Women transported: Myth and reality

The following paper was presented by Gay Hendriksen, Curator, Parramatta Heritage Centre, at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra on 14 June 2009.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land we are standing on, the Ngunnawal and their elders, past and present.

In Speakers Corner today I will be talking about other elders, those whose stories and lives are yet to be acknowledged as an integral part of the Australian story – these are the convict female factory women.

When I think of these women I ask myself why do they fascinate us and why are so many people still passionate about the lives we know so little about? For me they are a part of our bloodlines, our lifelines and our storylines. In many ways we are them and they are us.

Why did the convict female factories come into existence? What is a convict female factory? What were these women really like and what was life like for them? Why are they significant today? I will respond to these questions focusing on Parramatta and through them we can begin to sort through the myths and reality concerning these women.

When we look at myth what do we think of – perhaps a distillation of social or experienced truth, a hero or heroine’s journey, a guide to our living or perhaps a spurious idea with no foundation in reality?

When we think of reality – is it our perceptions of the world, or others’ experience and perception of us? Or is it the propaganda, fodder fed to us about what is good in life? Perhaps success, money, leadership, or the experience and views of the rich and powerful? Or is reality the daily work, love and survival of the many? Is it the minutes between the moment of birth and death, or the picked bones of our lives 100 years from now?

Whichever of these or other ideas we adopt, our quest for the past is intimately linked to our need to understand ourselves and life in its messy, chaotic entirety. We all enter this quest with our own personal stories, reflections and biases. Authenticity is our key, our touchstone, as is the understanding that none of us has all the knowledge – the ‘facts’ – about these women. We would have to be standing in the very shoes of each of the female factory women to do that.

Convict female factory women were women transported – transported from one place to another, one life to another, one world to another. Their stories range from those of machine breakers and displaced farm workers to petty thieves and family women just trying to survive. There were at least 24,960 convict women transported to Australia.[i] More than 9000 convict women were in at least one of 12 convict female factories.

The colonial convict women coming to Australia would have been experiencing and witnessing the full effects and meaning of the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution. Some certainly participated in and witnessed the breaking of the looms in England’s north. The Irish in some cases would have been reacting to the hundreds of years of British ‘colonising’. Most women experienced firsthand the dire conditions of the early 19th century and many left family and children, never to see them again.

For the women, the idea of transportation would have had a sense of the perilous as well as travelling to the new world, new possibilities. The climate was different, the surrounding environment unfamiliar, the plants and animals and even the light seemed different – over the oceans to a land of myth.

Why did the convict female factories come into existence?

Some aspects of the answer are in the intersections of history and personalities, as well as the ideas of the time concerning social reform. This was matched with colonial desire for economic power and practical needs.

At this time Britain was a maritime power and was at war with the French. Also flax loom and flax spinning equipment was on the list of First Fleet supplies. When flax was discovered in the colony, experiments with flax for maritime purposes were conducted. A substantial number of female convicts would have had spinning skills.

Part of the answer can also be found in the practical need to solve the problem of what to do with the convict women once they arrived in the colony.

What were these women like?

Convict female factory women were simply convict women who, for various reasons, spent time in a convict female factory. The treatment and perceptions concerning these women were informed by negative notions existing in early colonial times. These were interpreted by government bodies and individuals who had the opportunity and/or power to influence policy and these women’s lives. The popular attitudes towards women were expressed by the Molesworth Committee final report:

…that society had fixed the standard of the average moral excellence required of women much higher than that which it had erected for men…a higher degree of reformation is required in the case of a female, before society will concede to her that she has reformed at all…[ii]

Governor Hunter described the convict women as a:

…disgrace of their sex, are far worse than the men, and are generally found at the bottom of every infamous transaction committed in the colony.[iii]

Samuel Marsden spoke of the female factory as:

…a grand source of moral corruption, insubordination and disease, and spreads its pestilential influence through the most remote part of the colony[iv]

and the activities of the women as:

…destructive of all religion, morality and good order.[v]

This intolerance of the factory women was not confined to the powerful middle-class men. Mrs Charles Meredith said:

Their inherent propensities to do evil, every shape of vice and depravity seeming as familiar to them as the air they breathe…[vi]

In contrast to these views, Mary Lethbridge and Thomas Reid described the women as essentially good. Mary Lethbridge wrote to her mother, Anna Josepha King, about factory women in her household:

I have a very nice nurse for him [her son], from the Factory, indeed I have been lucky in the three women, they go on very steady, they are all Irish.[vii]

Unlike the surgeon for the Floating Brothel, Thomas Reid, while surgeon on the ship Morley, commented on how the women ‘all appeared orderly, attentive and respectful’. He also said of the convict women who were destined for the female factories in Hobart Town and Parramatta:

I cannot hesitate but to declare my conviction, that if duly protected, and not exposed to more than common temptation, they will realize the most favourable expectations, and even forever set, an example of propriety to others in their situation.

