Caught in the Act

24 February 2014

Between 1788 and 1853, approximately 25,000 women were transported to Australia for their crimes. Around half were sent to Van Diemen’s Land with most of the female convicts spending time in one of five prisons, or ‘female factories’ as they were known at the time.

From 1833 until 1853,  the hardest of convicted British male criminals – those who were secondary offenders having re-offended after their arrival in Australia – were housed at Port Arthur. The settlement at Port Arthur started as a timber station in 1830 and was named after George Arthur, the Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land but it is best known for being a penal colony. Rebellious personalities from other convict stations were sent to Port Arthur…. a quite undesirable punishment. In addition, Port Arthur had some of the strictest security measures of the British penal system.

Between 1830 and 1877, about 12,500 convicts were imprisoned at Port Arthur, on the shores of a beautiful bay and set against the tranquil hills and forests of the Tasman Peninsula.

On my recent trip to Hobart, I was able to visit the Cascades Female Factory and explore the site which consists of three of the original factory yards as sadly, unused yards were sold to other government institutions many decades ago. Thousands of women and their children would have once lived within these walls. The heritage tour provided detailed information about the daily reform and punishment of the female convicts, the class system and the method of being assigned or hired as servants in the local area. The dramatised play vividly portrayed the way society at the time viewed and treated women, especially those whose morality was compromised by crime. Convict Lives tells the stories of some of the women who came through the forbidding gates, with three books in the series to date: Cascades Female Factory, Ross Female Factory and Launceston Female Factory.

Do you ever wonder about some of the offences that were committed by the convicts who spent their time as prisoners in Van Diemen’s Land? Many were straightforward offences but sometimes a recorded offence can seem a little out of the ordinary. An excellent publication, Caught in the Act, details some of the trivial ‘offences’ which could barely be considered as an offence in the first place.

For example, Richard Aspden who arrived in Van Diemen’s Land in 1830 having been transported for fourteen years for stealing a pair of boots and other previous convictions. He committed a number of trafficking offences in the colony and was sent to Port Arthur in 1836 for absconding. A reference in 1834 on 23 June states: ‘Whilst in the No. 2 chain gang…. having lollypops [sic] in his possession for the purpose of trafficking…. he was reprimanded.’

Still in the chain gang in October of the same year, Richard set fire – whilst drunk – to the bedding which was delivered out to him for use. For this, he received 80 lashes.

It would appear that the criminal system has changed over the last two centuries – in some good ways and some not so good….

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