will be impossible, unless it be effected when the prisoners are employed in the town.

The Sydney Gazette Thursday 30 June 1825 p.2

His Excellency Sir THOMAS BRISBANE visited the Capital on Tuesday morning, for the customary Despatch of Public Business.
A COUNCIL was held at noon.
His EXCELLENCY inspected the Phoenix hulk in the afternoon.

The Australian Thursday 25 August 1825 p.2

On Saturday-last fifty-six prisoners were removed from the Sydney Gaol on board the Phoenix Hulk, preparatory to being transported to some penal settlement, in pursuance of their several sentences.

The Australian Thursday 8 September 1825 p.2

We much, regret that a misapprehension should have existed in the mind of any one with, respect to the nature of the punishment which could legally be visited on the Prisoners confined on board the Phoenix Hulk. The only satisfaction to countervail our regret, is that the practice has not long existed ; and that it will, without, a doubt, now be discontinued, as it is discountenanced by the Grand Jury. The Hulk is a cheap, a wholesome, and in every point, of view a useful prison; and we should be sorry to find that by a permanent adherence to anything approximating to torture, its utility and advantages should be counteracted; As men, we raise our voices against torture ; as Britons, : we demand its annihilation throughout the Colony.

The Sydney Gazette Thursday 17 November 1825 p.2

In consequence of a letter, written by the Superintendent of the Hulk to the Judge, and communicated by him to the Governor, the latter requested the Magistrales to visit and report on the state of the hulk. The following Report was in consequence transmitted to the Governor :--
"To His Excellency Sir Thomas Brisbane K.C.
... The prisoners confined in the hulk appeared to have been sent from the gaol indiscriminately, and without any regard to classification with respect to crime or ultimate destination; some being destined to a penal settlement for life or years; others having only a few months to serve ; the consequence to individuals is sometimes unnecessarily hard, as prisoners confined in the hulk, are debarred from receiving such aid from friends as they might experience in gaol. The hulk is a very comfortable gaol. We conclude our Report with again respectfully drawing Your Excellency's attention to the necessity of an improved allowance of food and clothing to the prisoners, and the absolute necessity of the hulk being visited every other day, at least, by one or more Magistrates, until a legal authority is derogated to the Superintendent to punish minor offences.
We have the honour, &c. &c."
F. ROSSI, J. P. and Superintendent of Police.

The Sydney Gazette Wednesday 24 May 1826 p.2

Goat Island, which lies at the entrance of the Parramatta River, and forms the commencement of the harbour to the west of Sydney Cove, is on the eve of being converted into a naval arsenal, and Mr. Nicholson, the Master Attendant, who seems highly delighted with the measure, is most anxious that the views of His EXCELLENCY may be promptly carried into the fullest effect. On the west side of the island, which forms a complete shelter from our southerly gales, there is depth of water to lay the largest vessel in the navy close to the shore. The Phoenix hulk is to be moored off this island, and the prisoners will be worked on shore.

The Monitor Friday 29 September 1826 p.4

A warrant for the execution of the following unhappy culprits, was received at the gaol on saturday last. Patrick Sullivan, James Moran, Matthew Craven and Thomas Cavenagh, bushrangers, convicted upon their own plea, of being guilty of diverse robberies, and John Griffiths, for cutting and maiming with intent to kill Hugh Carling on board the Phoenix Hulk. Monday morning is appointed for carrying the awful sentences into effect.

The Sydney Gazette Wednesday 11 October 1826 p.2

Any one that may wish to be richly compensated for a short walk, has only to stroll as far as the private residence of the Master Attendant, or in its vicinity near Dawes' Point, and they will not only see the line of coast on the east side of Darling Harbour, with vessels here and there safely and conveniently moored, but also on the opposite shore, the Phoenix hulk, and, as the eye penetrates further up the river, large ships riding at anchor safe from every danger, and actually taking in timber close to.

The Sydney Gazette Friday 7 December 1827 p.2

The Phoenix hulk, under the command of Capt. Murray, has recently undergone considerable improvement. There is an excellent school-room on board, and a place constructed for the reception of the sick, which is admirably ventilated. The utmost attention is paid to cleanliness, the importance of which to health, Capt. Murray, as a medical man, is well aware, wherefore his discipline in this respect, is exceedingly strict, but on many accounts, the prisoners, who are usually employed in teasing oakum, are better off than those in the gaol. The mode of punishment adopted towards refractory subjects is salutary without being severe.

The Sydney Gazette Tuesday 19 July 1831 p.2

The ship Eleanor, recently arrived from England with the Machine-Breakers, is understood to have been taken up by Government to convey prisoners to the penal settlements,–no less than 200 being now in the Phoenix Hulk, besides a large number in gaol. The Eleanor, it is believed, will be soon ready for sea.

