Life in Van Diemen's Land Factories

Dr Trudy Crowley


Convicts were transported to Van Diemen’s Land from the time of the initial establishment of the colony in 1803 until 1853.  During that time, 5 female factories were established in Van Diemen’s Land—at Hobart Town, George Town, Cascades (South Hobart), Launceston and Ross.  These factories housed only female convicts and were designed as places of labour and hire as well as places of punishment.  They also provided a place for the pregnant and the ill.  These establishments were referred to variously as factories, houses of correction and, rarely, penitentiaries.


                                                                     Hobart Town form the New Town Road, hand painted lithograph,
                                                                    John Skinner Prout, National Library of Australia


For the first 19 years of the colony, from 1803 to 1821, there were no female factories established in Van Diemen’s Land.  This was partly because the number of female convicts in the colony was small, partly because Governor Macquarie refused to allow the erection of a female factory in Van Diemen’s Land, and partly because the female convicts were in great demand as servants, partners and wives.  During this period, female convicts were punished in other ways for minor crimes and offences—they were fined, ordered to find sureties for good behaviour, put on a diet of bread and water, confined in solitary confinement in the gaol, put to work at hard labour in the gaol or the hospital, ordered to wear iron collars, put in the stocks, ordered to have their head shaved and, although this was rare, flogged.


At the prospect of an increasing number of female convicts being sent to the colony, in 1817, Lieutenant–Governor Sorell suggested to Governor Macquarie that a female factory be erected at Pittwater (near Hobart).  Macquarie replied that it was not intended to send more female convicts from Sydney than was required for the use of settlers and that a factory for female convicts was to be built in NSW at Parramatta.  Sorell was informed that he was ‘left at liberty to send to that Seminary such refractory or disorderly ill behaved Female Convicts from the Settlement in Van Diemen’s Land as you may deem expedient’.[i]  The Van Diemen’s Land settlements at this time were very much the outposts of Sydney and were under Macquarie’s tight governance. 


When the Morley arrived at Hobart in August 1820 direct from England with 50 female convicts of ‘respectfull becoming and grateful demeanour’, Sorell felt justified in sending 6 women, recently arrived from Sydney on the Janus, back to Sydney for misconduct, as he had been previously authorised.  Macquarie, however, was ‘sorry’ that they had been sent and responded that the women could have been kept in Sorell’s own gaol for a few weeks on bread and water, ‘then given out to settlers wanting Female servants’, as the Parramatta Factory was not yet completed.[ii]


Female convicts tried for serious offences in Hobart Town were sometimes sent to Sydney, Newcastle or Macquarie Harbour (Sarah Island) for punishment.  Several convicts were sentenced to be transported to Newcastle between 1816 and 1821, but only a minority seem to have been sent.  Similarly, several female convicts, tried in Hobart Town, were ordered to be sent to Parramatta Female Factory for punishment, but as it was not yet built, not all of them were sent.  Several other female convicts were sent to Macquarie Harbour for punishment between about 1821 and 1825. 


A small number of female convicts were sent to Sydney for trial during this early period.  For example, Mary Evers (per Alexander II to NSW and then Kangaroo to Van Diemen’s Land) made the journey to NSW to stand trial at Sydney for aiding and assisting the murder of an infant, the illegitimate child of her mistress.  She sailed on the Elizabeth Henrietta in September 1817 and returned to Hobart in January 1818 on board the Governor Macquarie, presumably having been acquitted.[iii] 


                                                                     The female factory from Proctors Quarry, tinted lithograph, John Skinner Prout,
                                                                    National Library of Australia


There were a number of reasons why officials thought a female factory a necessary institution.  The factory was planned as a place where female convicts could be put to labour and thereby make some contribution to the colony, working for the Government.  As well, unemployed, pregnant and infirm female convicts needed to be housed.  The institution could also double as an initial reception and, later, hiring depot.  It also was seen as a way of keeping the immoral and depraved separate from the better behaved female convicts.  A key premise of the establishments was that female convicts would be classified based on their behaviour and separated from each other based on that classification, to avoid new arrivals being ‘contaminated’ by the more hardened criminals.  The classification system operated across the entire penal establishment—Crime or 3rd Class prisoners were judged the worst and set to hard labour, Assignable or 1st Class prisoners were the best and awaited assignment, and 2nd Class prisoners were those working their way up from 3rd to 1st class, or whose crimes were of a minor nature, or who were pregnant.


In 1823, as Lieutenant–Governor designate, Colonel George Arthur received from Elizabeth Fry, the great Quaker advocate for prison reform, a number of suggestions relating to female convicts in Van Diemen’s Land, including the erection of a new building for female convicts at Hobart Town, with plans provided.


The factories were designed for the reception of convicts and as such were funded by the Imperial Government.  However, free women, mostly women free-by-servitude, but also some who came free, were also sent to the factories, though they only accounted for a very small proportion of the prisoners.

Hobart Town Female Factory (1821–1828)


There was a room set aside for the punishment of women at the Hobart Town Gaol, which was ‘completed’ in 1818 and situated on the corner of Murray and Macquarie Streets.  This Women’s Room was 4 metres by 3 metres and situated upstairs.  The women prisoners wore slop clothing and were kept to hard labour whilst there.  Hard labour consisted of washing the male prisoners’ clothes and cleaning parts of the gaol, after the men were first removed to the yard.[iv]  This room was too small and too close to the men, so Sorell still sought permission from Macquarie to build a female factory.  His request was supported by John Bigge as part of his 1819 enquiry.  Sorell was refused by Macquarie in March 1820, but he persisted and, in December that year, requested that ‘A plain Building of size to admit 50 or 60 Women being kept to labor might be erected by Contract’.  On 30 June 1821, Macquarie wrote to Sorell ordering that a female factory be constructed at Hobart. 


