In December 1851 there were only 29 people in prison in Victoria. Two years later there were 955. The Victorian gold rush lured to Victoria ex-convicts and escapees – from New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land – who re-offended and were sent to prison.
The prisons soon became overcrowded, so the Victorian government decided to use prison hulks. In 1852 it purchased the ship President and had it fitted out as a floating prison. But the prison population continued to rise, so the following year the government purchased the Deborah, Success and Sacramento for conversion into prison ships, followed by the Lysander in 1854. The ships had their masts removed and were anchored off Williamstown on Hobson's Bay. They held the worst offenders in the penal system.
The hulks were intended to be a ‘terror to evil-doers', so conditions were extremely harsh. Prisoners were kept in irons below decks, in cramped conditions with no work and no books. For minor offences they were sent to solitary confinement in dark cells below the waterline.
In 1853, John Price was appointed as the Inspector General of Penal Establishments. The Age described him as ‘a man whose leading characteristics appear to be cunning and cruelty.
Indeed, conditions on the hulks became even worse under his authoritarian rule. Price took a personal interest in inflicting additional punishment on prisoners. They were put in irons for their entire sentence, and violence and cruel punishments were condoned:
The prisoner has several bruises over his body... but he has not received more punishment than he richly deserved...
– John Price, 1856
In March 1857, Price went to Williamstown to hear the grievances of the prisoners on the hulks. One prisoner threw clods of earth at him, others threw heavy stones. He was then kicked, beaten and struck with picks and shovels. He died the following day.
In 1885 the Victorian government ordered that the five prison hulks be broken up. The Deborah and Sacramento were gradually dismantled. The Success survived until 1945, after touring the world as ‘the famous Australian convict ship.'