The Sydney Gazette Monday 26 September 1831 p.2

–Escape from the Hulk.–On Monday morning, it was discovered that some prisoners had escaped from one of the cells on board the Phoenix Hulk; on a search being made, it was ascertained that the bars had been cut from the ports, through which Farrell, convicted of the Bank robbery; Smith, alias Sculthorpe, a runaway from Macquarie Harbour ; Thomas Williams, and James Tansley, had effected their escape. It is supposed to have been a planned thing and that a boat must have been in waiting at a short distance, to convey them ashore, and provide them with clothes, as they left their own behind. Four other men had their irons cut ready to accompany them. Their capture, it is expected, will not be effected without difficulty, as they are men of the most determined character.

The Sydney Herald Monday 28 November 1831 p.4

–Mr. McKaig, formerly Chief Mate of the Phoenix Hulk, has been appointed Superintendent of that vessel.–
Report from a convict who spent time on the Phoenix Hulk in Sydney Harbour in 1836
Thomas Cook, The Exile's Lamentation, 1978, pp. 43-44.

I was arraigned in the Quarter Sessions in May, 1836, and on of Guilty the plea of "Forgery" was sentenced to transportation to Norfolk Island for life.

I was accordingly removed to that floating Den of Infamy, the hulk Phoenix, until opportunity offered for the Shipment of a draft of re-convicted prisoners to that place.

During my stay on board, scenes of depravity which human nature shudders to contemplate were exhibited with apparent delight. Nor were the means as resorted to by the Keeper for the punishment of slight Offences, at all calculated to lessen the successful spread of so demoralizing a contagion. The men of the adjoining Cell to that in which I and 9 others were chained, had been smoking a Tobacco pipe one Evening, contrary to the Rules of the Establishment, when the Keeper came to our Cell and charged us as the Offenders.

He sent for 10 pairs of Handcuffs, took our shirts, Blankets and clothes away, and manacling each of our hands behind our backs, he reefed the legs, which were very heavily Ironed, to the upper part of the Iron Staunchions of the Cell by means of a Bar outside, with the whole weight of our chains and bodies pressing on our Shoulder blades for the night, in a state of perfect Nudity. By the following morning, and for two days afterwards, I could scarcely regain the use of my Arms.

I have also seen men in a similar position, with the additional torture of a gagging instrument to silence their Cries, and the throwing of Buckets of Water over them when in that state. Numerous complaints had been made to the Authorities, but the capabilities of the Keeper and his aidants were such, that no prisoner could withstand the case they would make out to render futile the complainants' assertions; and thus these Outrages upon humanity commissioned with impunity.

The Keeper's predecessor, Captain Murray, who had practised similar cruelties, died in a state of Mental derangement, and the one in question (Mr McKeig) laboured under a similar malady, brought on by the excessive use of Ardent Spirits and it is to be hoped the Almighty had received their Souls.

The Sydney Herald Thursday 1 December 1836 p.3

Queries.–Is it true that the " Phoenix Hulk" is converted into a retail grog shop for the accommodation of the Convicts on board ? It cannot be true, because we are certain that no license was granted on the last licensing day.
Is it true that those Convicts who have money can purchase merchandise, slops, &c, on board the Hulk? This cannot be true, because it would be impossible to make the Hulk a retail store, without the knowledge of the superintendent.
Is it true that mechanics are allowed to work at their several trades on board the Hulk, such as cabinetmakers, shoemakers, tailors, picture frame makers, &c. ? This must be incorrect, as the noise which the above occupations would create, must necessarily excite suspicion, and be immediately suppressed.
Is it true that new articles of every description are constantly being conveyed in the boats belonging to the Hulk, to Sydney for sale ? This must be false, because no boat is allowed to leave the Hulk before it
has been inspected by the superintendent or his assistant.

The Sydney Gazette Tuesday 7 November 1837 p.2

The old hulk Phoenix being now in a sinking state, an order has been given by the Government to have her sent on shore and sold by auction. Colonial shipbuilders would do well to examine this vessel and take a model of her, as the old Phoenix was well known to be one of the fastest sailing frigates that ever sailed from England.

The Sydney Gazette Saturday 8 December 1838 p.2

CORONER'S INQUEST.–On Thursday an inquest was held at the " Bunch of Grapes," King-street, on the body of Daniel Burke, an old man lying at the General Hospital. The deceased had formerly been a scourger on board the Phoenix hulk, but had latterly resided at Botany. A few days ago he was found in a hut there in a deplorable state, and removed to the Hospital. He was said to have been a very intemperate man, and the surgeon was of opinion that that circumstance accelerated his death. The jury returned a verdict to that effect.

Illustrated Sydney News Saturday 22 October 1853 p.4

Among other important works which were executed under his supervision, may be mentioned the Phoenix Hulk, formerly the receptacle for prisoners belonging to the colony. For the manner in which he had effected the completion of this work, he received a complimentary letter from Major Ovens, at that time Private Secretary to his Excellency Sir Thomas Brisbane.