A total of 121 women signed a letter of thanks to Reid for his humanitarian attitude on board the Morley.

The women’s experiences in the colony varied. Some women just couldn’t cope with life after total dislocation and sense of powerlessness. Others went on to make a life for themselves, have families and contribute to society, and in such a way that we have to really search to uncover their lives as convict women and female factory inmates. The profiles of the women transported don’t match the common stereotype at the time of morally degenerate, prostitutes, from a crime class, unskilled and illiterate.

Of the women, 65.3 per cent had no prior convictions and 28 per cent had one prior conviction. Only 7.9 per cent had multiple convictions. This suggests that the majority were not of a crime class.

Of the women transported, 52.8 per cent were aged from 17 to 29, and 64.7 per cent were under 34 years of age. Whether written government policy or not, the majority were child-bearing age and often came with young children. One could surmise they were sent for breeding purposes. The colonial government hoped they would be a civilising influence on the men.

Looking at the crimes that elicited transportation, 91.2 per cent were related directly to theft, the remaining being breaking 2.5 per cent, vagrancy 2.3 per cent and violent crimes 1.8 per cent.[viii] Theft was largely related to common opportunities and items that could easily be exchanged for money, not necessarily food. These statistics suggest that the convict women seldom committed violent crime.

In terms of skills, the convict women brought more than 180 trades with them, which shows they were skilled and suggests that laziness was not an inherent trait.

Of women convicts from England, 75 per cent had some level of literacy, compared with English immigrants who had a 78 per cent level of literacy. Similarly for the Irish, 46.6 per cent were literate compared with Irish immigrants’ literacy rate of 47.4 per cent.

These facts present quite a different picture to the descriptions of degenerate women with little chance of reform.

What was a convict female factory and what was life like for these women?

The factories were called factories because each was a site of production. The women produced spun wool and flax in all of the factories. There were 12 female factories – Parramatta (two), Bathurst, Newcastle, Port Macquarie, Moreton Bay (two), Hobart Town, Georgetown, Cascades, Launceston and Ross. The experience varied according to when the women were in the factory and which one they were in.

In the larger factories – Cascades and the second Parramatta factory – in the 1830s and 1840s, the women were involved in a wider range of work: spinning, straw plaiting, factory duties (housekeeping and working in the hospital), sewing, laundry and weaving. The third class also broke rocks and picked oakum.

The first factory was a room above the goal at Parramatta. Samuel Marsden noted:

The number of women employed in the factory under Mr Oakes the superintendent is one hundred and fifty, – they have seventy children. There is not any room in the factory that can be called a bed-room for these women and children. There are only 2 rooms and they are both occupied as workshops, over the goal, almost 80 feet long and 20 wide. In these rooms there are forty six women daily employed, 24 spinning wheels on the common wheel and twenty two carding. There are also in them the warping machine etc. belonging to the factory.

In its later years, this factory had up to 200 women but could only house about 30 at night. If the women did not have bedding with them they did not get a bed and found either a place among the factory fleece or somewhere in Parramatta that would take them. The second factory was built for 250 women and by 1842 there were 1200 women and more than 200 children.

Some of the Parramatta staff included Samuel Marsden, George Mealmaker, Francis Oakes and Matron Gordon. In Van Diemen’s Land staff included Mary Hutchinson, Jesse Pullen, and William and Elizabeth Cato.

Marsden was the head of committees for Parramatta factory 1 and 2. He disliked the women but is to be acknowledged for his advocacy of better factory conditions through his association with Quaker, Elizabeth Fry.

Mealmaker was a master weaver convicted for sedition (writing pamphlets for the Scottish martyrs) and, when the colonial-appointed master weaver fell overboard on the way out, he was employed as Parramatta’s first female factory superintendent. One can’t help but wonder how this idealist worked, governing the factory women whose rights he fought for in Britain.

