Prison Hulks, Devil Dogs and Smuggling on Deadman's Island
Deadman's Island is located near the town of Queenborough, on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent, England. The uninhabited mudbank island, measuring 1200 by 200 meters (3937 by 656 feet), is home to marshlands and sandbanks. This Island may appear innocuous, but its presence is shrouded in mystery, with a reputation for ghost stories and supernatural tales primarily inspired by the continuous washing up of human bones over the last 200 years. But where do all these human skeletal remains come from?
The continual washing up of human bones on the shores surrounding Deadman’s Island has inspired a reputation for the supernatural. (BBC)
Where Do All the Bones Come From?
Throughout history numerous prison hulks, the name given to prison ships, have been anchored to Deadman’s Island. This led to the burial of a number of convicts upon its muddy bank. Some were little boys, and others were prisoners of war, dating back to both the American War of 1812, as well as the Napoleonic Wars. Many of their cargo were imprisoned for life upon these vessels. It is believed that the bones of these unfortunates are those that frequently wash up on the surrounding shores.
In the realm of folklore, there is also a local legend that surrounds this Island, which speaks of a mysterious red-eyed devil dog who consumed men and women in the night-time and spat out their bones near the shore. However, the mysterious folklore may have also been a warning, conceived by smugglers so that people would stay away from their discrete profession.
Owned by Natural England, Deadman's Island is uninhabited, although it has been leased to two mysterious and unidentified individuals by Natural England, the non-departmental public entity that owns the island and is responsible for environmental preservation. According to the BBC, the island is a protected wetland preserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) that acts as a wild bird breeding ground, under observation by scientific communities from all around the world. Accordingly, no one is allowed to set foot on the island without explicit permission from the leasers.
Due to the overcrowding of British prisons, overrun with convicts and prisoners of war, many vessels were refitted and converted into prison ships. Captain George Pechell Mends drew this depiction of a prison hulk anchored to Deadman’s Island in 1838. (Public domain)
Floating Purgatory: Prison Hulks in the 1800s
The earliest stories regarding the infamous bones that frequently wash up on the island relate to the prison hulks that were moored there after the Napoleonic Wars in the 1800s. At the time British prisons were so overrun with convicts and prisoners of war, that many vessels were refitted and converted into prison ships. One famous case was noted by the historian Francis Abell in his work Prisoners of War in Britain, 1756 – 1815, where the author discusses one specific ship, the captured French vessel HMS Prothee, that was de-masted and turned into a floating prisoner of a war vessel. As Chris Dickon highlights in his article about these floating purgatory, the airflow and circulation was fowl since the portholes were tightly sealed to prevent prisoners from escaping and they were only opened for one hour a day. One can hardly imagine a more cruel punishment. As Dickon states:
"At 6 a.m. in summer and 8 a.m. in winter, the portholes were opened, and the air thus liberated was so foul that the men opening the portholes invariably jumped back immediately."
The total number of existing prison ships was never fully documented. However, it is believed their numbers were in the hundreds and that the total number of prisoners incarcerated within floating hulks reached up to 200,000 people. The prisoners themselves were made up of anywhere from captured French soldiers and sailors, to colonial American prisoners of war from the American War of 1812. The hulks ranged from accommodating and humane, to overpopulated and tragic. As Dickon continues, the death rates on board these vessels, caused by inhumane conditions, was exceptionally depressing.
Many of the overpopulated prison vessels suffered from the spread of illness, fever, and dysentery. There was a death rate of ten per day in the months nearing winter, and up to thirty a day in the months of summer. Most bodies would be buried in simple coffins near the shore. However, coffins are said to have contained a false bottom and were often reused. This resulted in skeletal remains emerging miles from where they were laid to rest. This practice was prevalent with prison hulk ships and the result of these convict mudbank burials is still visible today as skeletal remains continue to reveal themselves along the coast around the Isle of Sheppey.
In 2017 for example, numerous skeletal remains ranging from vertebrae, teeth, and skulls were washed up. It is believed that the burials among the mudbanks nearby are from the prison hulks known as Retribution and Bellerophon. As the columnist Anthony Joseph explains in the Daily Mail, Retribution at one point carried 600 incarcerated men and boys ranging from 10 years of age to men in their sixties. Many historians believe that the Retribution suffered from a cholera outbreak in the 1830s leading to massive deaths and a need for quick burials near Sheppey.
Most of the people imprisoned onboard the Retribution were minor offenders and petty criminals who were given the harshest sentencing of the period. Though the numbers are not exact, what can be determined is that all the bones are indeed males ranging from ages 14- 60 upon death. But due to regions of the Island protected by Natural England, many bio anthropologists and archaeologists are not allowed to investigate the unmarked burials. Instead, most must wait until the tides bring more remains to the shores.
Up to 200,000 people were incarcerated on prison hulks in Britain. The overpopulated prison ships were hotbeds for the spread of illness due to the unsanitary conditions and the death rate was extraordinarily high. (Public domain)
Devil Dogs: The Mysterious Red-Eyed Hound of Deadman’s Island
One of the most intriguing mysteries surrounding the human skeletal remains of Deadman’s Island is the legend of the red-eyed hound which is etched into the memory of the residents of the small town of Queensborough on the Isle of Sheppey. According to the Daily Mail, this fabled beast was said, "… to eat the heads of its victims on the eerie landmass." This legend is centuries old and the number of bones that continue to wash up on the shore pay testament to the evil hound. Whether this is true or not, many have reported seeing a sizeable black dog in the area. However, folklorists and scholars have provided insight into how this myth came about.
