In 1854 1.140 Russian officers, Finnish soldiers and their wives, captured at the assault of the fortress of Bomarsund during the Crimean War were provisionally incarcerated in two prison hulks at Sheerness: our HMS Devonshire and HMS Benbow. A few months later they were moved to prisons on the mainland. At the end of the War, in 1856, the survivors returned home.
It would have seemed obvious to identify our ship as a hulk for Napoleonic French prisoners of war. But our subject is of course so much rarer, so exceptional. I was able to identify our hulk thanks to an engraving in the Illustrated London News of September 23rd 1854.
About the prison hulk Devonshire and its Russian and Finnish prisoners
Our painting represents HMS Devonshire, a decommissioned English war ship that was transformed into a hulk or floating prison-ship. It lay moored at Sheerness in the estuary of River Medway. Our painting dates from 1854, when our ship held Russian (and Finnish) prisoners of war.
I was able to identify our ship thanks to a wood engraving published in the world’s first illustrated weekly newspaper (1842 - 1971), the Illustrated London News from September 23rd 1854 (Page 276).
During the Crimean War (won by an alliance of the United Kingdom, France, the Ottoman Empire and Sardinia-Piemont against the Russian Empire), in 1854, an Anglo-French force had attacked the Russian fortress of Bomarsund on the island of Aland in the Baltic Sea, off the coast of Finland. As Finland was at that time part of the Russian empire the soldiers were mostly Finnish, while the officers were Russian. The Russian commander of the fortress surrendered after three days of bombardment August 16th and 2.000 men and their wives were made prisoners and brought to England, some also to France. The fortress was demolished by British engineers and Helsinki’s Upenski Cathedral was built with 700.000 bricks taken from the ruins of the fortress.
Just over 1.100 prisoners were first sent to Sheerness, aboard the prison hulks HMS Devonshire and HMS Benbow. Hulks were decommissoned war ships that were being used as floating prisons. They were rendered inoperable once all canons and elements required for sailing (masts, sails, rigging and rudders) had been removed and after new features (jails) had been incorporated. Conditions aboard were harsh. The article in the Daily News of October 2nd 1854 describes how the animosity between the Fins and Russians rapidly ripened to a war of race, language, religion and politics.
Later that same year some of the Russian officers were housed with local families after they had given their parole not to escape, while the soldiers (mostly Fins) were lodged in prisons in Lewes in the old County Gaol and at Stonehouse in Milbay prison. The Russian emperor, Tsar Alexander II did not grant any pay to these prisoners of war, nor did he allow them to return home on parole of honour not to serve. It was only in 1856, at the end of the War, when peace was concluded between England and Russia, that the prisoners returned to their country. In the old County Goal prison of Lewes the (Finnish) prisoners produced wooden toys. Rapidly the prison became a tourist attraction, admitting up to 500 visitors a day. In 1877 at the behest of the Tsar a Russian memorial was erected in the churchyard of Lewes’ St John’s sub Castro, in memory of 28 Finnish soldiers who died while being imprisoned here.
I found the following information on the website of the Royal Navy.
HMS Devonshire was a 3rd rate ship of the line with 74 guns. It was launched September 23rd 1812. It had an uninteresting history.
In 1849 it was placed on harbour service and turned into a temporary hospital ship in Greenwich.
June 21st 1854 it was commissioned as a prison ship at Sheerness for Russian prisoners.
Between 1857 and 1868 it served as a School Ship at Sheerness.
June 5th 1869 it was finally broken up there.
Why should you buy this painting?
Because it is an impressive historic document.