Six months later, Macquarie included among a list of the accomplishments of his administration:  ‘The Site of a Brick-Built Barrack, 2 Storeys High, with necessary Offices for the residence and accommodation of 100 Female Convicts marked out and now in progress, it being intended to erect a high Brick Wall round the said Building’.  Sorell later indicated that he had ‘placed the Small Factory adjoining the present prison, with a view that the 2 might, after a new Gaol was prepared, be united as 1 Factory or House of Correction for Females.  The ample means of division and Classification, Yards, etc., which the present Gaol and Factory offered, with such alterations as they are susceptible of, would, I conceive, render them well adapted and fully adequate to the purpose, and the expence [sic] of a new Factory would be saved’[v]  Thus, the first female factory in Van Diemen’s Land was built adjoining the Hobart Town Gaol, separated from it by a brick wall.


Joshua A Drabble was appointed Superintendent of the Hobart Town Female Factory when it opened and he lived in rooms in the factory with his family.  Relations between the Superintendent and his wife, and the prisoners, were not always harmonious.  On 2 June 1826 and the following few days, rioting occurred at the factory involving 22 prisoners.  When charges were laid against the prisoners on 10 June, Sarah Thompson, per Brothers, was charged with ‘threatening to put a knife in Mrs Drabble’.[vi]


Even though they were partly planned as places of labour, the female factories, including Hobart Town Female Factory, did not always work as intended, sometimes because of the lack of ‘hard labour’ for prisoners to do or the lack of equipment (eg, spinning wheels) or space to do it.  It was commented in the Hobart Town Gazette in 1827 that:

The punishment of Mary Pendle for stealing in a dwelling house, was necessarily different from that of the other guilty of a like offence, owing to the difficulty at present existing in the Colony of finding punishments suited to female offenders.  She was sentenced to 6 months imprisonment and hard labour, and his Honor added, that he really hoped the labour she would undergo would be hard.[vii]

Even when there was hard labour to be done, the prisoners shirked their work.  On 2 October 1823, twenty prisoners were charged with ‘wetting the yarn spun by her with intent to defraud by increasing its weight and thus make her work less’.


Whatever the work set the women, whether it be spinning, carding, washing or picking, they were expected to complete a set amount each day.  However, in later years, the Hobart Town Female Factory was so overcrowded that there was very little room available in which prisoners could work.  To overcome this, some of the women were sent to work at the Colonial Hospital during the day, most probably doing laundry work, but were kept locked up in the Hobart Town Female Factory at night.


In 1826, Lieutenant–Governor Arthur ordered an investigation into the conditions at the factory.  It found that 55 prisoners were crowded into 2 cramped and unventilated sleeping rooms.  In addition, the only yard available to the female prisoners overlooked the area where felons were hanged.[viii]


Overcrowding was a problem which dogged all of the female factories.  As the number of female convicts sent to the colony continued to rise until the early 1850s, no sooner would a new factory be built than it was no longer large enough to accommodate the number of prisoners sent there.  Not only did overcrowding result in illness, it also meant that the more corrupt prisoners could not be separated from the less corrupt, thus making a mockery of the classification system.


The 1826 enquiry also found that communication between female convicts in the factory and inmates in the Hobart Town Gaol next door, and people passing in the street outside, was too easy.  On 11 November 1825, Johanna Leahy, per Janus, was sentenced to 3 days in a cell on bread and water for ‘improper conduct in being on the roof of the Female Factory yesterday afternoon with intent to get at something thrown over the wall’.[ix]  Six months later, Jane Buckingham, per Mary Anne I, was charged with charged with ‘making a hole in the wall of the upper bed room for the purpose of communicating with persons in the street on the 20th of last month’.[x]

Escape from the factory was also relatively easy.  On 10 December 1825, the Hobart Town Gazette reported the following escape: 

Late on Monday evening as Dr. Westbrook was passing the Female Factory, he observed 2 women creeping through a hole which had been made in the wall, and the constable standing unconcernedly looking on.  He immediately disarmed this man, the ladies as suddenly drawing back; and at the same time Mr. Drabble discovered that 7 prisoners had escaped from the upper bedroom.  Six of the number have already been apprehended and sentenced to have their hair cut close off to the head, to be confined in a cell, fed on bread and water, and to wear an iron collar for a week.  We have not yet heard what punishment has been inflicted on the constable who so gallantly contributed to the freedom of the fair sex.[xi]


From October 1824 to August 1828, there were at least 18 occasions on which 1 or more female convicts escaped from the Hobart Town Female Factory, usually either by climbing through the above-mentioned hole in the wall, made by the prisoners, or by climbing on to the roof of the building and jumping down to the street outside.  There were another 9 occasions when convicts attempted to escape. In 2 of these instances, the women were captured as they broke a leg jumping from the roof—Ann Livingstone per Henry in January 1827 and  Ann Maloney per Midas in April 1827.

As mentioned previously, there was a riot at the factory in June 1826:

Last week, no less than 22 of the women confined in the Female Factory were sentenced to various punishments of solitary confinement, and being fed on bread and water, some of whom had been guilty of disorderly conduct, uttering insolent and abominable expressions, escaping from the cells, over and through the outer wall, and of other conduct highly unbecoming the female character.  They were fortunately prevented from escaping through a large hole which they made in the wall, and some of the punishments were inflicted for the ill treatment the workmen received in mending it up.[xii]

Other, smaller, incidences of rebellion also occurred.  For example, in September 1827, several prisoners were charged with singing obscene songs in the evening.  As punishment, they were locked in the ward for 3 days.


Subsequent to the 1826 inquiry, Arthur commenced building a new factory at Cascades near the foothills of Mount Wellington, on the site of a rum distillery.  When this opened in December 1828, the inmates of Hobart Town Female Factory were removed there and the building next to the Hobart Town Gaol was converted to a bond store in February 1827 for the reception of rum and other spirits. 



George Town Female Factory (c1822–1834)


George Town (sometimes referred to as Port Dalrymple) was settled in 1804 at the mouth of the Tamar River in the north of Van Diemen’s Land.  George Town Female Factory began operating around the same time as the Hobart Town Female Factory, Hobart having been settled around the same time.  At first, the factory was simply a shed set up in the lumber yard as a place of hard labour.  By March 1822, female prisoners here were making woollen cloth and leather shoes.  The women worked in the shed, but slept off site, finding lodging with whoever would provide them with a bed.  This often resulted in cohabitation with prisoners, ex-prisoners or soldiers.  Female convicts worked in this shed until 1825, when the factory was moved to the former residence of Reverend John Youl. 


