In Hobart for a short visit, today I discovered the Cascades Female Factory, Australia’s most significant prison site associated with colonial female convicts. It’s one of the 11 sites that together comprise the World Heritage listed Australian Convict Sites. Although only one building is still intact, the remaining high walls and recent interpretation give a profound sense of what life would have been like at Cascades in the mid-nineteenth century.
Between 1788 and 1853, about 25,000 women were transported to Australia from Britain and Ireland. More than half of these women came to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). And thousands of them spent time at Cascades, which operated from 1828 to 1856.
On arrival, the women would wait in the entrance area of Yard 1 until a decision was made about where they would go. The words at the entrance, shown below, are taken from official reports, and highlight the subjective judgments that were made, primarily by men. They indicate how powerless these girls and women would have been in having any influence over what happened next in their lives.
At decision time in Yard 1, the options weren’t great. If you had already been cast as ‘unmanageable’, ‘notorious’ or even ‘savage’, it was off to Crime Class with you – wearing a large C on the back of your dress, lousy food, hard hard work. It got a little better if you were assigned to Second Class – the C was smaller in size and worn on your sleeve, the food was a little better, the work was still hard but mainly sewing rather than backbreaking laundry work. First Class was best – you might work as a cook, task overseer or hospital attendant.
Damp conditions, poor sanitation and inadequate nourishment all took their toll on the inmates. There were high rates of illness and mortality amongst the women, and also in their children. Transported women were sometimes accompanied by their young children, and women who became pregnant would stay with their babies until they were weaned at six months (later nine months). At that point, the mothers had to leave the nursery quarters, and go to another part of the facility to complete their sentence. The children were kept at Cascades until they were three years old, although their mothers only saw them from time to time.
For more information about the female convicts of Tasmania, check out the Female Convicts Research Centre; membership is free and entitles you to access their database.
Female Convicts Research Centre 2012 Convict Lives: Women at Cascades Female Factory. Hobart: Convict Women’s Press.
Frost, L. 2004 Footsteps and Voices: A Historical Look into the Cascades Female Factory. Hobart: Female Factory Historic Site.