History of the Hulk Ship

The only time I’d come across this term was for the accommodation of convicts awaiting their transportation to Australia in the eighteenth century. The term had long been used as a general term for a ship that was afloat but not seaworthy, so was often an old ship with its rigging and internal equipment removed, which often allowed for more accommodation space. They could be used for off duty sailors, prisons, as salvage pontoons, for gambling dens, naval training and storage of cargo waiting shipment. It was occasionally simply an abandoned ship but usually held some value so was put to some use. Ships were often ‘hulked’, when too old to survive the stresses of sea.

During the Seven Years’ War, (1756-63) which established Britain’s naval supremacy and its dominance in the American colonies, hulks were often used as Prisoners of War accommodation, also during he Napoleonic and French Revolutionary Wars. Britain’s draconian penal codes produced huge numbers of convicts in the 18th century, many of whom were shipped to North American colonies, but with the outbreak of what became the War of Independence, this option was closed so rising numbers of convicts were held on hulks in the Thames, put to work during the day on such tasks as dredging channels, but the sight of Britons in chains became an embarrassment to a nation which prized its independence, so alternatives were sought, at first in Africa but the climate was considered too hot so they were instead sent to found the colony of New South Wales.


But to my great surprise, I have discovered there was an ancient ship called a hulk, though no remains survive of them, though they can be seen on coins and seals. Similar ships are still in use in Bangladesh. They are also shown on some Tornai Black marble fonts in Winchester and elsewhere. They were built from c.800 and there may be examples buried in coastal mud yet to be discovered. They were the equivalent of Scandinavian clinker built vessels, and the cog evolved in the Low Countries. They were the first ships to be built with overlapping timbers and were curved lengthways and widthways, so impressive shipbuilding skills. It was named after the corn husk which it resembled.

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