The Youl family lived in the house from 1821 to 1825 when they moved back to Launceston.  The house was then converted to the female factory and female convicts slept on site.  However, by 1829, the building was in disrepair, it was cold and damp, with broken windows and doors hanging off their hinges.  Assistant Superintendent of Convicts, Ronald C Gunn, described the building in December 1830:

The building … is two stories high and contains seven rooms—2 occupied by the Supt., one as an hospital for the Females and the other four as the Factory.  The whole building is in a very dilapidated state, there are no windows, or at least the apertures for window are without glass, or Venetians, and are now boarded up, and a number of augured holes made through the boards to admit the light.  The fencing around the Yard is very insecure, and any of the women could easily get over.  … its general ruinous state is beyond what I can describe …

The internal Regulations are equally bad, there is no labour whatever performed except washing the few articles soiled in the hospital, and no punishment inflicted, as there is no classification and consequently that greatest punishment of cutting the hair is never done, not even in cases when the women are sentenced to the crime class.

The women being only sent down by monthly conveyance, a considerable portion of their sentence expires before they can be confined in the Factory, and as there is no labour performed when they are there, they generally look to punishment – (that is being sentenced to the Factory) without any dread, and more a time of rest.[xiii]


George Town Female Factory suffered the same problems as Hobart Town Female Factory—overcrowding, poor security and lack of ‘hard labour’.  There were also shortages of materials, machines (for spinning and weaving) and food.  The machines were removed to Cascades Female Factory when it opened in 1828.  From this time until the closure of the factory, there was very little work for prisoners to do, apart from some sewing and washing.  The rules established for the running of Cascades Female Factory (see below) were applied at George Town Female Factory from 1829. 


Security at the factory was unreliable.  After the riot and escapes at Hobart Town Female Factory in June 1826, several of the prisoners were removed to George Town Female Factory.  Soon after arrival, in November 1826, 3 of them escaped from George Town Female Factory—Elizabeth Slater per Brothers, Ann Riley per Mary III, and Sarah Wilson per Mary III.  Eighteen months later, Sarah Wilson, along with 2 other inmates—Mary Sample per Midas and Catherine Taylor per Mary Anne I—escaped again from the factory, this time breaking 2 spinning wheels in the process.  Catherine Taylor had escaped 2 months earlier.  Other escapes occurred in 1829 and later years.


In the final year of its operation, a security breach occurred involving sailors from the Van Diemen’s Land Company schooner Edward.  The sailors crossed Regent Square and endeavoured to gain access to the women in the factory.  They did not achieve their goal, but did succeed in providing liquor to the prisoners by getting the women to lower down a cord, which was then used to haul up the spirits.  Not surprisingly, the women got drunk and were duly punished.[xiv]


In the final 2 years of its operation, a minimum of 25 women and 4 children and a maximum of 69 women and 11 children (an average of 41 women and 6 children) were confined in the 4 rooms of the factory.  In November 1834, a new female factory opened in Launceston and so ‘this sink of iniquity’ was closed. 


In the early years of Van Diemen’s Land, a factory located at George Town was appropriate as this town was the main settlement in the north.  However, as the population drifted towards Launceston, and the courts sat there, sending female convicts from Launceston to George Town for imprisonment was becoming problematic.  To get to the factory, prisoners would travel by horse drawn vehicle or foot by road along the East Tamar, or by boat up the Tamar River; each method of transportation had its own problems:

The disgraceful scenes which have been carried on by the parties conducting the females to and from George Town … numbers of females sent for punishment to the factory at that place who have been weeks and weeks on the way, stopping at almost every hut and cabin of the government sawyers, and remaining till satisfied with debauchery …[xv]

An awful occurrence took place a few days since, in consequence of the horrible effects of "the dose."  As a boat laden with a full cargo of women going down the river, to the factory, at George Town, was proceeding on its way, two women, who had been previously indulging farther than was consistent with propriety, fell over the side of the boat, and came to an untimely end.  An open boat we consider a very improper means of conveyance for women at any time, more especially for so great a distance as from hence to George Town.

Newspaper articles expressed a desire for a factory to be built in Launceston and for prisoners to be given hard labour to do, so that being sent to the factory would not be seen as desirable.  It was argued that female convicts had it easier in George Town Female Factory than they did in assigned service and so it was difficult for masters and mistresses to maintain sufficient female servants, because they committed misdemeanours in order to be sent to the factory where life was easier.


A case in point—Some time ago, a resident in the country a few miles from town, found it necessary to the peace and comfort of his family that 1 of his female assigned servants should be brought up to town, before the Police bench.  The sitting magistrate sentenced her to 6 months’ confinement in the factory.  Upon her return from thence, when she was reproved for some misconduct, she replied:

“Oh send me to the factory!  I had much rather be there than here!  Plenty there to eat, and very little to do.”  According to the representation of some of our correspondents, the women are partly employed in washing, mending, and making clothes for the George Town gentlefolks, J.P.'s, &c.[xvii]


When the George Town Female Factory was located in the lumber yard, Mark Wilson, the Chief District Constable, acted as Overseer.  When the factory moved to Reverend Youl’s former residence, Mr Robert Graves was appointed Superintendent.  His young wife, Sophia,[xviii] and their young child lived at the factory with him.  Sophia was expected to assist in running the factory as Matron.  Graves wrote several complaints to the Civil Commandant at George Town, Lieutenant Edward Abbott, about his poor pay and lack of supplies.  He expected that his pay would rise as the number of prisoners at the factory increased but this did not happen.  Sophia gave birth to twins in 1827 and another child in 1829.  By then, possibly due to illness, Graves had taken to drink and was thus dismissed from his position in September 1829.  He left George Town with his family on the Speculator for Hobart, but died on board, aged 31 years.


Graves was replaced as Superintendent by Samuel Sherlock; his ex-convict wife Mary Ann was appointed Matron.  They were appointed on 9 October 1829, resigned their positions on 15 January 1831, but stayed on until the factory closed in 1834. The remaining prisoners were removed to the newly built Launceston Female Factory.

