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Read My Article on Convict Transportation in New Politic

An article I recently wrote for the British online magazine, New Politic, is now available online. The article, “The Criminal Origins of the United States of America,” is about British convict transportation to America, which took place between the years 1718 and 1775, and is the subject of my book, Bound with an Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America.

The article is part of New Politic’s Project Empire series, which explores “Britain’s colonial acts abroad and the people over whom the British empire ruled.” The series contains articles covering Britain, Asia, Africa, America, Australasia, and the Middle East.

Convicts to Maryland, 1773 by Peter Dickson

[Editor’s note: Guest writer, Peter Dickson, lives in West Sussex, England and has been working with microfilm copies of The Duncan Campbell Papers from the State Library of NSW, Sydney, Australia. The following are some of his analyses of what he has discovered from reading these papers.

Dickson has contributed many transcriptions to the Jamaica Family Search website (now in the hands of University College London) and has also contributed information to UCL’s growing database on plantation owners. He says, “I am now retired, hence the time I have on my hands. I am not an academic, nor a historian.”]

At the end of May 1773, London merchant Duncan Campbell wrote to merchants Somervell & Noble and their sometime partner Hugh Lennox to advise that he had consigned particular freight on board their brig Hanover Planter: ninety three convicts sentenced in England to transportation overseas. The voyage was heading for Jamaica to collect sugars and mahogany, but now it would first call at Baltimore, Maryland to unload its freight for Mathew Ridley, Campbell’s Baltimore agent, who was instructed to “take away the convicts as expeditiously as possible” to leave the owners and Captain McCulloch a free hand. The whole affair was a sudden opportunity that had offered, sandwiched as it was between regular departures of Campbell’s own ships. The Thornton had left London with a similar cargo only four weeks earlier, and the Tayloe was due to sail with another batch of convicts in July. From letters written before each voyage, the mechanics of Campbell’s transportation business can be teased out.

Campbell’s first outlay for the “people” on the Hanover Planter was thirty shillings per head as freight, with £139.10 shillings being the total sum credited to the Somervell & Noble account on his books. As a private convict contractor, the rate he demanded from the various sentencing courts for transportation was £5 per head, subject to a contract and to bonds being given to him. He was paid when copy of the court order for each convict, together with a bill of loading, could be certified. The difference between the £465 he would have been paid by the authorities for this shipment and the amount he credited to Somerville & Noble equates to seventy percent. If freight was his only cost here, the profit on it would have been immense, but he had also provisioned the vessel with water and victuals for the voyage. His own ships habitually stopped briefly at Gravesend, Kent, on their way out to sea down the River Thames. Here, slop seller James Base supplied new slop clothing in order to dress convicts on arrival in their new guise as “servants.” Even though there are no letters to confirm that Hanover Planter stopped at Gravesend on this occasion, it is more likely than not that it did.

            Campbell’s usual outlay on freight, provisioning, and new clothing may have left him with little change from the £5 per head he charged for transport, but the real profit was made if presentable, healthy servants could be produced on arrival, a point which local newspaper notices of sale were keen to state, if only to conform to local laws.

Convicts to Maryland: Sales

            In July 1767, the ship Thornton, owned by London merchants “Stewart & Campbell,” lay in the Ferry Branch of the Patapsco River at Baltimore. On board were one hundred and fifty two convicts sentenced in England to transportation overseas and now ready to be sold as “seven years servants.” The ship’s master, Christopher Reed, and its surgeon, John Campbell, had testified to the Naval Officer for the port of Annapolis that the convicts were free from any “dangerous distempers.” The presence of a surgeon during the voyage signified the value of a cargo by which the ship’s owners could profit handsomely. Since a head bounty for transportation, paid by the government authorities at the time, usually covered costs of freight, victualling, and perhaps new clothing, the money generated by the sale of convicts in America were clear profit. An average on-ship sale price on arrival of, say, £12 each, would gain Stewart & Campbell upwards of £1,800, while the return trip would add charges for freight on tobacco and commission on its sale in London to overall earnings. But if there was money to be made by the ship’s owners, there was also profit in store for local enterprise.

