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, Scottish and Welsh in some cases would have been reacting to the hundreds of years of British ‘colonizing’. Many left family and children never to see them again.
Elizabeth Fry Reading the Bible toa women's prison [Newgate], 183-,
watercolour. National Library of Australia
The early transportation journey began in prisons which had not yet felt the effects of the great prison reformers such as John Howard and Elizabeth Fry. John Howard in 1777 wrote about his observations of some of the prisons he visited. In the Old Newgate he observed:
The rooms and cells were so close as to be almost constant seats of disease, and sources of infection, to the destruction of multitudes, not only in the prison, but abroad. [i]
At Gloucester County Goal (Gloucester Castle) said
eight died about Christmas 1788 of the small pox....no separation of the woman...5 or six children have been born lately at the gaol[ii]
Of Folkingham he said:
Prison under the keepers house ...5 damp rooms, two are used for a lunatic.... by a trapdoor in one of these rooms you go down 8 steps into a dungeon... No chimney, small court, no pump, no sewer. Yet a woman and child at her breast was sent ...the child died.[iii]
Convict women were women transported – transported from one place to another, one life to another, one world to another.
From where we stand now the beginnings of Australia, as a colony, seems like a whirlpool of ideas and experiences. The colonial convict women coming to Australia would have been experiencing and witnessing the full effects of the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution. They may have shared some sentiments with the French. Some certainly participated in and witnessed the breaking of the looms in England’s north. The Irish, Scottish and Welsh in some cases would have been reacting to the 100s of years of British ‘colonizing’. Some would have committed crimes just for survival while others were old hands at the criminal game.
For many this would have been travelling to a ‘new world’, new possibilities, and new ‘utopias’. 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, the unknown.
Why were convict women sent? The answer is partly to clear the overcrowded gaols and partly to populate the new colony. Although not overtly stated it was note that:
It has been customary to send, without any exception all [females] whose state of health will admit of it, and of whose age does not exceed 45 years.[i]
The women were selected if they had good chance of survival. Whether it was an official intention or not, about 2/3rds of the women transported were unmarried.[ii] The ratio was 1 to 5.3 women to men (132,308 men were transported).[iii] The women brought over 180 trades with them so they also provided economic value to the Colony.
Why the Convict Female factories?
Why were the convict female factories developed? This is a question without a definitive answer. Some aspects of the answer lay in the intersections of history and personalities, as well as the idea of social benefit and reform. This was matched with the colonizer's desire for economic power, as defined by the historical and political climate in which Britain existed.
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 arrive in the colony. As soon as the first ship arrived with the women on board in 1788, Phillip’s solution was to put the women in tents away from the men, a solution which was totally inadequate as is demonstrated by the night of the 6th February 1788. Bowes Smith described the scene as beyond my abilities to give a just description of the scene of debauchery and riot that ensued during the night.[iv]
The cost of supporting the female convicts, keeping them safe and stopping them from being idle was combined with the moral concerns of Marsden and others for these ‘fallen women’. Some of the female and male convicts would have had spinning and weaving related skills (although there is no known evidence that women were transported for these skills).
At this time Britain was a maritime power and was at war with the French. When flax was discovered in the Colony, the supply of flax for maritime purposes was a consideration for Britain. Governor Phillip noted the advantages of the flax plants near the ‘settlement’ (Sydney Cove).
After the Government House was moved to Parramatta, convicts were accommodated in huts, some of which (those of un-limed bricks) were set aside for the convict women.[v] The first Parramatta gaol was built in 1796, possibly in George Street and was a log construction. This was replaced by a new combined gaol and factory used by men and women on the north side of Parramatta River (where Riverside Theatres and Prince Alfred Park now exist). There is an intriguing early map which gives the gaol as no. 30 in what exists now as George Street and Prince Alfred Park. In Prince Alfred Park there was a 2-storey stone building surrounded by a stone wall. Its construction had begun by 1802, and it was completed in 1804.
Governor King was looking at ways flax could be grown and woven. In March 1801 he reported that a number of women were employed in linen and woollen manufacturies,[vi] producing linen and hemp rope. In May 1803 there were 95 women employed in this way[vii]. It appears that women were employed in Sydney and Parramatta picking oakum (unravelling and cleaning old rope) and spinning. The locations of this work have not been confirmed. From 1803–1807 Parramatta exceeded Sydney’s production each year, with the majority of work occurring in Parramatta from 1804.[viii] Early wool experiments were also occurring.
The cost of supporting the female convicts and keeping them safe and from being idle was coupled with the moral concerns by Marsden and others for these ‘fallen women’. Some of the female and male convicts would have had spinning and weaving related skills (although there is no evidence at this point that women were transported for these skills).
These conditions and considerations intersected at this point in time…the answer was a factory. This factory, above the 1804 gaol, was along the lines of the ‘manufactories’ in the work houses of Britain and was effectively the first convict female factory in the colony of New South Wales.
[i] Dixon, Miriam The Real Matilda –Women and Identity in Australia 1788 to the Present UNSW Press, Sydney, 1999, p119
[ii] Daniels, Kay Convict Women Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, 1998, p.53
[iii]Oxley, Deborah Convict Maids – the Forced Migration of Women to Australia Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1996, p.3
[iv] Hughes, Robert, The Fatal Shore- A History of Transportation of Convicts to Australia, 1787-1868, p.89
[v] Jervis, James, Story of Parramatta Shakespeare Head Press, 1933, pp. 13-14, 36-37
[vi] Historical Records of Australia Series 1, Volume 3 p.28
[vii] Roe, Michael George Mealmaker, the Forgotten Martyr, Royal Australian Historical Society, v43, pt 6 1957, p.293
[viii] Flynn, Michael Prince Alfred Park –Its Early History and Background Research Report , Parramatta City Council, 1994, p.6
[i] Howard, John The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, William Eyres, Washington 1777, p.173
[ii] Howard, John The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, William Eyres, Washington 1777, p.323,324
[iii] Howard, John The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, William Eyres, Washington 1777, p.289