Cascades Female Factory (1828–1856)


As a result of the inquiry into the Hobart Town Female Factory in 1826, Lieutenant–Governor George Arthur looked around for a place to build a new female factory.  He chose the site of a failed rum distillery at Cascades near South Hobart, owned by Thomas Y Lowes.  The site was in an east–west running valley about 6 kilometres from Sullivan’s Cove, nestled under Mount Wellington. It was bitterly cold in winter and hot in summer.  The Hobart Rivulet ran through the valley next to the site.  It was purchased in 1827; John Lee Archer was employed as architect.


The first prisoners moved there from the Hobart Town Female Factory in December 1828.  The first group of convicts to be marched there directly from their transport ship were those who arrived on the Harmony in January 1829.  Prior to the opening of the Cascades Female Factory, when a ship arrived, prisoners were assigned directly from the ship into service, unless they were ill, in which case they were sent to the Colonial Hospital, or they had behaved badly on the voyage, in which case they were sent to the Hobart Town Female Factory.


On 1 January 1829, the Colonial Secretary, John Burnett, published ‘Rules and Regulations for the Management of the House of Correction for Females’.  These were the same rules and regulations which were applied at George Town in 1829.  They stated that the person generally responsible for the factory was the Principal Superintendent of Convicts.  As a magistrate, he could pass sentence on prisoners for offences committed within the factory; he was to enforce cleanliness, quietness, regularity, submission and industry. 


To run the establishment, the following officers were appointed:  Superintendent, Matron, Crime Class Overseer, Crime Class Task Mistress, Porter, Clerk and 2 Constables.  Their duties were described within the rules and regulations, as were the procedures for dealing with female convicts, both upon arrival and whilst within the establishment, including their clothing, classification, hours of labour, diet and punishment.


Reverend James Norman was responsible for the religious instruction of the establishment and the Medical Attendant had responsibility for the Hospital and the Nursery within the factory.  He was required to attend the factory every morning ‘whether there are, or are not, any sick women’. 


In 1829, Mrs Forcett was appointed Matron of Cascades Female Factory and her husband was appointed Gatekeeper.  The Overseer was Jesse Pullen and the Superintendent was Esh Lovell.  They held those positions until 1 January 1832, when John Hutchinson was appointed Superintendent and his wife, Mary Hutchinson,[xix] was appointed Matron.  Assisting them were William Cato as Overseer and his wife Elizabeth Cato as Assistant Matron—they were appointed in 18 April 1831 and dismissed 10years later.  John Hutchinson was replaced by John May as Superintendent, and Mary Hutchinson held her position as Matron until June 1851 when she was transferred to Launceston Female Factory.  Charlotte McCullagh was appointed Matron in her place and remained there until the establishment became a gaol in March 1856. 


As the number of female convicts being sent to Van Diemen’s Land grew, Cascades Female Factory was extended several times, from the initial building of 1 yard to 5 yards in 1853.[xx] 

Yard 1 opened in 1828.  It consisted of 6 sub-yards—nursery, kitchen, Crime Class (3rd), hospital, Assignable Class (1st), Probation Class (2nd)—and a chapel.  This is the open yard with the archway, where the gatehouse was, which is a public space today.


Yard 2 opened in 1832.  It was a punishment yard, consisting of solitary cells, light cells (or solitary working cells) and the washing yard.  Solitary cells did not let in any light, but light cells did and so prisoners confined in them could still work.  A church now stands on this yard.


Yard 3 opened in 1845.  This was another punishment yard.  It contained 2 double-tiered cell blocks of separate apartments.  Each cell measured 3.5 metres by 1.3 metres and had an arched ceiling with maximum height of 2.75m.  The doors of adjoining rooms opened on opposite sides of the building to make it more difficult for prisoners to communicate with each other.  Silence was the rule in these separate apartments.  This is the yard where the Female Factory Historic Site shop now stands.


Yard 4, the Nursery Yard, opened in 1850.  It contained a 2-storey nursery building, a yard and the Matron’s Cottage.  The Matron’s Cottage is in use currently as a gallery and research and meeting area as part of the Female Factory Historic Site.  The remainder of the Nursery Yard has recently been purchased.


Yard 5 opened in 1853.  It was modern!  It had flushing toilets and piped water.  There was a large yard and a double-story building containing a mess room and kitchen downstairs and dormitories upstairs.  It seems to have been used for 1st Class prisoners.  Residential houses now cover the area of this yard.


Cascades Female Factory operated as a factory for 28 years and during that time there were 2 distinct phases of operation—the first during the assignment system and the second during the probation system.  The biggest change came when the probation system was more fully extended to female convicts as a result of the Inquiry into Female Convict Discipline established in 1841.  As well as looking into incidences of rioting, ‘unnatural behaviour’ (lesbianism), trafficking and other forms of ill-discipline amongst the female prisoners at both the Cascades and Launceston Female Factories, the inquiry also investigated the nurseries (particularly the high infant mortality rate—see below for more information) and the on-site hospitals.


The Rules and Regulations promulgated in 1829 provided strict guidelines on the running of the factories.  However, before the 1841–1843 inquiry, overcrowding, understaffing, corrupt officers and poor nourishment made it difficult to keep the classes separate, and trafficking, bullying and rowdiness flourished, along with the ‘Flash Mob’.  Testimony at the inquiry suggests that the ‘Flash Mob’ consisted of a group of unruly women who trafficked in goods, bullied other prisoners, had lesbian relationships with each other and preferred to be in the factory than assigned to service.  Several of these women were moved between the Cascades and Launceston factories due to rioting and other offences, and even removed to other gaols, such as Longford Gaol and the men’s prison at Launceston, as they could not be controlled within the confines of either factory.


After the 1841–1843 inquiry and the introduction of the probation system, life in the factories changed.  Under the probation system, newly arrived convicts underwent 6 months probation prior to being hired out to service.  For many of the female convicts who arrived during this period, probation was completed on board the Anson, a hulk moored in Princes of Wales Bay on the Derwent River.  The classification system for probation pass holders—that is, those convicts who had completed their probation and so were available for hire—was opposite to the classification system in the factories:  3rd Class Probation Pass Holders had the most freedom and 1st Class Probation Pass Holders the least.  To obtain a tcket of leave, a convict had to have first been a 3rd class Probation Pass Holder.


