The “Fitzjames”, South Australia’s Floating Prison

A largely unknown piece of South Australia’s history is the fact that there was a prison ship (or hulk) anchored just off of Port Adelaide at Largs Bay. While we’ve heard of them in the UK, who knew that Australia had them too?

In 1876, the ‘Fitzjames’ a ship of 1,200 tons,  was purchased by the South Australian Government from Mr Donaldson in Melbourne, and cost them £2,800. It was bought with the intention to use it as a quarantine ship. There’s more about this in the Evening Journal, 15 April 1876 …

“She will be moored near the North Arm, and will be used for patients while the cottage on Torrens Island will be fitted up and set apart for the convalescents. In view of the large influx of population to the colony it is important to have ample quarantine accommodation and the arrangements are now in progress will secure this without the delay which would be caused by waiting for the erection of suitable buildings.”

However by 1880 and through until 1891, the ‘Fitzjames’ served as a “Reformatory” for over 100 young boys aged from 8 through to 16.

From the Evening Journal dated 11 June 1879  …

“… if the hulk Fitzjames were not required for quarantine purposes after the buildings on Torrens Island were completed the Government would consider the advisability of converting her into a training-ship for Reformatory boys”

The first boys to call the Fitzjames home, were ones transferred from the Boys’ Reformatory at Magill in March 1880. Some had committed serious crimes, while others were guilty of petty theft, or simply deemed uncontrollable.

The inspection reports which you’ll find in the newspapers, generally give a fairly favourable report, as well as giving an idea of what the boys’ day was like. So while it’s been called a ‘prison ship’ or ‘prison hulk’, the descriptions doesn’t exactly make it sound prison-like, so I’m thinking ‘reformatory hulk’ would be a more accurate term.

Anyway here’s a snippet from the The Express and Telepgraph newspaper, dated 4 February 1887 written by the Inspector-General of Schools, Mr L.W. Stanton when he visited. Click on the link above for the full report.

“I visited the hulk Fitzjames on the 21st instant, and remained from 10.30 till 2.50. My visit was quite unexpected, and I found a majority of the boys at school and under perfect control. Those absent were engaged at work in the tailor’s and shoemaker’s shops for the morning; they attended school in the afternoon. I was informed they were all over 13 years of age, and that they received instructions from the teacher on three afternoons per week. Those under 13 attended full time. There were present in the morning 35, and in the afternoon 61, The furniture and apparatus were scrupulously clean. There was a satisfactory supply of reading books, copy books, exercise books, slates, and minor requirements, I noticed no maps, there being no place to hang any. … I found that the tuition was carried out on the lines of the standard for our public and provisional schools, and that the master had an ‘intelligent grasp of the work there laid down. … I was on the whole favorably impressed with Mr. Schrader’s work, and that I am satisfied of his fitness for his post, his industry, and his conscientious discharge of his duty. He appeared to me to control the boys with a proper degree of mildness combined with firmness, and they on their side seemed respectful, orderly, intelligent, and happy.”

However not all was great, as this report in Evening Journal from 15 November 1884 tells us …

The Commission took evidence with regard to the safety of the hulk Fitzjames, now lying at Largs Bay in deep water with sixty-four boys on board. The report read as follows:—” I have surveyed this vessel. I find the caulking below the copper very bad, in several places the oakum is completely decayed, being so bad that a rule can be pushed through from the back of the seams to the copper, and difficult to keep the ship afloat. I examined a leak on the starboard side in the lower hold, which was caused by a butt being open between two timbers. This has been temporarily stopped by wedging from inside. Through wedging one of the planks has been started from the timber nearly an inch, there by endangering the safety of the ship, as in heavy weather she must make a quantity of water. The top sides are much decayed, and planking under the copper must be bad, as in several places the nails have no hold on the planks to retain the sheets of copper from dropping off.

And the conditions continue to deteriorate, as the report from 30 June 1888 suggests …

The condition of the hulk was now worse than it was previous to the temporary repairs she underwent some time ago, and at the time he was writing there was over 3 feet of water in the hold, although the lads have been pumping morning and evening for over four hours each time, and this, considering their age and stamina, was far too great a strain on their constitutions, so he respectfully solicited the board’s interest and advice as to the immediate renovation of the vessel.

…as the timber for the vessel was cut 50 years ago she must be in a state of deterioration … She ought to be condemned …

By August 1891 they had given up on the vessel, and she was offered at a public auction with no reserve, and the Fitzjames hulk was sold for £130.

From emigrant ship, to cargo ship, to quarantine hulk, and then prison (or reformatory) hulk … she had seen it all.

For a detailed article on the whole life of the Fitzjames click here.

One Response to “The “Fitzjames”, South Australia’s Floating Prison”

  1. crissouli says:

    I have included your blog in INTERESTING BLOGS in FRIDAY FOSSICKING at
    Thank you, Chris

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