below Dug into beach shingle, the graves held relatively well-preserved human remains contained in wooden coffins. The bones of nine individuals were recovered during the recent excavation.

Exercise Magwitch and the prisoners of Rat Island

Popular legend has long told of the presence of graves on an island in Portsmouth Harbour, holding the remains of convicted criminals or Napoleonic-era prisoners of war. In the wake of severe storms that exposed human remains below the cliff, would archaeological investigation confirm the tale? Richard Osgood reports.

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When the storms of 2014 crashed into England’s south coast, a tantalising glimpse of life and death in the Georgian period was revealed by the ferocious weather. One of the stories told by the guides who lead harbour trips around Portsmouth tells of the bodies of convicts or Napoleonic prisoners of war buried all over Burrow Island (known locally as ‘Rat Island’). Unlike many urban myths about buried items on the Ministry of Defence estate, this tale has proved to be true.

As the waves lashed the small rubble cliff, several bones were exposed by the erosion. Unmistakeably human, they were reported to our Ministry of Defence Archaeology team by the local police, and in response we raised a group of volunteers to spend a couple of days recovering the remains that had been uncovered or washed out. More detailed assessment was clearly called for, though – and that opportunity arose in the spring of 2017, with the launch of a project called ‘Exercise Magwitch’.

below Known locally as ‘Rat Island’, this small tidal island in the waters off Portsmouth has long been rumoured to contain the graves of 18th- and 19th-century convicts or prisoners of war.
Known locally as ‘Rat Island’, this small tidal island in the waters off Portsmouth has long been rumoured to contain the graves of 18th- and 19th-century convicts or prisoners of war.

Burrow Island is a small tidal patch of land lying between Gosport (with its old military prison of Forton and the naval hospital of Haslar) and the historic Portsmouth naval base – the site is visible from HMS Victory. It is mostly covered by ivy and trees, but several walls – possibly the remnants of a square defensive structure called Fort James, which was demolished in the 19th century, possibly part of a later jetty – can be seen protruding towards the foreshore. Each day, as the tides recede, a long and narrow causeway connects it to Priddy’s Hard, creating a handy temporary bridge that enabled our team to walk to the site.

above & below Situated in Portsmouth Harbour, the excavation site could be reached via a narrow causeway exposed every day as the tide receded.
Situated in Portsmouth Harbour, the excavation site could be reached via a narrow causeway exposed every day as the tide receded.

We had several questions that we hoped to answer through our investigation. Were there further burials on the island beyond those that had been exposed? Were the bodies prisoners of war from any of the multitude of nations with which Britain had been at war during the late 18th and early 19th centuries? (These included France, America, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Russia.) Alternatively, were the bodies those of inmates from the prison hulks that had once been moored off Portsmouth – of which, more anon. And what could we tell about the lives and deaths of these individuals from their mortal remains?

Floating prisons

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a number of old warships could be seen around Portsmouth, moored with giant chains. With their masts removed, they were a dark parody of their former splendour and must have been a most brooding presence, not least because these were not merely retired naval vessels but floating prisons, called into new service to house thousands of criminals. One such (fictional) inmate, Abel Magwitch, is immortalised in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations – it is no surprise that the author, himself a Portsmouth boy, should have been inspired by these imposing hulks. Although Dickens moved to London in his early childhood, prison ships were also moored in the Thames at this time, as well as at other locations including Chatham and Plymouth. Even celebrated ships like the ‘Fighting Temeraire’, the hero of Trafalgar that was later immortalised by Turner, ended her days in just this fashion on the River Tamar.

above A series of walls standing on the island are thought to represent the ruins of Fort James, or possibly part of a later jetty.
A series of walls standing on the island are thought to represent the ruins of Fort James, or possibly part of a later jetty.

It was not only civilian criminals who were housed on the ships, however; they also held hundreds of prisoners of war from many nations. These unfortunate individuals were kept in harsh and cramped conditions, and rations were sparse, monotonous, and often of low quality. Having said this, at least food was regular. If you happened to be a French infantry prisoner in 1812, life on board the hulks, though wretched, would surely have been preferable to the conditions being faced by the Grande Armée retreating from Moscow. Rubbish left over from the prisoners’ spartan meals could also be put to profitable use: meat bones were sometimes carved by the more industrious inmates to make intricate pieces of art for sale to local buyers.

