Diet Tables

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The practice of posting a notice in the prison bearing the official rations for the convicts was a signal on the part of government that it expected the convicts to play a role in keeping the ships’ officers honest. The practice seems to have originated on some of the hulks employed for holding prisoners of war, and from 1778, the prison reformer, John Howard, recommended that it be adopted on the hulks. It does not seem that the same attention was given to its adoption in the prisons, since at that time, the prisoners were largely responsible for feeding themselves.

This practice seems to have been introduced onto the convict ships in 1796 by Sir Jeremiah Fitzpatrick, the inspector of convict ships, who had been inspector of prisons in Ireland and was a follower of John Howard.

Prisoners of War

The publication of a dietary table was not a significant element of the prison reformers’ agenda since in local and county prisons of the day, the inmates were responsible for obtaining and cooking their own provisions.

However, it is possible that Howard copied the procedure from prisons and hulks holding American prisoners of war during the American War of Independence, where there was a strong tradition of self-governance.[1]

The Hulks

Howard visited the Woolwich hulks a second time on 26 January 1778, and among other things, reported there was no table of rules for the prison or the rations.[2]

He visited again in November 1779. It would be better, he wrote, if a table of the stated allowance for the convicts was hung up, and scales, weights and measures provided so that they could check the pursers, a practice specified in the regulations for prisoners of war).[3]

On 27 December 1782, when Howard visited the Woolwich hulks again, he found that some alteration had been made to the bread allowance, the diet table was hung in the cabin although not in view of the convicts, and there were no scales and weights provided for them.[4]

Howard visited the hulks in Langston Harbour in 1788 and reported that the diet table formerly seen in the cabin of the Justitia was on display in the Ceres.[5]

At the end of his 1789 report he made a number of general recommendations for the hulks, including:

  • A table of rations should be hung up in every hulk in a place where it could be inspected by the convicts and they should be permitted to select two of their number to reassure the inmates that justice was being done in their rations, a procedure that was laid down in the articles for managing prisoners of war. Proper weights, scales and measures ought to be made available to them.[6]
  • There should be a strict table of rules and orders, similar to that used for prisoners of war, with prohibitions against profanity, among other things. (Howard failed to recognise that the regulations for the prisoners of war had been produced by themselves.)[7]

In his 1790 proposal for managing the hulks, William Richards proposed the following:

The ration that they shall be fed on shall be printed and pasted up in various parts of the vessells that the convicts may know if they have had their allowance regular.[8]

Presumably this followed the publication of Howard’s 1789 report.

There is no evidence that rations were published in the convict transports prior to 1796. And while the evidence is fragmentary, it seems reasonable to conclude that tables of dietary regulations were routinely posted in the prison after that.

Ganges (1796)

There was a table of rations posted on board the Ganges, and given that Jeremiah Fitzpatrick had issued a detail set of instructions for convict ships that was applied to the Ganges (no copy of which survives), it seems highly likely that he was the author of this policy, no doubt borrowed from Howard.

19 November 1796 – ZY, a convict on board the Ganges at Spike Island, Cove of Cork, wrote claiming that the provisions were much diminished since they left England, although he could not say who was embezzling them, but suspected the steward. He did not provide his name for fear of punishment.

The flour was one-third the allowance for six men being now but 2½lbs, when it ought to be 4lbs, agreeable to the ratio put up between the decks by one of the Transport Board’s clerks.[9]

Hillsborough (1798)

31 October 1798 – William Noah, a convict noted that the convicts had refused the bread given under the government allowance. He added that the weekly ration for a mess of six men was: 20lb of bread, 16lb of beef, 6lb of pork, 12lb of flour, 1.5lb of suet, 3lb of plums, 9pts of pease, 9pts of oatmeal, 1.5lb of butter, 1.5lb of stockfish. Plus 2 gallons of wine for each man for the voyage, and 3pts of rice every Tuesday morning.[10]

9 November 1798 – Strangely, the broker and agent, Mr James Duncan requested from the Board a schedule of the ration of provisions to be issued to the convicts – for the Master. This was furnished. (ADM108/57/160)

Why was this necessary when the convicts already knew what their rations were? The only logical explanation can be that they had a separate source of knowledge. Noah may have copied this from the table of rations that had been posted in the prison.

11 November 1798 – Convicts continued going on deck. They refused their meat because they did not think it was the allowance. Each mess was served with a six-gallon keg of water.[11]

- Captain Patton to the Transport Board, advising that the scale of rations would be nailed to the mast of the Hillsborough as directed.[12]

Earl Cornwallis (1800)

8 October 1800 – Lieut. Parke (at Portsmouth) reported to the Transport Board on a complaint sent to Captain Rains. There had been some merit to the complaint over the provisions and he enclosed a copy of the Regulations nailed up in the prison room.[13]

Indefatigable (1812)

The instructions for the Indefatigable did include a direction that the table of rations was to be posted between decks for the information of the convicts.

The Convicts are to be victualled agreeably to the scheme inclosed, and the Passengers, at two-thirds of all species.

To the Master of the Convict Ship

Ration of Provisions which has been established for each Mess of six Male Convicts, for seven days successively, on the passage to New South Wales.

Days of the Week Bread lbs Flour lbs Beef lbs Pork Peas pts Butter lbs Rice lbs Suet lbs Raisins lbs Oatmeal pts Sugar ounces

And the period for which it has been usual to put the same on board the ship transporting the convicts, has been eight months; besides which, each convict is allowed 120 gallons of water and two gallons of wine during the voyage.

One of these Copies is to be stuck up between decks, for the information of the convicts.[14]

  1. Johnathan Pope, ‘Law, Tradition and Treason: Captured Americans During the American Revolution, 1775-1783’, Masters Thesis, University of New Brunswick, April 2003, pp.70-71.
  2. Report of the Committee Appointed to Inquire into the Measures which have been Adopted and Pursued for Carrying into Execution an Act. . . Entitled ‘An Act to Authorise, for a Limited Time, the Punishment by Hard Labour of Offenders’, 15 April 1778, Fourteenth Parliament of Great Britain, 4th Session (1777-1778), p.930.
  3. John Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, 2nd ed., Warrington, 1780, pp.429-430.
  4. John Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, 3rd ed., Warrington, 1784, p.465.
  5. John Howard, The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, 3rd ed., Warrington, 1784, p.465.
  6. John Howard, An Account of the Principal Lazarettos in Europe. . ., Warrington, 1789, p.218.
  7. John Howard, An Account of the Principal Lazarettos in Europe. . ., Warrington, 1789, pp.218-219.
  8. CY3008/481-507, Banks Archive – the State Library of NSW attaches this to a letter of 8 August 1791, but this seems to be wrong, since Banks had already commented on it by 5 January 1791
  9. TNA ADM108/42/657.
  10. William Noah, Voyage to Sydney in the Ship Hillsborough 1798-1799. . ., Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1978 (hereafter Noah), p.14.
  11. Noah, p.15.
  12. TNA ADM108/57/163.
  13. TNA ADM108/68/20.
  14. ‘Report from the Select Committee on Transportation’, Ordered to be Printed 10 July 1812, House of Commons Papers: Reports of Committees, (341) 1812, Appendix 25, pp.105-106.