Floating Prisons

A Book Review by Perry McIntyre

Anne McMahon: Floating Prisons: Irish Convict Hulks and Voyages to New South Wales 1823-1837, Halstead Press, Braddon, ACT, 2017.

ISBN: 978-1-925043-34-1.

RRP: $39.95

In 2011, Anne McMahon published Convicts at Sea: the voyages of the Irish convict transports to Van Diemen’s Land, 1840-1853 and now she looks at the situation in Ireland, specifically examining criminal Ireland and transportation to New South Wales between 1823 and 1837. I was initially perplexed by this limited date range until I realised that she had narrowed her study to the period that the Surprise and Essex hulks held convicts, prior to transportation.

The Surprise was moored at the Cove of Cork and the Essex was at Kingstown in Dublin Bay (now Dun Laoghaire). Both were derelict ships which operated as holding prisons for convicts from 1823 until 1837, thus the date parameters for this study. But the study is much larger than the convicts on these two hulks. Through the reports of the Surgeons Superintendent of the convict ships Mahon looks at aspects of many voyages of ships which picked up convicts from these temporary prisons before heading to New South Wales. The use of these surgeon’s reports is valuable and her chapter on these men is a useful summary of their lives and work before and after their involvement in the convict service.

A large part of her resources concentrated on the printed Parliamentary Papers, including reports of the Inspectors General of Prisons in Ireland, Commissioners for Auditing Public Accounts in Ireland and House of Commons and Select Committees into disturbances, the poor, the state of gaols and other relevant reports. These are invaluable in gaining  knowledge of what was happening on the ground in Ireland during this period of transportation. Her work is so much broader than simply the hulks and it is not limited to them or the transports which collected convicts from those abandoned ships.

The first three chapters give background to Irish history, penal administration and early transportation. I found these interesting and a good overview but the overuse of subtitles throughout the book made it difficult to read with many openings having up to three sub-titles on two pages. Some sub-headings were only one paragraph and some topics were repeated in subsequent chapters. On occasions I wondered if I had not already read a section before, for example a section on Dr Edward Trevor on pp.12-13 and then a larger biography of him on pp.63-68. As doctor and superintendent of convicts he was, of course, a vitally important figure and rightly he and his work are frequently cited throughout the book, but the first sub-section on him was, for me, a distraction. Incorporating his work in the general discussion and his biography would have been sufficient.

Chapters 4 and 5 concentrate on the hulks, Surprise and Essex, and Chapter 6 provides details of the convict ships themselves, the route to New South Wales, and also looks at the very few ships that were wrecked, either on their convict voyage or afterwards. Chapter 7 examines the roles of the captains, surgeons, crew, and relationships with convicts during the voyages. Chapter 8 interrogates data on the Surgeon’s Superintendent whose job it was to look after the convicts and run the ship during the voyage.

The overview history of Ireland was spoilt by some distracting subjective and unnecessary commentary such as (p.17) Mahon’s observation that part of the reason Irish people committed crime was because they were ‘impulsive’. She goes on to say that ‘Irish people believed that crime had its own punishment’ – really? This reminds me of family historians who claim their ancestors were not criminals because they only stole because they were hungry, which when the documents are examined is often incorrect. History IS complex but under the statutes of the law at the time stealing was a crime, so they were criminals. Being impulsive does not negate crime, then or now. Mahon’s work does not need supposition as her sources and work are strong without it.

A few strange statements were distracting such as on p.10 where death rates on convict ships were compared to modern gaols and cruise ships. Without explanation, this was a bit odd. There are some inconsistencies which could have been fixed by better editing. For example, p.127 starts with the blanket statement that all boarded convict ships in leg-irons and this was contradicted at the end of this section, only four paragraphs away. The illustration on p.96 refers to numbers which are not on the sketch and its title, ‘Sketch of Cork Harbour’ is not what appears in the List of Illustrations which name this image as ‘Frigate Surprize on arrival at Cove’.

Despite these criticisms, I recommend this book as a contribution to Irish and convict history. Mahon has made good use of printed parliamentary papers and the material available on the Australian Joint Copying Project microfilm reels as well as a good mining of the Chief Secretary’s Registered Papers in the National Archives in Dublin which remain one of my favourite sources for nineteenth-century Irish history. Its illustrations, although few, are very appropriate and look superb. I look forward to the next book which concentrates on another aspect of Irish-Australian history.

Dr Perry McIntyre
Perry is Adjunct Lecturer at the University of New South Wales.