This creativity should not come as a surprise: Napoleon’s armies were made up of conscripts, which meant that men from all walks of life were found in their ranks – including skilled artists. Their talent is reflected not only in the intricately carved bones, but in the images of prison hulks produced by one of the internees, a skilled oil painter and naval officer called Louis Garneray who was captured in 1806.

HMS Jersey was an 18th-century British warship that was later converted into a prison hulk and moored in Wallabout Bay, New York, during the American War of Independence. These illustrations show the exterior of the ship and the conditions of her interior; many similar vessels were moored in British waters, including off Portsmouth. Images: Library of Congress

In general, officers had a less unpleasant abode: being trusted on their honour to submit to parole, they were allowed to live away from the ships in Hampshire towns such as Alresford and Odiham – sometimes with their wives and families. The tombstones in local churchyards bear witness to their presence, and to the fact that not all went home after the wars. In contrast to these genteel graveyard burials, for those who died on the ships burial was altogether more utilitarian.

This was not an uncommon fate, because of the many diseases of the age – among them, cholera, dysentery, typhus, and smallpox – which spread rapidly on board with so many people held in such close proximity. In the early years of the prison ships, up to 30% of the inmates succumbed to these maladies. Those who fell ill were often initially transferred to another hulk that performed the role of rudimentary hospital, such as The Pégase. But local legend has it that the unfortunates who did not recover were buried on Rat Island.

Were the skeletons that we uncovered prisoners, or prisoners of war, though? We know that the remains of French PoWs were uncovered at Barry Cunliffe’s excavation at nearby Portchester Castle (itself a PoW prison during the period that the hulks were in service), and French, American, and other nationalities of prisoner were incarcerated at Forton prison in Gosport. Anticipating that there could be Americans among the Rat Island dead too, and mindful of the USA’s undertaking never to leave the remains of their deceased service personnel behind in a foreign land, there were some in our excavation team who envisaged a trip to repatriate the skeletons to the Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency in Hawaii – not the most common concern in planning an archaeological investigation.

above Gravestones in All Saints Church, Odiham, Hampshire, record the names of French prisoners of war who, being officers, were allowed to live in the town rather than aboard a prison ship.
Gravestones in All Saints Church, Odiham, Hampshire, record the names of French prisoners of war who, being officers, were allowed to live in the town rather than aboard a prison ship. Image: Allan Soedring, www.astoft.co.uk

Civilian convicts

For non-military prisoners, life on the hulks was no better: they were shackled and had to perform heavy manual labour around Portsmouth. Some of the sentencing seems astonishingly draconian to modern audiences – a case in point being that of an eight-year-old boy, Francis Creed, who was sentenced in 1823 to seven years on the hulks for the theft of 3 shillings’ worth of copper. Civilian convicts (for example, the Dorset agricultural labourers known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs) were often held on the prison ships prior to transportation but, given the diseases that were rampant within the vessels, this could in itself be a death sentence. Indeed, written sources of the time suggest that our site may have been more commonly used for the burial of civilian inmates than for military men.

below Graffiti dating from the 18th and 19th centuries at Portchester Castle provides a tangible link to the French prisoners of war who were held within its walls.
Graffiti dating from the 18th and 19th centuries at Portchester Castle provides a tangible link to the French prisoners of war who were held within its walls.

One such individual was mentioned in the Oxford Times of 1831: ‘Charles Morris Jones, who was convicted at the Assizes for Berks, held at Reading last year, for robbing Mr Shepherd, of this town, of goods to a considerable amount, and who was sentenced to 14 years’ transportation, lately died at the hulks in Portsmouth and was buried at Rat Island’. He was, apparently, a genteel-looking young man about 21 years of age and a native of Aberystwyth. Crucially, this account refers to burial on Rat Island – and the presence of convict, not PoW, graves. This is corroborated by other newspapers of the mid-19th century, such as the Morning Chronicle, which refers to tests of early fire extinguishers on the ‘convicts’ burial ground’ of Rat Island.

