No Room For Regret
“There were confined in this floating dungeon nearly 600 men, most of them double ironed; and the reader may conceive the horrible effects arising from the continual rattling of chains, the filth and vermin naturally produced by such a crowd of miserable inhabitants, the oaths and execrations constantly heard amongst them…”
[The Memoirs of James Hardy Vaux.] James Hardy Vaux described the conditions on the hulk Retribution Written by himself in 1819 re his time on the hulk Retribution in 1810.
Conditions on board the floating gaols were appalling. The standards of hygiene were so poor that disease spread quickly.
The sick were given little medical attention and were not separated from the healthy.
The living quarters were very bad. The hulks were cramped and the prisoners slept in fetters.
The prisoners had to live on one deck that was barely high enough to let a man stand up. The officers lived in cabins in the stern.
He wanted two things: the fetters on his ankles and wrists gone, and to kill the cheating, lying, evil old man who put him here. James Tedder trembled; the chains around his wrists rattled.
It was perishingly cold - the norm for winter in London – but even the cold damp air couldn’t dilute the stench. It made his eyes water; he could taste it. Was it the prison hulk itself, the water it floated on, the men crowded into every available space, or a combination? He vomited on his breeches and shoes.
‘Don’t matter ‘bout ye breeches, convict’ sniggered a guard ‘ye’ll be losing them soon anyways.’
James Tedder hobbled along the deck of the prison hulk Retribution with the 50 or so other men he had travelled with from Newgate Gaol. The weight of the shackles made his arms ache and his legs longed for the ability to take powerful strides, instead of degrading powerless shuffles.
The guards manhandled and pushed and shoved until satisfied that the line of bedraggled souls met requirements. One by one their chains were unlocked. Tedder rubbed each wrist, taking it in turn to massage and soothe.
‘Strip!’ Bellowed a guard.
Confused, the convicts looked at each other for clarification. It was freezing on the deck of this old ship; the wind mocked as it lashed at them. The guard cracked a whip as he again bellowed the command.
‘I said strip!’
Tedder removed his once handsome jacket, the once clean shirt and his vomit covered breeches and shoes. He stood with the other convicts, shivering, naked, waiting for his flesh to be scrubbed with a hard-bristled brush and his hair to be cut back almost to the scalp. Looking longingly towards the river bank of the Thames, and Woolwich, Tedder felt the bile again rise from his stomach; this time it carried with it the realisation of what was to become of him. He’d one more year of his apprenticeship to go, with plans to be a master tinsmith himself, but “justice” intervened. That life belongs to another, he thought.
A boot on his bare backside and raucous laughter from the guards brought Tedder back to reality. A bald, toothless guard shoved him towards the barrel of water. He stumbled on the slippery, cold deck, finding it difficult to get his frozen feet to obey his brain’s instructions; lumbering over to the water barrel, he managed to climb in. A convict took the caustic soap and brush, then scrubbed Tedder until he thought he must look like a boiled lobster, whilst another took to his once beautifully groomed hair with shears. The mocking wind again played with him, biting exposed ears and neck so that without the need of a mirror, Tedder knew his hair was cut as close to the scalp as the shears allowed.
‘Get out, convict,’ bellowed the guard as he threw some coarse, grey clothing at him. ‘Ye got 10 seconds to put ‘em on or they be mine.’
Dressed in breeches and a shirt that scratched and rubbed against their skin, the convicted men huddled together, teeth chattering, arms squeezing their torsos trying to find warmth. Stick wielding guards again pushed and shoved the hapless group into a line. Tedder watched them coming, the bile crept from his gut to his gullet and his ankles ached in anticipation; the chains were being reattached, but this time his wrists were spared.
Standing quietly looking down at the worn boards on the deck underfoot, pondering the loss of identity and dignity, Tedder felt the savage strike of a cudgel across his back. It took the air from his lungs and his legs crumbled beneath him. The convicts either side picked him up and put him back in line. Struggling to stand up straight and breathe he shuffled with the other men toward a gaping black hole in the middle of the old ship.
‘Please God, be that not where we are going.’ On this occasion, like so many others recently, God didn’t appear to hear him.
Making their way down the ladder the prisoners tried to avoid the arbitrary strikes of the guards. Reaching the hold below, most cowered, none with the strength required for defiance.
It took time for James Tedder’s eyes to adjust to the gloom; he didn’t think he would ever become accustomed to the stench. It required every ounce of strength to hold the tears to a trickle, but the tears stopped, and he spun when James Blay slapped him on the shoulder.
‘How are you holding up, Tedder, my lad?’ probed Blay – a cellmate from Newgate Gaol. ‘Dark and stinky down here. Suppose we’ll get used to it. It’s got to be better than hanging at the end of a rope.’
‘Are you sure about that?’ Tedder asked. ‘The way I see it now, hanging at the end of a rope might be a better end.’
‘Easy to see you don’t have a wife and boys to think about, Tedder. See how you feel about being strung up by your neck when you got a family counting on you.’
Tedder understood Blay’s relief at not facing the hangman and being transported instead, but he didn’t share his optimism.
‘We’ll stick together Tedder; try to get in the same work gang and sleep near each other. We’ve got to protect each other from the guards and the other convicts; they’ll steal anything you’ve got. If one of us gets sick, we help the other.’
It seemed to Tedder that Blay had it all worked out; he was twenty years older and ready to take charge to protect them both. He wasn’t sure he needed a protector; however, he needed a friend, and it was a friendship on offer.