At the factories, a strict regimen of silence and task work was introduced.  With the opening of Yard 3 at Cascades Female Factory in 1845, punishment by separate treatment and solitary confinement could be enforced.  No doubt bullying and trafficking still occurred, but with the expansion of the factory and the relief of overcrowding, order and control could better be enforced.


The first riot to occur at Cascades Female Factory was on 8 February 1829, just 2 months after it opened.  Prisoners were protesting against the imprisonment of 2 inmates in solitary confinement, prisoners who had been attempting to receive contraband provisions (probably to augment the poor rations provided).  At least 9 of the main offenders, including the 2 placed in solitary confinement, were charged with offences. 


Jesse Pullen, the overseer of the establishment, gave evidence at the inquiry into the riot.  In the morning, after Pullen had seen men on the hill behind the factory shouting to some of the women in the Crime Class yard, a bundle containing cheese and butter was thrown over the wall of the factory.  Several of the men were soldiers from the 40th Regiment.  Pullen, along with several inmates, went to retrieve the bundle.  Shortly afterwards a loaf of bread was thrown over and a prisoner, Sarah Beckley, per Sir Charles Forbes, picked it up and took it to the dining room.  She refused to give it to Overseer Pullen, so he left to report the incident to the Superintendent, Esh Lovell.  As he did so, 30 to 40 of the prisoners followed him, clapping their hands and hooting him out of the yard.  Pullen returned with Lovell to the yard and attempted to restore order.  The 2 women seen shouting over the wall to the soldiers on the hillside, Sarah Beckley and Elizabeth Davis, per Borneo, were eventually sent to the cells having made ‘violent resistance’.  Pullen continued:


When the two women who were put in the Cell were resisting us in the Crime Class Yard the Women in the sleeping Rooms who were locked up commenced shouting, swearing, and making use of the most abominable Language to me and my Wife that I ever heard.  They continued making a violent noise and knocking at the Doors to get out for upwards of an Hour when in the upper Room thro’ the Vent Hole over the Door which admits air to the Room they threw a large Piece of Cloth in a Blaze of Fire which fell up on the steps which certainly would have been set on Fire had it not been immediately extinguished, and thro’ the Air Holes on the opposite side a Quantity of Fire was thrown out which fell at the Bottom of the Steps leading to the Chappel which was extinguished by Mr Lovell with the Water he got in the Second Class Yard.  When we first discovered the Fire the Yells and Screams were indescribable, from all Parts of the Building except the Nursery & Hospital those in the 2d Class and Assignable Class not knowing what it originated in, thought the Building was on fire and several in the 2d Class fainted with the Fear occasioned by the Blaze.  There were 3 or 4 Parcels of fire thrown out upon the Steps leading to the Sleeping Rooms which being made of Pine had the Fire not been immediately extinguished would certainly have set the whole Buildings on fire.[xxi]


Pullen was then sent by Lovell to town to fetch the Principal Superintendent of Convicts, James Gordon, and 2 constables to help restore order.  In response to the riot, it was ordered that a fence be erected around the establishment ‘to prevent the approach of those who are in the Habit of giving such annoyance every Sunday’. [xxii]  The palisade fence, however, does not seem to have stopped the acquisition of contraband by the inmates. 


In March 1829, Margaret Gordon, per Henry, was charged with ‘smoking in the nursery this morning contrary to the regulations of the establishment, and refusing to give up her pipe to Mrs Rillen when demanded’.[xxiii]  Three years later, Elizabeth Davis, per Borneo, again imprisoned at Cascades Female Factory, was charged with being drunk and disorderly and sentenced to 7 days in solitary confinement on bread and water.  Prisoners were not allowed to have alcohol nor tobacco, among other things, such as food which was not part of their rations. 


The riots which occurred in the 1840s at both Cascades Female Factory and Launceston Female Factory were the result of overcrowding, poor rations, ‘unnatural connexions’, boredom and aversion to solitary confinement.  The riots are well documented in the Inquiry into Female Convict Discipline of 1841–1843 and on the conduct records of the rioters, but the newspapers of the day were oddly silent about them.  Major riots occurred at Cascades Female Factory in 1839, 1842 and 1843.  (For riots at Launceston Female Factory, see below). 


On 4 May 1839, Ellen Scott, per Eliza III, a notorious prisoner considered to be part of the ‘Flash Mob’, violently assaulted Superintendent Hutchinson with intent to kill him or do bodily harm.  Scott was assisted by other convicts, including 5 from the Atwick.  Scott was initially removed to Hobart Town Gaol, then to Launceston Female Factory to serve 2 years hard labour.


Over 3 years later, on 23 August 1842, 17 prisoners were charged with being involved in a riot at Cascades Female Factory.  It occurred in the Crime Class Yard where upwards of 150 women were housed.  These women had no access to the yard at this time as there were some workmen employed in the interior of the building and the authorities wished to prevent communication between them and the prisoners.  At about 3pm the women in the upper shop of the Crime Class Yard started dancing and singing, refusing to desist when ordered to do so by the turnkey, who reported the incident to Superintendent Hutchinson.  The women continued their riotous behaviour for some hours before Hutchinson sent for police constables.  The constables were effective in separating the riotous prisoners from the others and so quelled the riot.[xxiv]


Six months later, on 27 March 1843, there were riots at both Cascades Female Factory and Launceston Female Factory.  At this stage, no evidence has been found to suggest that they were coordinated but it seems a remarkable coincidence that they both occurred on the same day.

Infant nurseries


Initially, the nursery for the infants of prisoners was set up in Yard 1 at Cascades Female Factory.  Prior to this, the infants and children stayed with their mother, whether on assignment or in the care of the Government.  The nursery operated there for 10years until, due to the high infant mortality rate, it was moved off-site to a house in Liverpool Street, Hobart, near the Colonial Hospital.  The nursery usually housed those children of convicts less than 2 or 3 years of age—those who had not yet been fully weaned.  The death rate amongst the infants was abnormally high.  Findings from inquiries, inquests and newspaper reports state that the high death rate was the result of poor nourishment, overcrowding, poor ventilation and damp, and, in some cases, minimal care.  The most common cause of death amongst the infants was diarrhoea. 