Some lines from a tale written in 1878 about the Portsmouth of the 1840s and 1850s are also evocative. By Celia’s Arbour, by Walter Besant and James Rice, describes the burial of convicts on our site; the text suggests that such burials were rudimentary but probably not dissimilar to many other inhumations in Portsmouth and Gosport at the time, and did at least include a spiritual component: ‘Brave and honest soldier – there is the roll of musketry over his grave – God rest his soul! Down below, creeping sluggishly along, go the gangs of convicts armed with pick and spade. No funeral march for them when their course is run; only the chaplain to read the appointed service; only an ignoble and forgotten grave in the mud of Rat Island.’

above When the low cliffs on Rat Island were eroded by storms, graves began to emerge.
When the low cliffs on Rat Island were eroded by storms, graves began to emerge.

What light would our project shed on this picture? A ground-penetrating radar survey by Cranfield Forensics Institute indicated that there probably were further burials below the cliff, and so the area most vulnerable to damage from tide and tree roots was selected for investigation. The excavation team included volunteer archaeologists, military veterans from Breaking Ground Heritage (participating through Operation Nightingale – see CA 338), members of the Royal Military Police, and also forensics investigators from Cranfield. All were soon very busy, as a number of east–west aligned graves were revealed; these had been cut down into now-consolidated beach shingle and contained elm coffins in various states of preservation.

The bones of their occupants appeared to be in good condition, although some elements of the skeletons, particularly their feet and lower legs, had been washed away in the past. One of the coffins had traces of minor internal decoration and the burials, though some were arranged on top of one another, had clearly been accomplished with a degree of respect beyond what one might expect for deceased criminals. The Rat Island dead had been laid to rest in stacked coffins, apparently without grave markers, but they had nevertheless been aligned as Christian burials. Seen in that light, the choice of the unconsecrated Rat Island for the burial of these men was almost certainly pragmatic rather than an additional punishment. The island represented land that was otherwise unused, and its proximity to the hulks ensured that the movement of the remains of people who had died of contagious illnesses was minimised.

In total, our excavation recovered the skeletons of nine individuals from Rat Island. The next step was to see if we could discern any more information about them.

below Dug into beach shingle, the graves held relatively well-preserved human remains contained in wooden coffins. The bones of nine individuals were recovered during the recent excavation.
Dug into beach shingle, the graves held relatively well-preserved human remains contained in wooden coffins. The bones of nine individuals were recovered during the recent excavation.

Examining the individuals

The skeletons were examined by Nick Marquez-Grant of the Cranfield Forensics Institute, who concluded that they were the remains of men aged between 17 and 50 years old. All appeared to be Caucasoid – a pertinent point given the exhibitions relating to Caribbean prisoners of war currently being curated at Portchester Castle – and in life they would have ranged in height (calculated from the length of femurs) from just 1.52m (4’11”) to a more imposing 1.86m (6’1”).

You might expect convicted criminals or captive soldiers to have led hard lives that were reflected in their remains, but perhaps surprisingly, apart from the occasional healed fracture to foot or collar-bone, there were not many examples of injuries. Their teeth were a different matter, though. In addition to the fact that over 30% of the teeth examined had caries – probably indicative of both poor diet and dental hygiene – two of the individuals, evidently keen smokers, had distinctive circular gaps in their teeth that had been worn away by the continued use of clay pipes.

Not all ailments leave physical traces on the skeleton, of course, and at least some of the individuals seem to have undergone autopsy, perhaps exploring their cause of death. One, a man who we have dubbed A7, had received a craniotomy (removing the top of the skull to access the brain), while another displayed cuts to ribs consistent with post-death medical examination.

right One of the excavated individuals showed clear signs of having undergone a craniotomy, removing the top of his skull. Might this reflect his having received an autopsy?
One of the excavated individuals showed clear signs of having undergone a craniotomy, removing the top of his skull. Might this reflect his having received an autopsy?

Prior to the 1832 Anatomy Act, only the corpses of executed murderers had been available for dissection for medical research, but this piece of legislation also made available the bodies of those who had died in the hulks and whose remains had been unclaimed. Might A7 have fallen under this new legislation? On the other hand, fieldwork at Haslar naval hospital by Cranfield revealed two individuals, both thought to have been serving 19th-century sailors, who had also undergone craniotomies. Had the Rat Island individual’s procedure been carried out by curious anatomists, or was it aiming to investigate his health more specifically?