            A sale on board the Thornton was advertised in the Maryland Gazette by one Alexander Stewart, who also assured prospective buyers that “proper boats well manned” would be on hand to ferry them from and to the shore. It is unclear whether Stewart was acting as a commission agent for the consigners, or whether he was an independent middle man who had already bought the whole shipment and had the opportunity to sell as many as possible on board before finding buyers for the remainder around the countryside. Four years later, Alexander Stewart—a namesake from Staunton, Virginia—had given bonds for the purchase of an entire cargo of convicts from Thomas Hodge, the Stewart & Campbell agent in Virginia. Coincidentally, the number of convicts on this occasion was the same. A surviving account book by Alexander Stewart details the sale of eighty four of these people who were hawked around seven counties in northern Virginia, which realized a total of £1,865 over the course of three months. While prices for this batch of forty-seven men, twenty one women and sixteen boys ranged from only £5 for “a woman” to £30 for “a cooper’s boy,” the average per head was just over £22.4. If this average is applied to the remaining sixty three of the whole lot (four had died and one ran away since landing), Stewart would have realized a total figure of some £3,200. A large profit margin was thus available to dealers in America prepared to take a chance, “on the road” costs for a dwindling number taken on country trails notwithstanding.

            After Duncan Campbell took on the business alone following John Stewart’s death in 1772, four ships were making annual voyages by 1775. At the end of that year, both individuals and dealers owed Campbell at least £10,000 for convict purchases over the previous three years.

Convict transportation: Duncan Campbell Letters, A Selection

To Evan Nepean [Under Secretary of State for Home Affairs, 1782-1791]

29 January, 1787

                        It cost me some time to find out a paper which would enable me to answer your letter effectually & which I have this moment laid my hand on, which caused my delay in answering yours sooner. It happens by a calculation I made for the information of the House of Commons some years since that upon an Average of Seven Years viz. from 1769 to 1775 both inclusive I transported 547 convicts Annually from London, Middlesex,Bucks. & the four countiesof the Home Circuit & that 117 of those transports were women. I always looked upon the numberfrom theother partsof the kingdom to be equal to what was transported by me. With Great Regard


Bucks is the county of Buckinghamshire. There were six Assize Court Circuits in England and four in Wales. The Home Circuit usually comprised the counties of Hertfordshire, Essex, Kent, Surrey and Sussex.

At the time of writing, Evan Nepean was involved in the preparation of ships and people for the first fleet taking convicts to Australia; it left four months later.

* * *

To James Base [Slop seller at Gravesend]

14 July 1775

            Underneath I send you a list of sundry slops which I desire you will have ready by Thursday 20thInst. by which time my ship the Salt Spring, Capt. Ogilvy will be at Gravesend.

                        5 doz. Canvas frocks  

                        5 doz. Trusers 

                        3 doz. Milled Capes 

                        24 Stript [striped] Cotton Waistcoats 

                        24 Dowlas Shifts

                        12 Petticoats 

                        4 gowns

                        6 Linen Handkfs.

You may have a few more Shifts & Petticoats ready in case they should be wanted.


Most convicts were embarked at Blackwall, on the east side of the Isle of Dogs, from where Campbell’s ships moved downriver towards the sea, stopping briefly at Gravesend to collect new slop clothing, and where any prisoners from the gaol at Maidstone, Kent, would also be taken aboard. This order to James Base was for the very last convict shipment by Campbell to the Chesapeake. Salt Spring arrived in early October with one hundred and twenty people.

* * *

To Mr John Mason, Sandwich [Clerk of the Peace]

6 Dec. 1773

            This day I received your favour of yesterday’s date. I have a ship which will be ready to sail middle of next week and by her I send the convicts now in Maidstone gaol under sentence of transportation. I think the surest way would be for you to send the two people you mention there about the 14 or 15 current and put them under the care of the keeper who will have regular notice from me when to bring them and his own prisoners to Gravesend. The terms I take them upon is £5 each, and if you are at any loss in forming the necessary Bonds and Contracts, I beg leave to recommend your applying to Mr Jerome Knap who is the Clerk to Assizes of the Home Circuit. I am…


The ship on this occasion was the Justitia. Nine days after this letter, Campbell wrote the Keeper of Maidstone gaol to bring the prisoners up to Gravesend. He was particular to add the postscript, “You will not forget to bring with you the Orders of Court.”