After 4 or so years at Liverpool Street, the nursery, still under the Superintendence of Matron Slee, was moved to Dynnyrne House, South Hobart in 1842.  This building no longer exists, but photos of it, looking towards Mount Wellington, show Cascades Female Factory in the background, about half a mile away on the other side of the Hobart Town Rivulet.  Nursing mothers were sent here directly from the ship, with their infants, when they arrived.  Older children were sent to the Queen’s Orphan Schools at New Town.


Eight years later, the nursery was moved from Dynnyrne House to the new Nursery Yard (Yard 4) which had opened at Cascades Female Factory.  However, the infant mortality rate was still high and so the nursery was again moved, this time to Brickfields at New Town (which was by this time no longer operating as a hiring depot).  Brickfields was located where Rydges Hotel and North Hobart Football Oval now stand.  After 2 years there, the nursery again returned to Cascades Female Factory in 1854.  However, a year later, in 1855, it moved again, to the infirmary in Liverpool St, Hobart.


During all this time, the infant mortality rate remained higher than that in the normal population.  Prisoners were not responsible for the care of their children.  Nurses and warders were appointed from amongst the 1st Class prisoners and they each had care of many of the infants.  In 1838, an inquest into the death of Thomas Vowles, aged 14 months, provided information on the access mothers were given to their children in the nursery.  Mary Vowles (who had arrived as a free immigrant on the Princess Royal but was colonially convicted) received permission from the Principal Superintendent of Convicts, Josiah Spode, to take her child to the factory when she was sentenced; Vowles was under the impression that she would be able to nurse it whilst there.  However, Superintendent Hutchinson removed the child from her to the nursery.  Vowles and the other mothers of children in the nursery were able to see their infants once a month, courtesy of Superintendent Hutchinson.  Vowles saw Thomas once before he was taken home by her husband, to die of diarrhoea just a few weeks after they entered the factory.

Branch Factories


Branch factories were set up in Hobart at several locations during the operation of Cascades Female Factory.  These operated in connection with Cascades Female Factory and under its regulations.  At Brickfields, New Town, a hiring depot for female convicts operated from 1842 to 1852.  In 1843, the house in Liverpool Street, Hobart also operated as a hiring depot.  From 1844 to 1849, the Anson hulk operated as a probation station, and in 1850 New Town Farm operated temporarily as a probation station.  In 1852, prisoners with children were moved from Cascades Female Factory to New Town Farm. 


In 1856, Cascades Female Factory changed from being under the control of the British Government, to being under the control of the local authorities.  From this time it operated as a gaol, not a female factory.  More of the prisoners from this time were native born or women who had arrived free in the colony or those who had already received a Certificate of Freedom.  It closed as a gaol in 1877 when all remaining female prisoners were moved to the gaol in Campbell Street, Hobart.



Launceston Female Factory (1834–1855)


The construction of Launceston Female Factory, started in 1831, was completed in July 1834, though it still required furnishing in September of that year.  It was built next to the Gaol on the corner of Bathurst and Margaret Streets, with the entrance facing Paterson Street, where Launceston College now stands.  There are only a few remnants of the outer wall standing. 


John Lee Archer, who designed Cascades Female Factory, was the architect, but this factory was built on a more ‘modern’ design.  The buildings formed a cross and with walls around the outside to enclose 2 yards between each pair of 2 arms of the cross, the overall design was an octagonal shape.  Figure 1 below shows the design of the ground floor of the original building plus plans for the addition of solitary cells and separate apartments at the rear of the complex.  It is not certain whether or not these were ever built.  The nursery was above the surgery and office at the entrance, and the hospital was above the gatekeeper’s residence.  Above the Superintendent’s quarters in the centre of the building, from where he could see the entire complex, was the chapel.  Each arm of the cross, apart from the entrance, terminated in solitary cells and privies.  The upper floor of each arm was a dormitory, 1 for each of the 3 classes.  There was also a yard for each of the 3 classes of prisoners.


The first escapes from Launceston Female Factory occurred on 16 November 1834 when Rosina Gavilin, per Frances Charlotte, and Sarah Smith, per Eliza III, made a hole in the wall of 1 of the privies and absconded.  Other escapes occurred in later years.


The factory initially held 68 women and 11 children, but only a few years after it opened it was overcrowded.  From 1840 onwards, all convicts were sent to Van Diemen’s Land, as NSW was no longer accepting them.  As a result, the female factories operating became overcrowded as they were designed for a much smaller female convict population.  As mentioned previously, this meant that prison authorities were unable to enforce the classification system of convicts.  As at Cascades Female Factory, rioting and other forms of insubordination were sometimes a result, with most occurring at Launceston Female Factory between 1840 and 1844, before the implementation of the recommendations from the 1841–1843 Inquiry into Female Convict Discipline. 


On 18 October 1842, prisoners in the crime class barricaded themselves into the building and withheld the constables for over 24 hours.  Only after about 30 prisoners from the men’s gaol next door were fetched to assist the constables, was the siege broken.  Seven of the ring leaders were subsequently ironed and placed in the gaol before being sent to Cascades Female Factory aboard the Lady Franklin. 


In the following days the prisoners remained restless.  When Mary Sheriff, per Atwick, who had previously been involved in incidents, was sentenced to solitary confinement by Captain Arthur Gardiner, she pleaded with Dr Maddox, the sub-Assistant Colonial Surgeon, to have Gardiner overturn the sentence saying she was ill.  When Dr Maddox refused, Sheriff and 2 accomplices, Elizabeth Elemore, per Gilbert Henderson, and Eliza Owen, per Hindostan, rushed Dr Maddox and stabbed him with a sharp implement.  The injuries were minor and so, even though a sentence of death was passed against the prisoners, their lives were spared and the sentences commuted to transportation for life.  This of course meant that they stayed in the Van Diemen’s Land, but they were removed from Launceston Female Factory to Cascades Female Factory.



