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Convict women who called Cascades Female Factory home lived ‘cold and bleak’ life

Beginning in 1803, over a period of 50 years, 12,500 women were transported to Tasmania as convicts. They were punished by spending time in female factories.

As transportation to Van Diemen’s land, as Tasmania was then known, ramped up in the 1820s, the colony’s jails were filling up.

When the Hobart Gaol became packed, a need for a new women’s facility was identified.

The government acquired a failed distillery in the shadow of Mount Wellington in South Hobart.

It became the Cascades Female Factory.

“It would have been a dreadful life, cold and bleak and miserable,” historian Dianne Snowden said.

Dr Snowden said it was a place of punishment — a place for women to be assigned work, and a place to give birth.

A painting of bush, a mountain and a building
The location of the factory was questioned, but proceeded nonetheless.(Supplied: Crowther Library, State Library of Tasmania)

An over-crowded gaol

Until 1828, women were punished at the Hobart Town Female Factory within the Hobart Gaol on Murray Street.

It became overcrowded and unsuitable, with lots of escapes and men were able to see into the women’s quarters.

“More and more women were coming to Van Diemen’s Land,” she said.

A black and white artist's rendering of an 1850s prison building.
The factory in the Hobart Gaol was crowded, leading to the establishment of the Cascades Female Factory in 1828.(Supplied: Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office PH30-1-627)

Between 1814 and 1842, 5,500 female convicts arrived in the colony, mostly for petty theft.

When New South Wales stopped transportation, another 7,000 women arrived over the next 10 years — many were Irish.

Still, the ratio of men to women in the convict population was about seven to one.

“Women were sought after,” Dr Snowden said.

The convict women were used as domestic servants in houses and on farms.

Those who misbehaved or became pregnant were sent to one of the state’s female factories.

An historic black and white photo of a large sandstone building with a steep hill in the background and chickens in foreground.
The chapel at the Female Factory in South Hobart.(Supplied: E.R. Pretyman Collection, Tasmanian Archives)

Failed distillery turned ‘cold’ prison

The Cascades Female Factory started with one yard, but by the end of transportation this had grown to five.

There were five female factories around Tasmania — Hobart Town, Cascades, Launceston, George Town and Ross.

“The women who were considered to be really bad were sent to George Town,” she said.

The Cascades site, in the shadow of the mountain and next to a rivulet, was less than idyllic for the inmates.

“It’s location was always problematic,” Dr Snowden said.

“It was a cold, dark place.

Countless women and babies got sick, and illness would spread throughout the facility like wildlife.

A large number died.

“When the wind is howling down from the mountain it’s really icy,” she said.

“It would have been horrible.”

A woman in a bonnet and apron standing in a sandstone courtyard
The Cascades Female Factory is a recognised heritage site.(Supplied: Proud and the Punished, Alastair Bett)

Probation on the Anson

Female convicts were generally hired out as servants, and expected to fend for themselves when it came to food and accommodation.

Well-behaved convicts could be assigned straight from the ship they came on, but others would wait at places like the Cascades Female Factory to be chosen by an employer.

From 1843 to 1849, women who arrived in Hobart were housed on another ship at Prince of Wales Bay on the River Derwent, called the Anson, as part of a probation program.

“After a voyage of three or four months, they got here and were taken from the convict ship and put on this converted naval hulk which could hold 500 women,” Dr Snowden said.

“They’d have to spend six months there before they could be assigned.”

Supposedly, it was so the women would not learn bad habits from convicts already living in the colony.

Black and white photo of an old complex.
The Female Factory was a place of punishment, and where women would wait to be assigned to work in the colony.(Supplied: E. R. Pretyman Collection, Tasmanian Archives)

Factory as refuge

Convicts who became pregnant in the colony were sent to the Female Factory to give birth.

Dr Snowden said once the child was born, the mother had to serve out six months of hard labour for getting pregnant.

“The man got off scot-free,” she said.

After nine months, the child was deemed to have been weaned and was taken to an orphan school.

Women living at the factory were punished with manual work, such as unpicking rope so it could be re-used.

Another was working at washtubs doing laundry for institutions and other settlers.

“When you think about it, that’s cold water in a stone tub, it would have been horrible,” Dr Snowden said.

Despite it being a bleak existence, some women sought out the factory as a place of refuge.

The Ross Female Factory site, where female convicts were held.
There were female factories across the state, including at Ross.(ABC News: Damian McIntyre)

“There was a large group who were in and out of the Female Factory all the time.”

For many, fending for themselves in the colony was hard.

“When they’d served their sentence and went out into the community, it was often very difficult for them, as it is with prisoners today,” Dr Snowden said.

When transportation stopped in 1853, the Cascades Female Factory was used by the government for other purposes until 1904.

It is now preserved and managed by the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority.

It is open to the public, but closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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