Anne Gordon was matron of the second Parramatta female factory for nine years, the highest paid female public servant in the colony and received possibly the first retrenchment package (because of her husband’s inappropriate behaviour towards the factory women). She was also the catalyst for the first factory riot.

Francis Oakes was a Parramatta police superintendent, local businessman and third factory superintendent.

Oakes’ daughter, Mary, was brought up around the Parramatta female factory. Mary married John Hutchinson who became superintendent of the Cascades female factory. She became the matron of the Cascades and later Launceston female factories. Jesse Pullen was overseer, and one of the few surviving objects made by the factory women was a christening gown gift for the Pullens. William Cato was overseer and Elizabeth Cato assistant matron.

As more than half the factory women experienced the Parramatta female factories, I thought I would focus on the second Parramatta female factory, designed by Francis Greenway for 250 to 300 women. The first stone was laid in 1818 by Governor Macquarie and the women moved in during 1821. The factory closed in 1847. Even in this factory, life was different earlier than later as it spanned 26 years. There were three building phases – the original 1818 Greenway design, a third-class yard added in the 1820s, and three storeys of solitary cells and a courtyard added in the 1830s.

The Parramatta female factory was multi-purpose. There was a hospital, which could claim the first dedicated female health service in Australia. It was open to both factory women and free women. The factory provided a service for assignment and marriage agreements, as well as accommodation for convict women waiting assignment.

There was also a penitentiary aspect for women who committed a crime in the colony. Offences for convict women included drunk and disorderly, pregnancy while on assignment, prostitution or more serious crimes such as theft or bodily harm. Common sentences in the factory ranged from 14 days to a number of years. Originally time in solitary was in paired solitary cells, then later in the Gipps cells in the 1830s courtyard addition.

In the first Parramatta factory there were no classes. The first distinction was made in 1821. Extracts from the Rules and Regulations for the Management of the Female Convicts in the New Factory at Parramatta reveal the first attempt to separate classes:

That the women who were disorderly, dirty or disrespectful, or behave in any manner to deserve punishment, after a trial of one month in the general class, shall be formed into a class to be denominated The Crime Class.

The extracts also noted:

That the women whose crimes may deserve severe punishment shall be confined in a cell and fed upon bread and water.

By the 1830s, the factory was split into three classes with the intent to better control the women. First class was mainly for women waiting for, or returned from, assignment or women who had been promoted from second class. Second class consisted of women who committed minor offences in the colony or were promoted from third class. Third class was for offences such as prostitution, highway robbery, continued drunkenness, pregnancy, bodily harm, theft of property with value (clothing, watches, etc.) or murder. Second-class women who were frequently insolent could also be demoted to third class.

For all classes the women could keep their children until they were three years old or weaned, at which time they were forcibly removed and sent to orphanages. At Parramatta, the girls went to the Female Orphan School and the boys to Liverpool. Some women never saw their children again.

If the women were sent on assignment from the factory, they sometimes were not able to take their children with them. This was at the discretion of the master.

An insight into the factory women’s lives comes from a staff dispute at Parramatta between John Clapham and Matron Leach, who were the only staff members recommended by Elisabeth Fry. Some of Clapham’s complaints were:

  • I saw in the third class a monitor and 8 prisoners taking tea very comfortably with plentiful supply of milk – In the adjoining room I saw several others taking chocolate.
  • Several prisoners with large pieces of boiled meat...[one had a piece of meat that] weighed 11 ounces although she ought only to have had 4 ounces before it was cooked.
  • I saw [a] prisoner in the third class reading aloud the Sydney Gazette.
  • I saw the monitor of the second class put her arms around a man’s neck and kiss him several times in the presence of her turnkey...the man had come to sweep the chimneys.
  • I found a letter which had been thrown over the wall instructing a person to bring some tea, sugar, tobacco, pipes and throw them over the wall.
  • Having noticed several prisoners in the turnkey’s apartments in the third class today I went and found three employed making ladies shoes and one making lace.
  • I saw three prisoners in the 3rd class peeling mushrooms.

