Thetford – Henry Balaam

On 24 July 1835, Henry Balaam was sentenced to seven years imprisonment at Thetford Court. It was the prison which he was sent to that interested me, as Balaam was imprisoned at York Convict Hulk at Portsmouth.

The hulk was formerly the ship HMS York which had been turned into a prison in a bid to alleviate space in other prisons around the country. The ship was converted for use as a prison ship in 1819 and it remained in use for this purpose until 1848.

There were a number of prison hulks around the country and they were usually moored up near dockyards, where the prisoners could be rowed ashore to work during the day. This whole process was hardly efficient and proved to be rather challenging during inclement weather. The ships often weren’t split into separate cells, so the prisoners could meander around the deck as they pleased at night, making for a different sort of prison environment.

This convict hulk got something of a reputation at the time, with one newspaper calling it “the theatre of some of the most bloodthirsty attempts at violence and successful escapes on the part of the convicts confined therein”. The Scotsman noted in 1848 that fifty prisoners had to be removed from the ship due to their violence, and they were marched through Gosport under guard. The paper wrote that “their ribaldry and yells were the most filthy and revolting human ears could be insulted with” and the accompanying soldiers had to charge at the prisoners to regain control.

The ship was broken up in 1854, but primarily because it was about to fall apart rather than for any other reason. The initial decision to use military ships as prisons was made in 1776 and this was meant to be for a maximum of two years. Politicians got a little behind with this schedule and rather than two year it transpired to be nearly 80 years, finally being banned in 1857.

One thing that the prison ship didn’t do is steer Henry Balaam away from a life of crime. A decade later he’s showing up in the records of the Brixton House of Correction, which is still in operation today as HM Prison Brixton.