Walking has always prompted a stream of thinking, but this week was different. We took a walk around St Mary’s Island, Chatham and paused to read an information board which prompted some research. Both of us are interested in Britain’s criminal past, and so we’ve stepped back to the 1860s and to a time St Mary’s Prison held one thousand convicts, but our research took us back a little further in order to understand the full impact of what we were reading.
Prison hulks had been present on the River Medway since the early nineteenth century, when Chatham became a permanent hulk station. By the end of the French wars in 1815, in excess of 70,000 prisoners of war were being held in these hulks moored at Chatham Reaches, Gillingham and Sheerness. Disease was rife and punishment harsh.
When, in 1818, the announcement that Chatham Dockyard would be expanded it was the convicts from the hulks who provided the labour for the work—this included the reclamation of St Mary’s creek. Over time the hulks deteriorated but the authorities, wanting to keep the labour, begun the construction of a brick convict prison on St Mary’s Island, which opened to receive hulk convicts from Chatham and Woolwich in 1856.
St Mary's Convict Prison, St Mary's Island, Chatham
According to The Times, (January 1861) “A considerable degree of uneasiness, almost amounting to alarm, has been occasioned to the officials of the convict prison of St Mary’s Island… in consequence of the disaffection and mutinous conduct of the convicts confined in that establishment.” So, what might this be about? Continuing the article, we learnt that convict Peters had acquired a skeleton key and during a mass gathering in the hall where he and fellow convicts were awaiting a medical examination, he took the opportunity to escape. Making his way across the parade grounds he attempted to release a man named Bennett, incarcerated for burglaries in London, but was recaptured by a warder.
Revolt followed. Although, in comparison with today’s standards of retaliation against authority their response might be considered somewhat mild. The prisoners protested by disturbing the minister during his chapel service. No violence was displayed, instead marks of disapproval such as hooting, yelling and cheering were used. Considered a prelude to something that might manifest into a larger event, the ringleaders were rounded up by order of the governor and his deputy—Captain Powell and Mr Measor respectively. Now safely confined to the punishment cells they assumed it would be easy to contain the remaining convicts. The following days would see 150 warders on duty, all heavily armed, but they made no difference. Mutiny continued within the cells. Windows were smashed and furniture broken, alongside the vocal disturbances that continued.
Official action was deemed necessary and upon request of the Home Secretary--Sir George Cornewall Lewis—the inspector-general, Captain Gambier, of the convict establishments commenced an investigation but this wouldn’t be the end of the matter. Despite prison food being far superior to that of any union workhouse dinners, a dockyard work party begun a protest regarding the quality of their food. At a pre-arranged signal fifty convicts threatened to massacre their keepers, stole their cell keys and begun to release fellow convicts. Pandemonium ensued and damages amounting to £1,500 (approx. £35.5K in today’s money) was caused.
Military intervention was deemed necessary. Four-hundred Royal Marines, stationed nearby, charged the rioters with muskets—the Warders following in close quarters with their truncheons. Order was resumed. Warders lost their jobs—staff at the prison had been made up from two hulk ships and it had been reported there was jealousy between the two sets of staff that resulted in bad management of the convicts. A number of Warders were transferred from Pentonville prison to replace them.
It seems the ‘blame culture’ has been around some time!
The River Medway today, from St Mary's Island
by Donna Siggers and Dave Last