In the eighty years of convict transportation to Australia, between 1788-1868, some 162,000 people (including children) were transported. Only 24,000 of these were women and a half of these women were sent to Van Diemen’s Land. It was a male dominated population most certainly. Hobart in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) received approx. 65,000 men and women transportee’s sent out from Britain, Ireland and several other English colonies. Many of their crimes were crimes of poverty and the brutal consequence of the industrial revolution, famine, as well as political crimes.
So what happened to these people once they arrived? Just what could they expect would become of their lives. The punishment they had been meted out was transportation, along with a term of servitude attached, as exile was itself considered a catalyst for reform. Those convicts of circumstance or wealth were more often than not given a pardon once they arrived on our shores. However, usually the term of servitude was either 7years, some 10yrs and others 14 years. A ‘life term’ was set for about a quarter of convicts sent to the colonies however this did not always reflect the gravity of their crimes, or lack thereof. Housebreaking and stealing clothes could also earn you a life sentence as a convict in servitude and crimes relating to property often received the harshest of sentences.
Most convicts never returned to their homelands, either with having no desire to do so or no legal means. The first step for a convict to a ‘normal’ family and life was often a ‘Ticket of Leave’ which allowed one to begin the process of building a life with some autonomy and was often the first step to marriage and family. Most eventually received conditional pardons but this also meant that they were required to stay in the colony.
When convicts arrived into the harbours of the penal colonies of the then ‘New South Wales’ they were dealt with according to the policy of the day. Some notoriously were left on the ship until they could be accommodated, others were assigned early or sent to clearing housing. In most receiving settlements where convicts were landed they developed what they viewed as suitable accommodation.
In Sydney NSW the Parramatta Female Factory was a multi-purpose station or factory. It was a place of assignment, a hospital, a marriage bureau, a factory, an asylum and a prison for those who committed a crime in the Colony. The reason it is called a factory is because it manufactured cloth – linen, wool and linsey woolsey however Cascades in Hobart Town in Van Diemen’s Land, was also called a Factory and yet it produced none of these commodities.
Cascades Female Factory was primarily a house of correction and this women’s gaol/factory operated from 1828 until 1877. Cascades Female Factory was intended to remove women convicts from the negative influences and temptations of Hobart, and also to protect society from what was seen as their immorality and corrupting influence. To visit Cascades today is to step back in time and I highly recommend the ‘play’ which will take you back to the colonial era.
Most ‘Female Factories’ around the colony primarily managed convict women and had little other purpose. They operated as places of work, of punishment, as hiring depots. They were places of shelter for women between assignments, when they were sick, ill or pregnant. Pregnancy btw was a crime for the unmarried convict woman, one for which she usually received an additional term of servitude added to her original term to compensate the colony for the time she was ‘off work’. The life of a convict was not an easy life, particularly for women.
Sydney dealt with its arriving male convicts at the Hyde Park Barracks, now a operating museum that offers a self guided tour through its history. For male convicts in Hobart, they were usually assigned out from the ‘Tenny’ which was built in the 1830’s. The Tenny, as it was un-affectionately known, was the Penitentiary Chapel or Hobart Penitentiary for men. The Penitentiary is home to incredible stories of crime and punishment in Van Diemen’s Land, with courtrooms and underground tunnels to the chapel, solitary cells, and still-working gallows of this fascinating historic convict site, which later became Hobart’s ‘old gaol’ and Supreme Court.
In the early 1830’s, a service in Hobart’s chapel or Prisoners’ Barracks Penitentiary was far from a serene and holy experience. The design of the Chapel included thirty-six solitary confinement cells beneath the chapel floor, which were later declared inhuman. It is now managed by the National Trust and a visit here is an experience you wont soon forget.
Attached to the chapel was an area which housed the convict men, this is now no longer, but pictures of this area remain. It was an area of punishment and accommodation. The convict film, ‘Pandemonium’ which is viewed if you take the tour of the Penitentiary, is absorbing experience, seated as you will be on the hard wooden benches of the old chapel in the manner of the convict experience. There are many tales of the Tenny, some ghostly and others unforgettable.
In the whole, that many survived their convict experience is remarkable and testament to the many other hardships and difficulties our convict ancestors faced. Not to make light of the hardships of the emigrants and free settlers who followed the convicts, and those indigenous to the land, diverse families and tribes who also struggled and fought to survive colonisation, as did we all.
Arriving into a land which had absolutely none of the infrastructure of any cohesive and large society and yet managing to survive and thrive, was a feat which often goes unacknowledged. There is no doubt that Australia’s growing pains were acute, diverse and decisive. However we have emerged as a prosperous and unique society, thriving as well as none other I can name. We still have growing pains yet to be resolved and a some growing up to do, but it can’t be denied that we have, as a whole, done bloody well for ourselves.
We should be proud or our amazingly diverse beginnings as a society and in building a culture unique in this world, yet a society inclusive of the many people of the World. It has been well done on a whole, and there is much more to well do.
You can read more about Jan’s travels around Australia and Australian Lore in her books ‘Discovering Australia & Her Lore’ Available at Amazon.com & Amazon.com.au
Jan also writes about Australian Lore in her Aboriginal series The Dreaming also available at Amazon
We should indeed be proud of our nation. Built with the sweat and toil of people from both here and all corners of the globe. Humble, hardworking folk with a healthy sense of humour.