THE HULK OF THE SHIP FITZJAMES – "HELL AFLOAT" – represented the most unenlightened episode in South Australia’s dealing with troubled youths.
The hulk, moored off Large Bay, became a reformatory for more than 100 boys aged eight to 16 in 1880-91.
The first 35 boys were transferred to the hulk from the boys’ reformatory at Magill in 1880. Some had committed serious crimes but others were guilty of petty theft or uncontrollable and neglected.
The South Australian government bought the ageing Fitzjames for £2,800 in 1876. The ship had spent 20 years bringing immigrants from the United Kingdom before being used as the colony’s quarantine ship.
When an onshore quarantine station was set up at Torrens Island, the Fitzjames was taken over as a isolated place to educate and reform boys.
On the Fitzjames, some boys were trained in tailoring and shoemaking, all without sewing machines, while others were taught carpentry. Other tasks included transporting fresh water, cooking, and cleaning the ship. Most boys were apprenticed out after serving a third of their sentence.
In 1883, a royal commission that the Fitzjames was in a bad state and unsafe in deep water. It was moved to the shallow water of the False Arm of the Port River.
The commission found the boys were ill fed, dirty, and slept in hammocks strung up side by side, with so little room that 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.
In 1891, the boys were removed from their floating prison and returned to their old address at Magill. The Fitzjames was broken up soon after.