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South Australia’s ‘Hell Afloat’

Written By Nikki Sullivan | 13 January 2017

Between 1880 and 1891 the hulk Fitzjames, colloquially known as ‘hell afloat’, served as a Reformatory for over 100 boys aged from eight to 16 years of age.

The first 35 of these were transferred from the Boys’ Reformatory at Magill on 5 March 1880. Some had been sentenced for having committed serious crimes, while others had been found guilty of petty theft, or deemed uncontrollable or neglected.

The South Australian Government had purchased the ageing vessel for the princely sum of £2,800 in 1876. The Fitzjames, which had for the previous 20 years brought immigrants from the UK to Australia, was to be used as the colony’s quarantine ship, and as such was moored off Largs Bay.

Upon the establishment of on-shore quarantine facilities at Torrens Island it was decided that the Fitzjames be employed as a tool of education and reform for wayward boys.

During their time on the Fitzjames some of the boys were trained in tailoring and shoemaking, all without the aid of sewing machines, while others were taught carpentry. Other tasks included transporting fresh water, cooking, and cleaning the ship. Most of the boys were apprenticed out after having served a third of their sentence.

In 1883 a Royal Commission to Report on the Destitute Act in South Australia found that the Fitzjames was in a bad state and unsafe in deep water. It was then moved to the shallow water of the False Arm of the Port River.

The commission reported that the boys were ill-fed, dirty, and slept in rows of hammocks strung up side by side, with so little room that the hammocks “bowed up almost in an arc of a circle”.

With overcrowding, diseases spread easily and many boys contracted opthalmia, a painful eye infection; some went blind as a result.

In May 1891 the boys were removed from their floating prison and returned to their old address at Magill. The Fitzjames was broken up soon after, but its final resting place remains something of a mystery.

(Header image: The ‘Protector’ and ‘Fitzjames’, Largs Bay, State Library of South Australia, Searcy Collection, PRG 280/1/36/258, c. 1885. The Fitzjames is in the background)

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