Penal Colonies

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Convict Women

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Female convicts were a varied bunch. They ranged in age from children to women in old age, but most were in their twenties or thirties. Many were single, but some were married and some were widowed.  A small proportion brought children with them on their journey of transportation.  Most left family behind in their homeland. Some were transported with family members, or family members had come before them, or came after them.

Many of the crimes for which they were transported are considered minor offences by today's standards. The most common crime was stealing—food, clothing, money, household items—nothing worth more than £5. 

Relatively few of the women were transported for a first offence.  A few of the women even courted transportation—deliberately committing crimes such as arson in order to be transported.  Perhaps a few were wrongly accused, but the majority, according to the laws of the day, deserved to be transported to the other side of the world, away from kith and kin.

On arrival, female convicts were sent directly to the Female Factory. Many only remained a day or so before they were assigned to settlers to work as domestic servants, and many were married soon after arrival. Any man wanting to marry one of the women could apply to the authorities for permission to do so. The women were then lined up at the Factory and the man would drop a scarf or handkerchief at the feet of the woman of his choice. If she picked it up, the marriage was virtually immediate.

Although some convict women were classed as depraved and prostitutes, others had been in domestic service in England and were transported for stealing from their employers or shops. After arrival, though, many had to take up prostitution to survive; and the system of selection of servants often meant that the gentry and officers would choose the young and the pretty amongst the women convicts.

"Whore" and "prostitute", in England during the Georgian era, were bandied about to serve the moral views of middle-class ideology. However, in the lower classes neither the male nor the female convicts thought it disgraceful, or even wrong, to live together out of wedlock. The sexism of English society was brought to Australia and then amplified by penal conditions. A convict woman needed unusual strength of character not to be crushed by its assumptions. Language itself confirmed her degradation, and some sense of this may be gleaned from the slang and cant words applied to women in those times—a brusque, stinging argot of appropriation and dismissal.

A woman was a bat, a crack, a buntel, a case for cattle, a mort, a burick, or a convenient. If she had a regular man, she was his natural or peculiar. If married, she was an autem mott; if blonde, a bleached mott; if a very young prostitute, almost a child, a kinchin mott; if beautiful, a rum blowen, a ewe, a flash piece of mutton. If she had gonorrhea, she was a queer mott. This language was the lower millstone; the upper was the pompous moral phraseology of the establishment, the good flogging Christians. The double-bind to which they were condemned was piercingly illustrated by the remark of one Scottish settler, Peter Murdoch—who had more than 6,000 acres in Van Diemen's Land and had helped set up the penal station on Maria Island—to the 1838 Select Committee in London: "They are generally so bad," he said, "that the settlers have no heart to treat them well."

Instead of iron gangs, troublesome and hardened female prisoners were retained at the female factory. The first such factory was built at Parramatta in 1804 and initially consisted of a single long room with a fireplace at one end for the women to cook. Women and girls made rope and spun and carded wool. At night they slept on the piles of unspun wool.

A three-storey barracks and female factory was built in 1821 and was mainly used to house women who had committed local offences, convict women with children and convict girls who were unsuitable for work with the settlers. In time, the work done in the female factory became less difficult, and needlework and laundry became the main duties.

In later years, a female factory was also built in Hobart and women were either sent to Van Diemen's Land from Sydney or directly from England. Quite a few married women were transported with their children and some shipping entries record their husbands' names as well. Some did not live in the factory, but were housed nearby and went to the factory every day for work.

Divorce was not available to the common people until the late 1800s and was expensive and scandalous. Previously married convicts were permitted to remarry after seven years' separation, as long as their spouse was abroad, even if they were still living. The Government encouraged marriage between convicts as it was seen as a means of rehabilitation and more desirable than a de facto relationship.

Life was quite difficult for convict women. Most were sentenced in England for minor crimes such as pickpocketing or theft. As punishment, not only were they exported from their country, many were forced to endure of a life of sexual exploitation. On the ships to Australia, the prettiest were rumoured to have been shared amongst the military officers. Upon arrival in Australia, the women were lined up like cattle to be selected as servants or wives. If they were not selected, a life of prostitution was their only real hope for survival.

The Lady Juliana was the first convict ship to carry women. It had been "opened" on the ports on the way to Australia and had thus become known as "the floating brothel." It arrived in Port Jackson in 1790. As the women were disembarked, a drunken orgy broke out. Sailors and convicts were in and around the women's tents, some queuing for sex, others making love with women they had forged attachments with on the voyage. Perhaps the women were willing parties in the orgy, but if they weren’t, they probably didn’t have much choice other than to go along. Either way, the convict women became regarded as depraved and immoral. One witness to the orgy wrote, "The women, cooped up on the voyage and for another 10 hot and intolerable days outside Sydney Cove, had not too many chaste figures among them."