Places and Events: Early American Crime in San Francisco (and I Don’t Mean Alcatraz)

Go to EAC Places and Events

Anyone with an interest in crime history must visit Alcatraz while in San Francisco (My daughter said after our tour, “Of all the prisons I have visited, this one definitely ranks in the top three!”).

But if you decide to take the boat from Pier 33 at Fisherman’s Wharf out to the island, you should also plan to stroll down to Pier 45 and visit the Musée Mécanique, where you will find spectacles of crime and punishment that may rival anything you find at “the Rock.”

The Musée Mécanique is a working museum of antique coin-operated arcade machines, and many of them involve themes of crime and punishment (see below). But even if these displays are too gruesome for you, there are plenty of other old-fashioned games and amusements that will definitely strike your fancy.








Prisons and Punishments: Dining at Alcatraz

With so much information on the Web about Alcatraz, I feel little need to write about my recent visit to this historical prison. But given my latest articles on prison food, I can not pass up posting some of the pictures I took of the kitchen.

Prisoner meals were governed by “Alcatraz Regulation #33: DINING ROOM RULES”:

Meals are served three times a day in the dining room. Do not exceed the ration. Do not waste food.

Working in the kitchen was one of the best jobs a prisoner could have (although I would certainly be nervous if they had easy access to the knives).



Breakfast menu.

Breakfast menu.



Eat Like an Early Convict: Prison Food Recipes

As a follow-up to my last post on “A Foodie Look at Early Prison Food,” I decided to find out more about food served in early American prisons. During my research, I came across a description of the meals served to convicts in New York’s Newgate Prison in a 1799 Report of the Inspectors of the State-Prison:

The diet served to the convicts is, for breakfast, cocoa shells boiled, and sweetened with molasses, and rye bread; dinner, ox-head soup, and the meat attached to the head, with potatoes and rye bread, some times salt meat and peas; supper, mush and molasses. The cost of the breakfast, dinner and supper, is from 5 to 6 cents per man per day.

From this description of the food served to prisoners, I tracked down recipes for these meals in cookbooks from around the same time period. The recipes may not exactly reflect what was served to the prisoners–my guess is that less care and fewer quality ingredients went into the preparation of their meals–but they should give an idea of what the prisoners regularly ate.

Location of Newgate Prison, New York (NYPL Map Division –

Location of Newgate Prison, New York (NYPL Map Division –

Newgate Prison was one of the earliest penitentiaries in the United States. It was located on what is now 10th St. and Washington St. in New York City, with Charles St. and Christopher St. marking the north and south borders of the prison, respectively. The prison was founded in 1797 and lasted until 1828, when prisoners were transferred to the newly built Sing Sing Prison further up the Hudson River in response to overcrowding and frequent riots at the old state prison.

I do not know if the food served at Newgate Prison figured into any of the unrest, but with these recipes you can recreate for yourself the diet of convicts who served time there and decide for yourself.

The Recipes


  • Cocoa Shells, from Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book:

    Steep one cup of shells in one quart of boiling water three or four hours, adding more hot water as it boils away. Strain, and serve with hot milk, or cream and sugar. [Note that the description from the prison report says that the boiled coca shells are sweetened with molasses.]

  • Rye Bread

Newgate Prison, New York, 1801

Newgate Prison, New York, 1801


  • Ox Cheek Soup [Ox-Head Soup], from The New Art of Cookery:

