The Female Factory, circa 1900.
All 5 yards of the Female Factory

The story of the Cascades Female Factory is one that I was not really aware of. It operated between 1828-1856 and housed most of the 12000+ women who were transported to Van Diemen’s Land from the British Isles and Ireland. It is Australia’s most significant site associated with female convicts.

Due to the shame Hobart residence felt toward the prison, convicts and their history, when the last government institution at the site closed in 1905, the site was sold and largely deconstructed.

Three of the five yards have been reacquired and reconstructed or refurbished to form the Heritage site.

The Cascades Female Factory offers a range of tours and performances.

The sandstone walls are foreboding as I walk down Degraves (read about Degraves and Cascade Brewery) Street towards the entrance of the factory on this sunny Hobart day. The Hobart Rivulet is gushing along politely out of sight on the other side of the road.

I enter a large yard with sandstone walls to my left and right, with a direct view to Mount Wellington’s pinnacle on the left. The visitors centre is straight ahead.  I purchase my Heritage tour ticket from an overly polite fellow. Once provided with the yellow lanyard, ticket and visitor guide, I use the few minutes before the 45-minute tour to view some information scattered around the courtyard.

The Women of the Female Factory

Shelly is our guide for today’s tour. A group of about twenty gathered for the 1pm tour. Shelly begins by welcoming us and stressing to us to think of the women held here and to decide if they were treated fairly as we go on the tour.

Shelly tells us that “luck” is a key component to the life as a female convict. Guards, matrons or even other convicts could be the difference between life and death. Allocation to a family or marriage to a husband can lead to the best or worst of circumstances for a convict woman.

Convict women did not have a legal voice in the colony, so it was easy for a guard, the matron, or masters or master’s wives to label a convict or house servant as a thief, and the punishment would be swift. Becoming pregnant was also a punishable offence for a female convict or house servant. It’s already looking rather grim for the fate of convict women…

The Superintendent and the Matron

The Superintendent and the Matron were the law for the convicts inside the Female Factory. Whether they liked a woman or not, could determine their future. They could make life as unbearable as they liked.

The superintendent was always male, and he was always married. Religious teachings were part of their responsibilities.

The role of Matron was to keep order and cleanliness within the prison. Given the conditions this was often difficult. With the addition of the nursery it was also to provide care and education to the children before the child was old enough to be sent to an orphanage.

The Matron’s Cottage was built in 1850, and is the only original building from the convict era on the site today. (At the end of the tour I take some time to check out the Matron’s Cottage which is a mini-museum in itself).

A Superintendent, a Matron, an Overseer and Task Mistress for the Crime Class, a Porter, a Clerk and two Constables were the staff at the Female Factory.

The Female Factory Heritage Tour Begins

The tour itself begins by walking outside the site back to Degraves Street. Shelly’s storytelling transports us back to the 1820’s…

We are told the previous land owner had intended to start a distillery on the site, but by the time he was ready to begin distilling there were sixteen distilleries in Hobart Town and he decided to sell the property instead.

Before purchasing the site, Governor Arthur (Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land 1824-1837) was advised the land was too damp and could be prone to flooding given the proximity of the mountain and the gully it sat in, and would therefore not be ideal for a prison. These recommendations were ignored. Governor Arthur at his best.

Shelly shares several early images of the Female Factory around the group. These images show the buildings and the site from various angles. It was quite an expansive site. It is certainly a pity it is no longer around to view in its original form. Yards 1, 3 and 4 have been reclaimed and form the Heritage Site.

The female convicts who departed the ships at the wharf were marched up to the prison at 4 o’clock in the morning to arrive before daybreak, so as not to be seen in the streets by residents. This would have been bitterly cold for a convict should they have arrived in Hobart Town in the winter months. There weren’t any Macpac puffer jackets back then.

Next, we enter Yard 1 as Shelly leads us in via the large barred front gate just as the convicts would have done 190 years ago. There are markings on the ground in the shapes of the structures and rooms that stood here originally.

