Female Convicts

I’m back in Tasmania to attend the female convicts research centre seminar. Search for the Light may have been written and published but I am still fascinated by the subject. Two sites which I did not visit on my last trip were Richmond Convict Gaol and Cascades Female Factory.

In my book Nora spends a night in Richmond Gaol en route to her assignment in the country. The small original building held upwards of 80 men, the jailers who were called javelins, and the warden plus occasional women. How they found room for them all defies imagination.  A few years later another similar sized block was built just to house women.

Richmond Gaol

Cascades Female Factory was opened in 1828, so none of my characters would have been sent there and for that I am thankful. What kind of mind could conceive of something so cruel. As bad as life was for Nora, Helen and Sarah it would have been so much worse 3 years later.

descriptions from convict records

They were walked uphill for an hour and a half from the ship at 4.00 am to avoid being seen by men, who were prone to rioting when they saw new female arrivals, their hair shorn to be sold, their bodies stripped and scrubbed. Then dressed in drab convict uniforms, unfit for the damp and cold conditions they lived in. Huge stone walls dividing the different areas of activity, preventing them from mixing with girls from another class. Silence enforced as much as possible.

The girls in probation class did weaving, carding and sewing, the criminal class did laundry and the worse behaved picked oakum. All worked a twelve hour day on starvation rations of gruel and a thin vegetable soup, unlike the male convicts who were fed well. An added punishment was to be put in dark solitary cells on bread and water, as happened to both Nora and Helen, but also some wore an iron collar weighing nine pounds with spokes like a cartwheel, so the prisoner could neither lie down, nor lean against a wall. At least they weren’t lashed, but all this was done in the name of religion, attempting to teach women to conform, whereas in some cases it sent them mad. No wonder so many turned to drink.
Babies lived on the same rations once weaned at six months and the mortality rate was one in four. They did not see their mother again until she was able to claim him/her from the orphanage after her sentence finished or she married, that is if either survived. Children of convict women were viewed as bad as their mothers and of course it was only the women who were punished, not the fathers, who may have been their assigned masters who abused them. On their records was written “useless because pregant”. Does Irish Laundry comparison spring to mind?

Before this factory opened, the girls were in Hobart Gaol, with 90 to a room in dreadful conditions but at least they could mix and were not worked to a standstill.

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About Rosemary Noble

Writer, author, amateur historian and traveller
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