Black dogs are widespread motifs used in mythological stories around the world. Even though every culture has its own variation, the most specific folklore of the British Isles relates to large man-eating black dogs with large red eyes. As expert dog folklore researcher Mark Norman explains, the earliest accounts of black dogs in English literature came about in 1127. Based on his study of common wolf myths, Norman suggests that there are two variations to these tall tales. The first is made up of eyewitness accounts in which a black wolf, or dog, is seen and identified. In the other, and most common, is made up of vague and confusing reports which make it impossible to understand where the wolf existed. The latter fall under the category of ghostly apparitions, based more in legend than in fact. Part of these stories includes the sounds and gestures the wolf apparition makes, which, Norman attests, can be used as an indicator of how old a wolf legend is.
Additionally, the several reasons why stories have spread about dangerous black dogs have to do with making sure people stay away from dangerous places. Norman helps provide another reason as to why Sheppey's black dog folklore emerged:
"…Many black dog stories can be attributed to smugglers who wanted to keep interlopers away from their coastal smuggling routes. Smugglers were fond of inventing all sorts of scary stories to keep pests away…”
Given the history of prison hulks being placed around the Island, as well as it being an uninhabited place burdened with the remains of the dead, could Deadman's Island have been a safe-haven for escapees and smugglers alike?
Local residents on the Isle of Sheppey have long believed the legend of the red-eyed hound. (Cambridge Ghost Tours)
The History of Smuggling on the Isle of Sheppey
The history of smuggling in the Isle of Sheppey was, and still is, very common. The only thing that has changed since the 1500s is the cargo. In the past, the inhabitants from the town of Queensborough used the Island to gain import and export goods without having to pay taxes due to a technicality that existed regarding a charter granted by Edward I of England. Though authorities tried to stop the duty-free goods by banning this trade with Sheppey in 1575, the rule was often ignored and overlooked. Smuggling continued in that region without much concern.
In the modern era, smugglers continue to operate in several ways. One of the more infamous stories took place in November 2002, when two men, Patrick Doherty and Michael Hahn, smuggled four million English pounds worth of ecstasy and amphetamine sulfate by helicopter into Sheppey Island. Although they were both caught and found guilty for running a drug trafficking organization on the Island, the bust revealed a clever weekly smuggling path, involving the Channel Tunnel, flying to Belgium, and specific landing sights where they would remain undetected. Both Doherty and Hahn received fifteen years of incarceration for their crimes as drug smugglers.
In late 2016, the brothers Kevin and John Downes, Brian Chapman, and Thomas Abrahams created a fictional dog biscuit brand they named “Levante European” to mask their cannabis operation. One of the main drop-off points was a remote site at Wallend Farm on the Island of Sheppey. It was there that the cannabis drugs would arrive from Guadarrama, Spain, to be repackaged in their fake dog biscuits business. All four were arrested for the importation of class B drugs into the UK. The authorities seized 747 kg (1647 lb) of cannabis, which was valued between 1.6 - 2.1 million English pounds.
In other grim instances, human trafficking also occurred on the Isle of Sheppey. In April of 2019, Keith Plummer and Jon Ransom were imprisoned for the crime of smuggling 29 Vietnamese nationals in the back of their van. In an earlier account, police were notified about the same individuals removing said 29 victims from a boat in Newlyn Harbour, Cornwall. Plummer and Ransom admitted in court that they were “motivated only by monetary reward” and were sentenced to four and a half years in prison.
With all the smuggling activity that continues to take place, it would make sense that certain parties prefer that parts of the Isle of Sheppey remain off-limits to people, and why the myth of red-eyed wolves persists. Perhaps the bones washing ashore acts as a deterrent for people coming to see what else is going on. But there is also another factor as to why the Island is so mysterious, and it involves science and environmental factors.
Throughout history, smugglers have often invented myths to deter locals from snooping around. (Public domain)
Off Limits: Protected Nature Reserve for Nesting Birds
While there appears to be no end to the emergence of dead convicts on the island, the myths of a supernatural red-eyed head-eating black wolf, or to the continued cases of smuggling, Deadman's Island is also a wetland site protected under the Ramsar Convention. It is a site of particular scientific interest due to the bird populations that breed and nest in the region. Deadman’s Island is just one of several protected sites located near the tidal channel, known as the Swale, which separates the Isle of Sheppey from the rest of Kent.
This region is of scientific interest for the conservation of wild birds. This directive, known as the Council Directive 2009/147/ec, is a continuation of the directive of 1979 which aims to protect all wild birds and habitats of certain endangered species. Because of these directives and environmental restrictions, most people are forbidden from exploring Deadman's Island unless specific permission is given by the two mysterious individuals who lease it. Very few archaeologists have been able to visit the site, and the only time they were given permission was during a season when birds were not present on the wetlands.
- Not Always a Man’s Best Friend: Terrifying Black Dogs of British Legends
- Brave Enough To Spend a Night in England’s Most Haunted Prison?
- Prisons and Imprisonment in the Ancient World: Punishments Used to Maintain Public Order
Though Deadman's Island may appear uninteresting at first glance, it remains one of the most fascinating places on the Isle of Sheppey. It contains numerous humans remains sprinkled all over its shallow shores and access is forbidden by both environmental organizations and the historic black dog myths. These aspects keep the island well protected and secluded from the public’s gaze. Its history may also be tied to smugglers, given the continuous activity that has occurred since the 1570s up until today. However, the real mystery lies in the anonymous leasers of the island, and the reasons as to why they wish to remain anonymous.
Top image: Deadman’s Island Source: Екатерина Белоусова / Adobe Stock
By B.B. Wagner
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