Four guards lurched through the prison deck waving cudgels, hitting men indiscriminately. ‘Line up agin the sides, convicts. Make it snappy,’ bellowed the guard with the least number of teeth. Rotting teeth, Tedder knew, was a sign of too much rum. He also knew to do what they told him, and to keep his head down if he didn’t want a beating or worse, a flogging with the cat-o'-nine-tails.
‘Get yaselves inta them cells,’ menaced the guard, ‘hurry up ‘bout it.’ Tedder dubbed this one Toothless.
Twenty at a time, they were herded into cells big enough to house eight to ten. Two men shared a sleeping space, with a threadbare blanket between them. The one Tedder shared with Blay held the rank smell of stale vomit. The guards locked the doors, the hatches closed, and desperate darkness enveloped the men; the only visible light peeped at them through the tiny cracks in the ship’s old hull. With nothing to eat, a thin blanket to share with Blay, and a constant battle to keep the rats from crawling on his face; James Tedder didn’t sleep.
The first full day on the prison hulk Retribution began with a breakfast of the coarsest boiled barley Tedder had ever seen. Again, the bile crept into his throat as he tried to force himself to eat. He couldn’t.
After breakfast, at seven am, with chains rattling around their ankles every able-bodied convict struggled up the ladder to the deck and clambered into tenders, to go ashore to work at the Royal Arsenal on the south side of the River Thames. Attached to each group of twenty convicts was a guard wielding a weapon.
The prisoners hobbled one behind the other into the work shed which stank almost as much as the hulk. Tedder could identify perspiration, urine, dirt, dust and the overpowering tang of rusting metal. He’d hoped working would ease the terror and give him something else to think about, but the overseer wrapping the whip around his back put a renewed focus on his misery. He doubled over as the pain reverberated from his back to his chest, and down his arms. Stumbling into the man in front saved him from falling face down into the piles of metal on the floor.
Struggling to breathe, with the pain in his back pulsing and increasing with every step, he eventually took his place at the bench, standing, fettered at the ankles, ready to chip rust off old cannon balls.
At the midday call to return to the Retribution for dinner, Tedder took a moment to examine his hands. The split skin had trickles of blood mixed with black / red rust to make a colour not unlike the floor of the shed they worked in: it was the colour of Hell.
Under the ever-watchful eyes of the brutal guards, the wretched convicts lumbered to the tenders for return to the hulk. The midday meal was a broth Tedder didn’t recognise, a small piece of tough, overcooked beef, a mouldy hard biscuit, and a half pint of ale. Ravenous hunger overtook his taste buds, regardless of the quality of the food, his stomach ached to have something in it. Tedder gagged on the first mouthful, he coughed and spluttered on the second, but managed to swallow the rest; his grumbling stomach settled a little. Within a minute or two of the convicts forcing themselves to eat the muck disguised as a meal, the bell sounded for return to the tenders, and the Arsenal.
By the finish of the first day at labour, Tedder had established a steady rhythm for cleaning the cannon balls, but his hands suffered: they burnt, cramped, and had tiny pieces of rust and metal ingrained into the scratches the cannon balls left on his skin. His feet, already uncomfortable in the ill-fitting shoes assigned to him, ached and throbbed; he wasn’t used to standing all day with fetters on his ankles. At the sound of the bell to end the day the convicts were manhandled, hit, and shoved into line. Chains rattling, they trundled along the pier, heads bowed in defeat. Tedder could feel the air of desperation and hopelessness as they crawled, one by one into the tenders to return to the hulk.
‘That was hard work, Tedder. I don’t use my hands to work with metal. Leather is softer on the skin,’ Blay complained in Tedder’s ear.
Tedder grunted, he was too tired to speak.
Supper on the Retribution was broth made from boiling the left-over beef they had for dinner, a small piece of cheese, a piece of bread so hard Tedder thought a nail wouldn’t penetrate it when banged with a hammer, and another half pint of ale. He and Blay ate greedily, neither tasting the muck that made its way into their still empty stomachs.
Longing for the loaf of fresh bread, cheese, potatoes and salted pork the master tinsmith’s wife used to bring him for dinner in the middle of the day, Tedder looked at the plate in front of him, trying to imagine the good food he once ate. Staring, he could see himself in the tinsmith’s foundry; making plates and mugs like these. Hands trembling, he turned over the plate to see the maker’s mark underneath. Through tears welling in strained, red eyes, Tedder saw the mark of his master tinsmith. Near the edge of the plate, where you had to look hard to see it, his own mark as the maker of the plate. The irony was mind-numbing. He remembered making about fifty of these plates over two or three days without giving the ultimate users a first, let alone a second, thought.
Supper ended, and the hatches closed on the men crowded below deck. The day was over. Darkness descended on Tedder as he wondered how long he would be on this floating hell before being transported to the other side of the world. He lay in the cot next to Blay, burning with such hatred for Bagram Simeon, the old man who had ruined his life, that he could hear his heart pounding in his ears and see the pulses of rage inside his eyelids.
This nightmare began the day Tedder told his older brother Henry, what the Jewish diamond merchant, Bagram Simeon, had done to him.
‘No! James!’ Henry had wailed. ‘It’s a sin. You must get the money and tell him no more. Why would you even go along with him?’
The 70-year-old well-respected diamond merchant had come to Islington to conduct business with Tedder’s employer. When introduced to the apprentice, Simeon smiled and patted his hand. At day’s end, the old man sat outside the tinsmith foundry in his carriage, waiting.