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The writer is a historian at the University of Liverpool
In the coming weeks, the British government will accommodate asylum seekers on board a barge in Portland, Dorset. This plan was formally announced in April, but the barge is yet to arrive, delayed by protests and growing public criticism.
Britain has seen this before: it’s impossible to look at the policy without making historical comparisons to prison hulks, 19th-century floating prisons etched on to public memory thanks to screen adaptations of Great Expectations. What’s different today is that we no longer hold the Victorian values that upheld that system. Back then, it took far longer for public opinion to turn against these sites.
There are striking parallels between those days and now. Prison hulks were introduced as emergency measures in 1776, one year after the American War of Independence began. No longer being shipped to the American colonies, convict numbers threatened to overwhelm prisons. Hulks became the linchpins that supported the government’s policy of deportation to New South Wales and Tasmania.
Of course, ships have always been used to provide temporary accommodation, as reformatory units for juveniles or hospitals to quarantine the sick. As such, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the Home Office has decided to use the Bibby Stockholm in Dorset, and soon other vessels, to house “non-detained” asylum seekers.
Back in 1776, when the first prison hulk, the Justitia, was moored in Woolwich, local residents expressed fears that escaped convicts would pose a threat to the community. During recent protests against the Bibby Stockholm, the people of Portland expressed similar concerns that the town does not have adequate infrastructure to support the plan, that streets will not be safe and that tourism will be affected. Already, cruise ships scheduled to visit the Jurassic Coast are beginning to bypass the port due to the disruption.
Others object to the policy on humanitarian grounds, given that the ship is due to house asylum seekers — many of whom have fled war and persecution. The detainees will probably arrive in small, staggered groups: imagine being met by protests, shouts and placards.
In the 19th century, ordinary people initially turned a blind eye to the hulks — they were immersed in their own problems, since wars with America and France had caused a recession and poverty was widespread. But public opinion experienced a shift thanks to a boom in Victorian-era press coverage. Newspapers, pamphlets, and periodicals circulated, and literacy rates climbed. Rich and poor alike read about the hulks. Opinion began to shift. People stopped thinking of the convicts as dangerous — instead, they began to see them as having been let down by the state.
Prison inspectors published reports that outlined the cost of maintaining the leaky and rotting wooden ships, and pointed out that it was significantly more expensive to continually repair and modify them than it was to build permanent prisons on land. Today, campaigners argue that the plans to put asylum seekers on the Bibby Stockholm won’t end the use of hotels, and that savings will be trivial.
The change in public opinion in the mid-19th century undoubtedly contributed to the demise of the hulk system in England. It took longer to end in the colonies, including Bermuda and Gibraltar, where media coverage was less outspoken, and ships were removed from the public eye. Hulks haven’t been consigned entirely to history. HMP Weare, a prison ship that was in use in Portland Harbour from 1997-2005, was the object of political controversy as it was both unpopular and costly to run.
Today, it feels as though support for migrant barges is already beginning to falter. While the Home Office may choose to ignore the historical parallels, the public is not. It may only be a matter of time before the policy sinks.