On the Waterfront: Success drew the crowds

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BILLED as “the only ship of its type in the world,” the convict ship Success drew thousands of visitors following her arrival at South Docks on October 21, 1899, during a tour of the British Isles.

BILLED as “the only ship of its type in the world,” the convict ship Success drew thousands of visitors following her arrival at South Docks on October 21, 1899, during a tour of the British Isles.

Although never actually used to transport convicts, her background was equally forbidding, the ship having served as an Australian prison hulk for some years.

Launched at Natmaw, Burma, in 1840 for Cockerell and Company of Calcutta, Success was a sailing vessel, built from teak, some 135 feet long and 530 tons register. After short-lived service around India, she reached England in 1842 and was bought by Frederick Mangles of London.

For the next 10 years, she was engaged in the emigrant trade to Australia, also making voyages from India to Jamaica and British Guiana carrying indentured labour.

Purchased by the Australian Government in 1851, she was converted into a penal hulk anchored in Hobson’s Bay, Williamstown, Victoria. After a brief spell as an ammunition store, Success was auctioned in 1890, being acquired by Australian entrepreneurs who recognised her potential as a floating prison museum.

It was this phase of Success’s career into which Wearsiders were given an insight while she lay at South Dock, where they could view at first hand the harsh excesses of the Colonial criminal justice system.

Up to 120 prisoners were once accommodated in 72 cells. Seven-foot square, three-man cells and others for solitary confinement measuring only seven feet by four were located ’tween decks, while on the lower deck were more seven-by-four cells, together with a two-foot square condemned cell and eight torture chambers.

At various places, huge chains used to restrain inmates were in evidence, while in dimly-lit cells, waxwork figures and tableaux depicting notorious convicts once confined on board could be seen.

Among these was the infamous bushranger gang, led by Ned Kelly, whose bullet-scarred body armour was prominently displayed. Another exhibit portrayed the assassination of Inspector-General Price, whose murder led to a gang of 15 receiving death sentences, although only seven were executed.

By 1859, the prison hulk system for hardened convicts had been discontinued, Success afterwards housing women prisoners and later still, unruly training ship boys.

She left Sunderland for London on November 28, 1899, returning to Australia about 1908. In 1912, she sailed to the USA, where she was exhibited at various locations.

After touring the Great Lakes and hosting her last exhibition at Cleveland, she was towed to Sandusky on Lake Erie in 1942. In 1943, she sank after a storm, but was salvaged in 1945, only to be destroyed as the result of an arson attack at nearby Port Clinton one year later.