At this time, in vain attempts to try and control their behaviour, the most recalcitrant prisoners were moved between the 2 factories.  Many of these women were part of the ‘Flash Mob’.  Thus, the ‘Flash Mob’ operated not only at Cascades Female Factory, but also at Launceston Female Factory.  Information provided at the 1841–1843 inquiry told how prisoners at Launceston Female Factory had formed relationships with 1 another, to the extent that if 1 completed her sentence and so was assigned, she would immediately commit some offence in order to be sent back to the factory.  Superintendent Pearson stated at the Inquiry:

I do not consider that being in the factory here at present is any punishment at all and I do not think that the women consider it a punishment.  I have known repeated instances of women going out and committing crime on purpose to get back in a day or two with supplies of tobacco, tea and sugar etc. for the others.[xxvi]


One of the prisoners who gave evidence at the Inquiry, Eliza Churchill, per Navarino, concurred with the Superintendent and stated, ‘They would sooner be there than assigned to a settler as they could get more to eat’,[xxvii] even though the rations convicts were supposed to receive from their masters were superior to those they received in prison.


It was these women who were the ring leaders of the riots and other forms of insubordination and who controlled the trafficking of goods such as tobacco and rum in the factory—‘If they had money, however, the women could usually get what supplies they wanted’.[xxviii]  Evidence presented at the 1841–1843 inquiry showed how employees at the factory were involved in the trafficking of goods, and this resulted in some changes in staff.


Robert Pearson was appointed Superintendent on 3 January 1840 and his wife Elizabeth was appointed Matron.  James Fraser was appointed Superintendent in July 1842 and Christina Fraser was Matron from April 1847.  Samuel Johnston was appointed Overseer and his wife Catherine was appointed Sub-Matron in January 1845.  Mary Hutchinson took over as Matron (Superintendent) in June 1851, when she was transferred from Cascades Female Factory.


The overcrowding problem at the Factory was partially resolved in 1844 when a hiring depot for female convicts was opened in Launceston, separate to the factory.  The factory then became solely a place for punishment of female convicts and a nursery, until 1848 when the hiring depot closed.


The nursery at Launceston Female Factory became just as overcrowded as the rest of the factory, and as overcrowded as the nursery at Cascades Female Factory.  As such, it too had a high infant mortality rate.  Between 1841 and 1850 there were 229 births at Launceston Female Factory, and in the same period there were 57 infant deaths and 8 stillbirths. 

The daily diet for prisoners and children when the factory opened in 1834 was meagre:


Assignable Class

Crime Class


½ lb meat

½ lb meat

4 oz meat

1 lb bread

1 lb bread

8 oz bread

1 oz sugar


1 oz sugar

1 oz roasted wheat (‘coffee’)



½ oz salt

½ oz salt

½ oz salt

½ lb vegetables


½ lb vegetables



1 pint milk



¼ pint oatmeal

Table 1:  Diet for prisoners and children at Launceston Female Factory 1834.[xxix]


It has been suggested that the poor nutritional value of the diet, particularly for the crime class prisoners, caused irritability and contributed to their bad behaviour. 


When Ross Female Factory opened in 1848, the majority of the infants, pregnant women and nursing mothers were removed there.  Launceston Female Factory operated as a factory for another 7 years when its operation was taken over by local authorities, through the Sheriff’s Office.  From 1856, as with Cascades Female Factory, the establishment operated as a gaol.  The building was eventually demolished at the beginning of the 20th century to make way for the building of Launceston High School (now Launceston College).


Ross Female Factory (1848–1855)


As the ‘interior’ became more settled and the towns along the main road from Hobart to Launceston grew in size, the number of convicts assigned and hired to masters in these areas increased markedly.  It was often the more recalcitrant prisoners who were assigned to service in the ‘interior’, those who were continually found drunk and disorderly in Hobart and Launceston or those who were continually absent without leave or absconded.  It was believed that there were less distractions for these convicts in the country areas and so they were less likely to misbehave.  However, misbehave they did and the authorities recognised the need for a place of punishment and hiring for female convicts in the interior.  The chain gang station at Ross was chosen as the site for the last female factory to be built in Van Diemen’s Land.  Being on the road from Hobart Town to Launceston, the factory could also act as a stopover place for prisoners being moved between the 2 largest towns.


The establishment was designed to be multi-purpose—it would act not only as a female factory, but also as a probation station, hiring depot, lying-in hospital, nursery and overnight station.  It opened in March 1848.  Ross Female Factory had some advantages over the other factories.  It was built in the dry climate of the midlands and, being in the country, the air was fresher.  Thus, there was not the problem of dampness causing illness as occurred at Cascades Female Factory in particular.  Also, because the factory was built when the female convict population was at its peak, it did not experience the problems of overcrowding that the other 4 factories did.  This also meant that the nursery was not overcrowded.  Another benefit to the prisoners was that the Superintendent was also a medical doctor—Dr William John Irvine.


As a result of these advantages, the infant mortality rate at Ross Female Factory was low, especially compared to the rates at the Cascades and Launceston factories.  However, the rations were still meagre and hunger drove some prisoners to dishonourable acts.  In January 1852, Caroline Rankin, per Australasia, who had given birth to an illegitimate daughter at the factory 9 months previously, was charged with ‘appropriating the children’s food’.  In August 1850, Ellenor Onions, per Australasia, had been charged with ‘having meal bread and potatoes improperly in her possession’.[xxx]


When the prisoners arrived at Ross Female Factory, usually by foot with a guard or by coach without a guard, they were made to take a bath and issued with prison clothing.  The clothing consisted of:  a jacket, a pair of stockings, a pair of shoes, a cap, a shift, a handkerchief, a petticoat and an apron.  These items were made from wool, calico or flannel.  The women were then assigned to the appropriate ward—crime class, probation pass holders or nursery.


The problems cited in the 1841–1843 Inquiry into Female Convict Discipline were not overcome with the new regime under the probation system.  Evidence exists of trafficking, escapes and ‘unnatural connexions’ at Ross Female Factory even though it started operation long after the recommendations of the Inquiry had been put in place.  For example, on 19 April 1851, Caroline Rankin, per Australasia, received 2 months hard labour for bringing a quantity of tobacco into the factory; and on 21 December 1850, Mary Hassett, per Australasia, was charged with ‘lying on the floor with Ellen Hartley in an indecent manner’, she received 14 days in solitary confinement as punishment. 