    Take half an ox head, and cut the cheek clean from the bones, break the bones to pieces, and put them in a large pan of water all night to soak out the blood; in the morning wash them clean out, and put them into a pot with six quarts of water, when the scum rises skim it well; take six onions, six heads of cellery, about four leeks and two turneps, well washed and cut in two, with a bundle of sweet herbs, a spoonful of all-spice, some cloves and mace, and a little salt; put in two palates, and stew them till tender, then take them out and throw them into cold water, and take off the skins; cut them into square pieces, stew the head five hours, try if the head is tender, if not stew it gently till it is; then take it out, and strain the soup into a pan to settle, skim it well, and pour it from the settlings; put a quarter of a pound of butter in a stew-pan and melt it, put two large spoonsful of flour in, and stir it about till it is smooth; by degrees put the soup in, keep stirring for fear it should go into lumps, if it does you must strain it through a sieve, put in half a pint of white wine, and season it with Cayan pepper and common pepper and salt, nearly as hot as mock turtle; in the mean time cut a carrot and two turneps in dice, four heads of cellery and two leeks about half an inch long, toiled in water till tender, strain them in a sieve, and put them to the soup; cut the cheek in square pieces and put it in with the palates, and two spoonsful of browning, stew it gently for half an hour, and skim the fat off clean; put it into a soup-dish or tureen, with crispt bread in a plate.
    N.B. You may put the cheek whole in a large soup-dish, if you like it best, and the soup over it.

  • Potatoes, from The New Art of Cookery:

    Wash them very clean, put them into a sauce-pan, nearly cover them with cold water, put in a little salt, cover them close, and boil them very gently, but look at them often; when the skins begin to break try them with a fork, and if they are done strain the water from them, cover them close to steam for a few minutes, then peel them, and put them in a dish, with melted butter in a boat. Or thus: pare them first, wash them clean, and put them into a sauce-pan with a little cold water, cover them close, boil them very gently, and look at them often, that they do not break to pieces; strain the water off, and put them into a dish, with melted butter in a boat.

  • Rye Bread


  • Pickled Pork [Salt Meat], from The New Art of Cookery:

    As many people have various ways in pickling pork, it is almost impossible to give directions for pickling it; some people love it pickled with plain salt, legs especially; others in this manner: have a tub, and lay a layer of salt at the bottom; then mix one third of salt-petre beaten with two thirds of white salt; cut your pork in pieces, rub it well with the salt, and lay it close in the tub, with a layer of salt between every layer of pork, till the tub is full; then have a cover, just large enough to fit the inside of the tub, put it on, and lay a great weight at the top, and as the salt melts it will keep it close; when you want to use it take a piece out, and mind to put the cover on again, and it will keep good a long time.

  • Green Peas, from The New Art of Cookery:

    Have your peas shelled as near the time you want to dress them as possible: have boiling water in a sance-pan, put in the peas, a little salt, a small knob or two of sugar, and a sprig or two of mint, boil them quick, and when they dent they are done; strain them in a sieve, take out the mint, and put them in a dish; have a little mint boiled by itself chopped fine and put round: or you may put some butter in the dish, and stir them up till it is melted. You may broil some thin slices of ham and lay round if you please.


  • Oatmeal Mush for Children or Invalids, from Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book:

    1 cup granulated oatmeal
    ½ teaspoon salt
    1 scant quart boiling water
    Put the meal and salt in the double boiler, pour on the boiling water, and cook two or three hours. Remove the cover just before serving, and stir with a fork to let the steam escape. If the water in the lower boiler be strongly salted, the meal will cook more quickly. Serve with sugar, or salt, and cream. . . . Coarse oatmeal is not suitable for any form of water brash, acidity, or bowel irritation. It often causes eruptions on the skin in warm weather. [Note that the description from the prison report says that the mush is served with molasses, presumably to sweeten it.]


  • Briggs, Richard. The New Art of Cookery, According to the Present Practice. Philadelphia: W. Spotswood, R. Cambell, and B. Johnson, 1792. Database: America’s Historical Imprints: Readex/Newsbank.
  • Emmet, Thomas Addis, “Newgate Prison, Greenwich Village, 1801,” Greenwich Village History, accessed October 1, 2014,
  • Lincoln, D. A. Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book: What to Do and What Not to Do in Cooking. Carlisle, MA: Applewood Books, 1833 [reprint].
  • Report of the Inspectors of the State-Prison. Albany, NY: Loring Andrews, [1799]. Database: America’s Historical Imprints: Readex/Newsbank.