The rituals of courtship on Norfolk Island were, to put it mildly, brusque. We see the "bright intelligent" Kimberley pursuing a married convict woman named Mary Ginders with an axe, shouting that "if she did not come and live with him he would report her to the Major and have her placed in the cells." Major Foveaux got the woman of his choice, Ann Sherwin, away from one of his subordinate officers by throwing him in jail on a trumped-up charge "so that," claimed the Irish rebel leader Joseph Holt, a Norfolk prisoner at the time, "the poor fellow, seeing the danger he was in, thought it better to save his life, and lose his wife, than to lose both". At least their union lasted: Foveaux married Ann Sherwin in England in 1815.

In such a moral environment, although male convicts had some rights, however attenuated, the women had none except the right to be fed; they had to fend for themselves against both guards and male prisoners. "England for white slaves, why were they sent here," Jones scribbled in one of his outbursts of delayed guilt, while reflecting on the fate of three women sent to Norfolk Island for the "crime" of abortion, for crimes that required pity more than punishment. "Heaven forbid England if that is her way of populating her hellholes. What would our noble persons think of our virgin settlements and their white slaves. In every case the women treated as slaves, good stock to trade with and a convict having the good chance to possess one did not want much encouragement to do so."

Because the women carried a very negative stigma, morals crusaders often tried to educate them regarding the folly of their ways. Women who simply stood in an "immoral pose" risked having their heads shaved and being forced to wear a collar around their neck as a mark of disgrace. The most difficult women were sent to female factories, which were essentially forced labour camps. Here they continued to be educated about the virtues of morality.

At the Cascades Female Factory in 1838, the moralising became too much for the women and they decided to make a point. The governor of Van Diemen's Land visited the factory and attended a service in the chapel. Entertaining the governor was the Reverend William Bedford, a morals campaigner whose hypocrisy had elicited the ladies' scorn. Keen to impress the governor with a fine speech, Bedford addressed the women from an elevated dais and then: "The three hundred women turned right around and at one impulse pulled up their clothes showing their naked posteriors which they simultaneously smacked with their hands making a loud and not very musical noise. This was the work of a moment, and although constables, warders etc. were there in plenty, yet 300 women could not well be all arrested and tried for such an offence and when all did the same act the ringleaders could not be picked out."

This cheeky behaviour "horrified and astounded" the governor and the male members of the party. As for the ladies in the governor's party, it was said, in a rare moment of collusion with the convict women, "could not control their laughter".

On another occasion, Reverend Bedford was crossing the courtyard of the Female House of Correction, when "some dozen or twenty women seized upon him, took off his trousers and deliberately endeavoured to deprive him of his manhood. They were, however, unable to effect their purpose in consequence of the opportune arrival of a few constables who seized the fair ladies and placed them in durance vile."

The brutalization of women in the colony had gone on so long that it was virtually a social reflex by the end of the 1830s. The first full account of it was given by Robert Jones, Major Foveaux's chief jailer on Norfolk Island in the early 1800's, who thought the lot of the women prisoners there "must surely have been greater than the male convicts.... Several have not recovered yet from their treatment at the hands of the Major." Passages in Jones's memoir show how absolute the chattel status of women was. "Ted Kimberley chief constable considered the convicts of Norfolk Island no better than heathens unfit to grace the earth. Women were in his estimation born for the convenience of men. He was a bright intelligent Irishman." Jones's sentiments are echoed in a fragmentary letter from a free settler on Norfolk Island, an ex-missionary turned trader named James Mitchell. "Surely no common mortal could demand treatment so brutal," he wrote around 1815. "Heaven give their weary footsteps their aching hearts to a better place of rest for here there is none. During governorship of Major Foveaux convicts both male and female were held as slaves. Poor female convicts were treated shamefully. Governor King being mainly responsible."

The hardships endured by the women appeared to build a strong sense of female solidarity. The women sang songs, which were often labelled "very disgusting". When matrons tried to separate agitators from the group, the entire group would sometimes chant "we are all alike, we are all alike." Not only did the actions protect individual women, they also made convict life a bit more bearable. The True Colonist reported in 1837 that while the "horrors of the crime class" had shocked the inhabitants of Van Diemen's Land, what was more disagreeable to evangelical moral sensibilities was the fact that many women prefer this class to the others, because it is more lively! There is more fun there than in the others; and we have been informed, that some of the most sprightly of the ladies divert their companions by acting plays!"

As is often the case, out of something bad came something good. The hardships endured by the convict women seemed to build an ethic to alleviate the hardships in others. Successful convict women such as Molly Morgan never forgot their own hardships earlier in life, and donated freely to establish schools, hospitals and even churches.

Free immigrants like Caroline Chisholm also decided to do something about the suffering they saw around them. She took some women into her house and travelled the colony to find employment for others. Within two years she had found employment and accommodation for over a thousand women and girls. She then went on to found the Family Colonisation Loan Society to help break the cycle of dependence and poverty. Chisolm’s compassion always came with strings attached. In her hostels, she employed a tough love approach in which she made it clear that guests should never get too comfortable because they should be out looking for a job.

Mother Mary McKillop was another whose compassion probably flowed from seeing the horrors of the day. Mary took a vow of personal poverty and always shared the hardships of the people she was trying to help. She was able to personally survive largely because people helped her as well. A society that started off as one in which everyone looked out for themselves, evolved into one in which people started looking out for others.


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