The man in question had been 30-45 years old when he died, and stood about 1.73m (5’8”) tall, with no obvious signs of age-related degenerative disease. His cranium had been neatly replaced for burial, and we suggest that it is more likely to have been the work of autopsy rather than the general endeavours of a dissecting anatomist. This might seem surprising should the body be that of a ‘common criminal’, but establishing the nature of disease would have been essential for the treatment of those on the hulks to whom medical attention was still being administered.

There were no objects within the graves to hint at any of the men’s nationalities or religion (Rat Island did not have the rosaries found at Portchester, nor any military buttons), nor to help narrow down the date of the burials, though Hampshire History Hunter metal-detectorists did manage to find a number of clay pipes strewn around the graves, as well as gaming tokens, all of which were consistent with a late 18th- or early 19th-century date.

below Facing the past: skulls of five of the men whose graves were excavated by the project team. Were they prisoners of war or civilian convicts?
Facing the past: skulls of five of the men whose graves were excavated by the project team. Were they prisoners of war or civilian convicts?

Our options for dating analysis would not have been tight enough to distinguish between the late 18th and earlier 19th century, so the team turned to other scientific sources of information to discern who these people may have been. Specialists at the Universities of Oxford and Leuven examined isotopes preserved in the men’s bones and teeth to find clues to their origins and their diets, while Liverpool John Moores University’s Face Lab was commissioned to reconstruct the face of A7. (This individual would also subsequently be the subject of discussion on the BBC television series Digging for Britain.)

The isotopic signatures were intriguing. Of the four individuals examined, two had eaten more of a terrestrial diet, while the other two seemed to have had a diet richer in marine protein. This could indicate that they had lived in different areas, and indeed one man from each group appeared to have been born in the UK, while the others had a more European mainland origin. This latter pair included A7. He seems to have had a coastal diet and to have come from overseas. With no grave goods and certainly no regimental insignia within his coffin, one cannot say much more – especially as migration was not uncommon in the late 18th and early 19th century – but a Frenchman could plausibly have become a prisoner with or without being captured in battle. Given the number of French prisoners compared to other nationalities known to have been held in Portsmouth, and the site’s proximity to Portchester, this seems a distinct possibility. So perhaps ‘Monsieur’ rather than ‘Magwitch’, but whether he was prisoner or prisonnier de guerre, we cannot say… yet. What is certain is that all of the men whom we had examined came from very different regional backgrounds.

Touching the past

As a postscript to the field programme, Face Lab and PDR-SPD also provided the team with a 3D print of A7’s skull. This offered an incredibly accurate representation of the remains which could be safely handled by visitors during project open days and presentations – and as the fieldwork was accomplished by veterans on the Operation Nightingale programme (which uses archaeology to aid the recovery of former service personnel), this tangible link was especially poignant. If A7 had been a prisoner of war, he was a man who had known the fear of conflict, the sounds and smells of battle – something that many of our volunteers could relate to. They could also appreciate the technical advances that had made this model possible: some members of the field team use prosthetics (even skull elements) that were 3D printed based on the scanning of their own body parts.

below A facial reconstruction of the individual known as A7, by Face Lab.
A facial reconstruction of the individual known as A7, by Face Lab. Image: Face Lab, Liverpool School of Art and Design, Liverpol John Moores University, www.ljmu.ac.uk/facelab.

From a Ministry of Defence perspective, this project provided an opportunity for valuable training and cooperation between various components of the Department – 17 Port Maritime Regiment provided logistics support and a Combat Support Boat to enable the team to escape the tide when required, and the Royal Military Police, who have to deal with the forensic recovery of human remains as part of their duties, also made an invaluable contribution.

As for the burials themselves, they illustrate the darker side of England in the age of Empire – far more the world of Charles Dickens than that of Jane Austen. It also seems fitting that these events, and our investigation, all occurred in the spiritual home of the Navy – the entity that enabled the British Empire to be formed, to the great enrichment of some. For everyone that won in this age, though, there were losers, and the men who were consigned to a lonely grave on Rat Island represent the latter category. Without our excavation, the sweep of tide and storms would have washed away the burials altogether in the near future. The team of ‘Exercise Magwitch’ is grateful that the men recovered can now be reburied, and their forgotten stories can – to an extent – be told.

All images: Harvey Mills Photography, unless otherwise stated.