At the end of 1848, Assistant Superintendent Dr John Imrie reported on the ‘shameful practices’ carried on by some of the inmates of the Crime Class ward.  A ‘quarrel arose from some of the women deserting the beds of those to whom they acted in the capacity of men, and betaking themselves elsewhere …’.  The women were removed to undergo strict separate treatment at Cascades Female Factory, under a careful watch, and orders were given to erect separate apartments at Ross Female Factory as soon as other works in progress would allow.  Some 3 months later, 1 of the women, Margaret Kelly, per Royal Admiral, was still the subject of careful observation after being removed to Brickfields Hiring Depot.[xxxii]


In March 1850, Dr Imrie reported to Robert Pringle Stuart, Visiting Magistrate to Ross Female Factory, on the ‘unnatural practices suspected to be occasionally carried on her and elsewhere …’.  Mary Elliott, per Sea Queen, was believed ‘to be 1 of the pseudo-male individuals’ whose presence was particularly sought.  Mary Elliott was supposedly large and masculine in appearance and, on the evidence of a fellow female convict, when in Hobart Town, she was in the habit of never going out on service, but rather ‘inveighling the very young and inexperienced’ and the ‘purse keeper of her successive admirers, who confided their purses to her care.’  Imrie also referred to Mary Sheriff, per Atwick, passing through Ross Female Factory on her way from Launceston Female Factory to Cascades Female Factory for separate treatment, as being ‘one of the women belonging to the species’.[xxxiii] 


The evidence given by other prisoners at Ross Female Factory suggests that these women preyed on the young girls new to the factory, sometimes resulting in assault.  On 21 December 1850, Mary Hassett, per Australasia, who was on the same day charged with lesbian activities (see above) was also charged with ‘concocting a plan and conspiracy to assault her fellow prisoners.’[xxxiv]


The factory closed in January 1855 and the Police Department took over the site, though the Roman Catholic Church used the Chapel for services.  Some mounds in a sheep paddock and the Superintendent’s cottage are all that is left of the factory today, though recent archaeological digs at the site have been unearthing the plan of the site.  The most recent dig revealed the foundations of the nursery ward.



CHAPTER 3 Female Factories of Van Diemen’s Land       Dr Trudy Crowley


[i] HRA III, 2 pp.290–292

[ii] HRA III, 3 pp.53–54, 65, 407–408

[iii] Tardif, Phillip  (1990)  Notorious Strumpets and Dangerous Girls:  Convict Women in Van Diemen’s Land 1803–1829.  Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, Nos.155, 207, 224, 226

[iv] HRA III, 3 pp.467, 545-6, 560-562

[v] HRA III, 3 pp.648, 71; HRA I, 10 p.700; HRA III, 4 p.146

[vi] Tardif, Phillip  (1990)  Notorious Strumpets and Dangerous Girls:  Convict Women in Van Diemen’s Land 1803–1829.  Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, No.859

[vii] Hobart Town Gazette, 6 January 1827

[viii] Rayner, Tony  (2004)  Female Factory Female Convicts.  Esperance Press, Dover, p.117

[ix] Tardif, Phillip  (1990)  Notorious Strumpets and Dangerous Girls:  Convict Women in Van Diemen’s Land 1803–1829.  Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, No.508

[x] Tardif, Phillip  (1990)  Notorious Strumpets and Dangerous Girls:  Convict Women in Van Diemen’s Land 1803–1829.  Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, No.650

[xi] Hobart Town Gazette, 10 December 1825

[xii] Hobart Town Gazette, 17 June 1826

[xiii] AOT, CSO 1/19/340, 4 December 1830 p.28

[xiv] AOT, CSO 1/19/340, pp.64–66, D’Arcy to Burnett 31 January 1834

[xv] The Independent, 9 February 1830

[xvi] The Independent, 25 May 1831 p.3 col.2

[xvii] The Independent, 25 May 1831 p.2 col.4

[xviii] Sophia was the daughter of First Fleeter Richard Morgan, the subject of a novel by Colleen McCulloch called Morgan’s Run.

[xix] Mary Hutchinson’s father, Francis Oakes, had been for many years the Superintendent at Parramatta Female Factory.

[xx] Lucy Frost’s booklet Footsteps and Voices provides an excellent history of Cascades Female Factory:  Frost, Lucy (2004)  Footsteps and Voices:  An historical look into the Cascades Female Factory.  Female Factory Historic Site Ltd, Hobart.

[xxi] AOT, CSO 1/365/8341

[xxii] AOT, CSO 1/365/8341

[xxiii] Tardif, Phillip  (1990)  Notorious Strumpets and Dangerous Girls:  Convict Women in Van Diemen’s Land 1803–1829.  Angus & Robertson, North Ryde, No.885

[xxiv] AOT, CSO 22/50 No.208 pp.375–405

[xxv] Adapted by Trudy Cowley from plans held at the Archives Office of Tasmania, PWD 266/907.

[xxvi] AOT, CSO 22/50 pp.281, 284

[xxvii] Bartlett, Anne  (1994)  ‘The Launceston Female Factory’ in THRA Papers & Proceedings, Vol.41 No.2, p.122

[xxviii] Bartlett, (1994)  ‘The Launceston Female Factory’ in THRA Papers & Proceedings, Vol.41 No.2, p.117

[xxix] Hobart Town Gazette, 6 November 1834, p.829

[xxx] Cowley, Trudy  (2005)  A Drift of ‘Derwent Ducks’:  Lives of the 200 female Irish convicts transported on the Australasia from Dublin to Hobart in 1849.  Self-published, Hobart, p.167

[xxxi] Adapted by Trudy Cowley from plans held at the Archives Office of Tasmania, PWD 266/1695.

[xxxii] AOT, MM 62/24 No.11037

[xxxiii] AOT, MM 62/31 No.13859

[xxxiv] Cowley, Trudy  (2005)  A Drift of ‘Derwent Ducks’:  Lives of the 200 female Irish convicts transported on the Australasia from Dublin to Hobart in 1849.  Self-published, Hobart, p.166