Matron Leach’s responses were expressed by visiting justice Lorentz Campbell in 1838. He says on her behalf:

  • He [Clapham] had repeatedly declared his determination to resign unless he were placed at the head of the establishment...his qualifications a subordinate turnkey.
  • Since the abolition of breaking stones – and pending definitive employment...I find that at their own request, some of them [women] have performed little jobs for the female turnkeys rather than be idle.
  • Mr Clapham is quite aware that after rain Mushrooms generally spring up on the drying green and grass plots within the factory.

The superintendent or clerk in the factory was required to keep five books: description, daily conduct, hospital returns, work expenses and offences. For rioting, the women were punished locally and then sent to Newcastle, and after Newcastle closed, to Port Macquarie and Moreton Bay. There were five riots we know of at the factory – 1827, 1831, 1833, 1836 and 1843. The first one was described by Sydney papers:

A numerous party again assailed the gates, with pick axes, axes, iron crows…and the inmates were quickly poured forth, thick as bees from a hive…About one hundred came into town…Constables were seen running in all directions. A captain, a Lietenant, two serjents; and about forty rank and file...were seen flying in all directions with fixed bayonets…and so violent were the Amazonian banditti, that nothing less was expected but that the soldiers would be obliged to commence firing on them...[the convict women] Went along, carrying with them their aprons loaded with bread and meat…[ix]

Abstracts of punishments at the female factory showed that class demotion was common. However, the feared punishment was head shaving, which had its origins in British prisons. A warder at Millbank (a British prison) noted convict women’s responses before transportation:

Oh yes they would sooner lose their lives than their hair.[x]

Head shaving was the cause of the 1833 riot.

Other reports include hospital reports – 30 categories were listed in the second half of 1827. Some common ailments were fever, pneumonia, dysentery, cholera, convulsions and asthma. The weekly returns detail the work done. In 1831 Matron Anne Gordon described the women working as monitresses, laundresses, needle women, wool pickers, carders, spinners, winders, weavers, servants, flax spinners, portresses, straw plaiters and cloth sewers.

Why are the factory women significant to us?

The significance today is somewhere in the spaces between myth and reality. At some time in all our lives are there journeys not chosen? It is easy to identify with characters who faced ‘journeys not chosen’, like so many of these women did.

Are the factory women’s responses to experiences so different to ours? Was their life within the family so different to today? Blended families, parts of families left in the country of origin (as refugees in Australia experience)? Women alone, making their way in life, single-parent families, nuclear families are all experiences that resonate today.

What of our convict female factory women’s heritage? In Australian culture, how much have these women’s ways of being filtered into current perceptions of Australian women? Has the sense of strong spirit and ‘we can survive anything, do anything’, come from these women? What of the mateship, nose-thumbing and ability to ‘take the micky’ out of things? These are a part of the Australian character. Many of us can identify with all these aspects but few would source the nature of the Australian character in any degree to these women.

Why are we so interested in the stories of these women? Is it a sense of impotence of our effect, our power to act in the world in a meaningful way? Is it the numbing corporatisation of our lives and the inculcation of corporatised beliefs – our newest religion? Are these women’s stories a life affirmation to counteract our daily drone? These women’s stories provide the paper on which we can mythologise, construct stories of ourselves and our lives. We can rewrite our desires to act with strength against adversity and ‘survive’ with a sense of empowerment. In many ways we are the stories we tell.

The convict female factory women can be seen as victims. At some time we all experience moments of being victims. However, the women also acted. Some conformed, some escaped, some absconded, others rioted and many went on to have fulfilling lives. The women made a life with the opportunities they had and ‘disappeared’ into the fabric that is Australian society.

Of the women who represent the range Maria Reisley (later Lord) was one who became highly successful. She was transported for seven years in 1804 and was sent to the Parramatta convict female factory. Maria had seven children and married Edward Lord. Her business acumen can be given reasonable credit for his fortune. Jane Wilkinson (later New) was one of the notorious women. By 16 she had four convictions and was transported for seven years to Van Diemen’s Land. In her story she steals, causes a scandal and contributes to a change in the constitution regarding governors’ powers. Charlotte Badger became a pirate. She was transported for seven years. Assigned, she became pregnant and was returned to the Parramatta female factory. With her baby, Charlotte was sent to Van Diemen’s Land where a mutiny occurred while she was on board. So began her life on the high seas, last seen in Tonga.