Looking at Yard 1 from just inside the front gate.
Yard 1 from the far wall.

The Three Classes 

Yard 1 was home for the convicts. It initially housed the kitchen, the sleeping quarters, the laundry and the cells.

In the 1800’s the purity of a woman was distinguished by the length of her hair. Shelly tells the group that the convicts hair was cut short or shaved, so that men, or more specifically potential husbands, would know if the woman had been in prison. Inside the prison, the women were divided in to 3 classes:

Class 1 displayed good behaviour and were deemed to be of good character and assignable.

Class 2 were guilty of minor offences and had shown improved conduct.

The third class was known as the Crime Class. This class consisted of convicts who had been either transported twice, guilty of misconduct during transportation, convicted of serious offences, or had committed offences within the prison. Bad, bad girls.

Each class was segregated in the yard.

The duties for each class were also segregated by daily tasks for the women:

  1. Cooks, overseers and hospital attendants
  2. Making clothes, sewing, preparing linen
  3. Washtub and laundry duties, carded and spun wool.

Solitary confinement was the harshest of punishments. The convicts were confined to their cell for 23 hours a day, and forced to pick oakum. Shelly explains that picking oakum is the unravelling of tar stained rope. By hand. In the dark. A clump of oakum is passed around. The coarse fabric is sharp and unpleasant to touch. I’d imagine cuts to the fingers and hands resulting in infection would be a common occurrence. Not exactly a pleasurable way to spend your Sunday afternoon. Or your Tuesday morning.

Solitary confinement automatically landed a convict in crime class.

Conditions in Winter

The location of the prison was not ideal.  It was in a damp gully, next to the Hobart rivulet, which was prone to flooding. It was cold and windy.

The cold and wet environment caused much of the ill health for the prisoners. Coupled with an ordinary nutritional diet of bread and water the prisoners were malnourished and sick.

When the factory flooded, it could stay knee deep in the laundry for weeks, and often in other yards, helping spread sickness and disease amongst the women. Do you get the feeling that the women would have been in perpetually wet clothing?

Pregnancy inside the Prison

For convicts who were pregnant inside the prison, they were cared for in the nursery until the baby was weaned, then the baby was taken to the local orphanage (if it survived birth and the nursery). The mother was then sent to the Crime Class, had her hair cut off, and put to work.

One of the saddest stories of a convict at the Female Factory belongs to Mary McLauchlan. Shelly gives us a brief outline of poor Mary, but I think the story of Mary McLauchlan is best told by Tassie’s own convict punk band, The Dead Maggies. Have a listen:

The Dead Maggies – Mary McLauchlan

Child mortality

Shelly walks the group from Yard 1 via Yard 3 (where the Visitor Centre stands) to Yard 4, where the nursery once was. One of the most shameful aspects of the prison was the mortality rate of children in the nursery. The rate was below 40%!!! This was due to several contributing factors, namely malnutrition, and the malnutrition of their mothers during pregnancy. Can you even conceive that mortality rate?

The spread of disease, the basic medical expertise and poor quality of medicine at the time was often too much for the babies immune systems to guard against. The overcrowding and general conditions of the factory would not have helped either.

It was the reporting of such deaths in the Hobart Town Courier that caused great anger, disgust and embarrassment in the colony. Rightly so!

Calls for the Female Factory to be closed began.

I have a discomforting moment as Shelly tells the tour group the nursery was silent. An overcrowded and silent nursery? How can that be achieved? I shudder to think.

A silent nursery would be unnerving.


The End of Transportation

1853 saw the end of convict transportation to Van Diemen’s Land.

This coincided with the colony’s push to be independent from New South Wales and to forge a new identity away from its penal colony status. This included changing the name from the colony from Van Diemen’s Land to Tasmania. Hobart Town also changed its name to Hobart in an attempted indicator of “maturity” and gaining independent rule away from Sydney.

The effects upon the Cascades Female Factory was that it became a standard gaol, and soon other government institutions made use of the site before it was finally sold and deconstructed.

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