Over half the convict women sent to Australia were sent to Tasmania and the majority spent some time at the Cascades Female Factory as it was the main place for their reception and imprisonment.
The imprisonment of convict women
Australia is one of the few places in the world where large numbers of women were sent as convicts. Over half of the 25,000 convict women sent to Australia were sent to Van Diemen's Land. The majority of these spent some time at Cascades Female Factory, as it was the primary site for the reception and incarceration of women convicts.
Cascades Female Factory is highly significant because of its association with the lives of these convict women, its demonstration of the changing philosophies of punishment and reform as they relate to women and as a place of tremendous suffering and inhumane treatment.
Women in colonial society
Women convicts played a significant role in colonial society as wives, mothers and domestic servants. At first the authorities considered them to be most useful as their presence was regarded as contributing to social cohesion and stability. As a result, there were no special regulations or buildings assigned for women.
As the numbers of women convicts grew the value of their labour was questioned and they were seen as useless and contributing to immorality. The building of female factories was undertaken to manage women convicts. They operated as places of work, of punishment, as hiring depots and places of shelter for women between assignments, when they were sick, ill or pregnant.
The reformation of female convicts
Reform through work and constant supervision offered female convicts the opportunity to rejoin respectable society. This was particularly important in Tasmania where men outnumbered women by 10 to one. Elizabeth Fry, the English prison reformer, social reformer and philanthropist, wrote to the British government in 1823 asking for a separate prison for women convicts under the control and guidance of a respectable matron.
History of the Cascades Female Factory
Built in 1828 and operating until 1856, the Cascades Female Factory became one of Tasmania's longest running penal institutions. Located outside Hobart the Female Factory was intended to remove the women convicts from the negative influences and temptations of the town, and also to protect society from what was seen as their immorality and corrupting influence. The Factory was located, however, in an area of damp swamp land, which added greatly to the ill health and suffering of the women and children who lived in the prison.
The administrative centre of Cascades Female Factory, Yard 1, accepted its first 100 women in 1828. The yard, formerly a distillery, had been converted into seven walled spaces that included a hospital, nursery, kitchen, store and workrooms and a chapel. Women and children were listed in the convict records, given government clothing and sent into a system of punishment, hard work and religious instruction until they were considered suitable for release as domestic servants.
Yard 3, built in 1845 contained 112 separate cells used for solitary confinement. While male convicts were often punished with flogging, 19th century morality didn't accept such punishment for women. Yards 1, 2 and 3 contained small cells in which women were punished in solitary confinement. Additional punishments included shaving or cutting hair, the wearing of heavy iron collars, and hard labour.
Yard 4 was opened in 1850 as the specially designed nursery yard. Mothers with their babies stayed in Yard 4 until the babies were weaned at between three and nine months of age. The mothers were then returned to the other yards of the Female Factory and the babies cared for by other weaning mothers. Mothers were sentenced to six months in the Crime Class following the weaning of their children. There was a high infant mortality rate due to the enforced early weaning and unhygienic conditions in the prison. Children who survived to two or three years of age were sent to the orphan schools in Hobart until they were reclaimed by their mothers or able to support themselves.
A wall, built around 1849, separated the matron's cottage and its garden from the nursery section of Yard 4. The matron lived in the house, which also was used as a gate lodge and included a room for messengers who communicated between the officials in the other yards of the Female Factory.
Repurposing the site
After the transportation of convicts to Tasmania ended in 1853, the Cascades Female Factory continued to be used as a prison, and later as a depot for the poor, for the insane, as a hospital, and for assorted welfare activities. The site was auctioned in 1905 and successive owners demolished the buildings. The perimeter walls enclosing Yards 1, 3 and 4 and the matron's cottage in Yard 4 remain intact and there are extensive archaeological remains.
Changing approaches to punishment and reform
Cascades Female Factory included a range of infrastructure associated with its different functions. The move from convict dormitories in Yard 1 to the solitary cells in Yard 3 built in 1845 is illustrated in the archaeological record. Following the introduction of the probationary period for convicts in Tasmania in 1838, newly arrived women were employed for six months sewing and spinning and taught basic reading and writing. After their six-month probation period, prisoners with a record of good conduct were assigned to settlers as domestic servants. During this probationary period isolation from fellow convicts was enforced to encourage repentance and reform.
A site of great suffering
The Cascade Female Factory quickly became notorious for lack of industry, overcrowding, disease, and high birth and mortality rates. The appalling living conditions and excessively death rate were the subject of numerous inquests and government inquiries. By 1838, 208 children had died within the factory out of the population of 794 children admitted or born in the factory since its opening. This death rate of more than one in four was considerably higher than that in the general Hobart District. Unlike other prisons, children and poor women suffered the most, and not usually as a result of the system of punishments.
A unique place
The prison is the only remaining female factory with substantial visible fabric. The place is has extensive underground archaeological deposits that reflect the development of the prison and the later phases of its uses. There are also extensive documentary and pictorial collections associated with the site.
The Female Factory was more extensive than the present area of the National Heritage-listed site. It included Yards 2 and 5 and other residential housing for staff.
The Cascades Female Factory is highly valued by community groups and historians as a place that reflects the story of convict women. The Female Factory Historic Site Research Group has set up an extensive database project, which is included on the Australian register of the UNESCO Memory of the World.
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