Mary Hindle was transported for participating in machine breaking – shouting encouragement to the rioters. She said that she was at the riot to look for her daughter. Mary was in and out of the Parramatta factory. While in the factory Mary sent a petition to the governor:

I hear that pardons have been granted to the men involved in the crime [machine breaking] and I humbly implore your Excellency to include me in the number of those who have received the Blessing of such Clemency…do not suffer me to languish the remains of my existence in hopeless Slavery.[xi]

In 1841 Mary committed suicide.

Susannah Watson had four husbands and eight children. Only three survived childhood. She was transported in 1829 for shop robbery, leaving five children behind, never to see them again. Susannah was sent to the Parramatta female factory with her youngest son, Thomas, who was sent to an orphanage and died before she was released. She had two more sons and a daughter in the colony.

Emma Mayner was convicted for stealing and sentenced for seven years, her second offence. On arrival in 1837, she was sent to the Parramatta female factory. She married Charles Wilson and had eight children.

Anne Dunne was transported for seven years. Her crime was stealing Irish linen. She had one previous conviction. Anne arrived in 1831 with a son, John. They both went directly to the Parramatta female factory. Anne married James Tompkins.

Mary Noonan was transported for seven years. She arrived in 1830. Mary was assigned to Mr Francis Stephens but was first sent to the Parramatta factory for insolence and again returned as he had ‘no further use for her services’. Mary married Owen Stapleton in 1835. They had seven children. After Stapleton’s death she married Colin Rogers.

Constance was convicted at age eight in Mauritius with her cousin Elizabeth. They arrived in 1832 and were sent to the Parramatta female factory. Constance later married Robert Trudgett in 1841. She had 11 children and became the local midwife.

Surprisingly there are less than 10 objects we know about in state and national collections that can be directly provenanced to these factory women. In the same period, there are only four images that are described as convict women and two that are factory women. The objects I believe and hope are still in the families of these women.

Discovering the women’s journeys we are taken on a mystery tour much like reading myths and following the hero stories. We see their hope, misery, joy, heartlines and many other things. We sense that they and we are connected – reading their lives can put our lives in perspective as is noted by their descendants.

Isabel Dale Tooley says of Ellen Sweeney:

Courageous. She left 2 sons behind in Ireland. I am proud of her stamina to go through the emotions she must have experienced. I hold her in great awe. What hardships! Not all were criminals and the courage to start anew, live in a strange country. It helps me understand the new migrants. Her relevance to the Australian character is strength of purpose enduring pain and loss and all character building. Don’t be ashamed of convict ancestry, be proud.[xii]

It is time we acknowledged and honoured these factory women. Our relationship to these women I think is best described by Kate Grenville who says in Joan Makes History:

I thought my story was one the world had never heard before. I loved and was bored, I betrayed and was forgiven, I ran away and returned, and all these things appeared to be personal and highly significant history. Oh Joan, what bogus grandeur! There was not a single joy I could feel that countless Joans had not already felt, not a single mistake I could make that had not been made by some Joan before me...and although you may not think so to look at me, I am the entire history of the globe walking down the street...and like them all I, Joan, have made history.

i Deborah Oxley, Convict Maids: The Forced Migration of Women to Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1996, p. 3. [back]

ii Kay Daniels, Convict Women, Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 1998, p. 81. [back]

iii Hunter to Portland, 3 July, Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, Volume 4, p. 586. [back]

iv Miriam Dixon, The Real Matilda: Women and Identity in Australia 1788 to the Present, UNSW Press, Sydney, 1999, p. 130. [back]

v Samuel Marsden, Letter from Rev. Samuel Marsden to Governor Macquarie, 19 July 1815. [back]

vi Mrs C Meredith, Notes and Sketches of New South Wales During a Residence in that Colony from 1839 to 1844, pp. 162–3. [back]

vii Helen Heney, Dear Fanny: Women’s Letters to and from New South Wales, 1788–1857, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1985, p. 104. [back]

viii Deborah Oxley, Convict Maids: TheForced Migration of Women to Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1996, p. 3. [back]

ixSydney Gazette, ‘Riot at the female factory’, 31 October 1827. [back]

x Henry Mayhew, The Prisons of London and Scenes of Prison Life, Charles Griffin, London, 1862, p. 273. [back]

xi Mary Hindle, Petition for Free Pardon, 22 June 1838. [back]

xii Isabel Dale Tooley, Oral History Response, June 2008. [back]

xiii Kate Grenville, Joan Makes History, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1998, pp. 278–9. [back]

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