Ingeborg van Teeseling

About Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland fifteen years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website, and runs, telling people's life stories.

Nudity, riots and rebellion: The “harpies” of the first female penal colonies

The first female prisoners in this country were subject to awful conditions. However, they quickly fought back, becoming towering figures of rebellion, and great antagonism. Vale.



It probably all started at the Female Factory in Parramatta. It was 1827 and this was the third building that was specifically constructed to house female convicts in NSW. The first two had mysteriously burned down, but this one was made of brick and designed by famous architect Francis Greenway. That didn’t make it any more attractive to the women inside, though. On Saturday 27th of October, they found out that their matron had fiddled with their food and cut their rations of bread and sugar. “A numerous party assailed the gates with pick-axes and iron crows, the united force of which, wielded as they were by a determined and furious mob, soon left a clear stage, and the inmates of the Factory were quickly poured forth, thick as bees from a hive.” “Constables were seen running in all directions fixed bayonets, staying the mutiny so violent were the Amazonian banditti, that nothing less was expected but that the soldiers would be obliged to commence firing on them.” This might have been one of the first revolts, but it was not by any means the last time women in the nation’s Female Factories would stand up to their “betters”. So for number five in our series about the weird and wonderful in Australian history, we focus on them, and especially on the women in Tasmania, or Van Diemen’s Land, as it was called then.

Roughly 12,000 women were transported to Tasmania between 1815 and 1853. A good part of them ended up in the Cascades Female Factory, at the base of Mt Wellington in Hobart. It was a damp and dark place, isolated from the town and mostly run by incompetent people. Repression was the order of the day, and a belief in “reform through manual labour” reigned. Women were divided into three classes: first class comprised those who had just arrived and had behaved well on board. They were put to work as cooks, or in the nursery. Second class was made up of women who had broken the rules in one way or another. They made and mended clothes, for the Factory but also for the good people of Hobart. Third class was called Crime Class, which was everybody else. They did the washing and carding and spinning of wool. It was not much fun in the Female Factories. Women worked a minimum of 12 hours a day and were bored and hungry the rest of the time. Punishment was solitary confinement, withholding of food, public humiliation, head shaving, the wearing of iron collars and especially restricted or no access to your children in the nursery. That nursery was another bone of contention, because so many children died there that an official inquest had to be held in the 1840s. And if your children didn’t die, you might, from goal fever (typhus), TB or even simple diarrhoea. Often, the households you were assigned to were rough and came with rape and abuse, but always with backbreaking work. So the women had good reason to protest, and they did. But in very particular ways.

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Cascade opened in 1828, and the first riot was a year later, when women in the yard saw a contingent of the 40th Regiment on the hill above them. After yelling out to the soldiers and promising all kinds of favours in return for food, soon pieces of bread, butter and cheese were flying over the walls. When they were confiscated by the overseer, some women started setting fire to their cells. In 1938, the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, John Franklin, and his wife Jane, were at the factory listening to a sermon delivered by Reverend William Bedford. The women didn’t think much of “Holy Willie”, as they called him. At an earlier occasion 20 women had “seized upon him, took off his trousers and deliberately endeavoured to deprive him of his manhood.” This time, while the Reverend was still pontificating, 300 of them “pulled up their clothes showing their naked posteriors which they simultaneously smacked with their hands making a loud and not very musical noise.” The ladies in the governor’s party couldn’t help laughing, but it was, of course, absolutely not on.

So furious inhabitants of Hobart started to write to the newspapers with suggestions for adequate punishments. Especially because these women were their servants, and “generally speaking, they have the exclusive charges of our children, upon their care and conduct depend, too often, the health and welfare of our hapless offspring.” That was an issue for the great-and-good of Hobart Town. Obviously, the women were criminals and depraved “hussies”, but they were also necessary to keep the economy going. And their services were appreciated, because they were free. So, our letter-writer said, he was recommending “the very admirable method which the Dutch and Germans adopt with their refractory servants.” He wanted the women “placed in a machine, which is fastened like a pump: that is, there is an iron grating above, by which she is safely secured. Through the lower grating, water is made to issue, which, if not removed by hand pumping, will eventually rise above the shoulders of the pumper, and so suffocate her. Now, if this plan were adopted at the Female Factory, not only would it absolutely secure to the delinquent a due degree of hard labour, but it would also supply that interesting establishment with water, and perhaps, in good time, extend the same benefits to Hobart Town itself.”

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Although this instrument of torture never made it to Tasmania, the repression of the women didn’t stop, so in 1839 there was another “open rebellion” when the women’s bread was “leavened with barley meal”. When the police arrived, “they found the building in possession of the rebels and 200 of them held them absolutely at defiance and maintained their post with great pertinacity. At one time, it was feared that the building would have been set on fire.” “The ringleader of this Anti-Barley insurrection affair”, the Cornwall Chronicle wrote with a touch of shocked arousal, was “a strapping damsel of the name of Haig, who, of course, is secured for proper and condign punishment; we have not heard what is likely to be her doom,” after which the paper asked itself and its readers “what punishment will be sufficient for these rebellious hussies?” From 1840, that question became the be-all-and-end-all of Hobart’s Colonial Times. Especially because it had received information “of so flagrant and revolting a character, that we cannot, under any consideration, remain silent.” It had to do with “frightful abominations”, “a system of vice, immorality, and iniquity” involving “the annoying and untractable animals, that they are.” The paper spoke about “processes of initiation…a series of unhallowed mysteries…infamous practices…seduction (we can use no stronger term)  unholy sisterhood.” “When we consider”, the paper winced, “that these wretches in human form are scattered through the Colony, and admitted into the houses of respectable families, coming into hourly association with their sons and daughters, we shudder at the consequences.” The question was whether the authorities were so “afraid of these harpies” that they let them get away with this “rank abomination”. The whole system was “rotten at the very core, tending only to vice, immorality and the most disgusting licentiousness.”

Although homosexuality was not a term that was used or even invented yet, the practices in the Female Factories so disturbed the authorities that there were two large inquiries in the 1840s. The first one produced an enormous report on inquiry into female prison discipline, and it was full of women’s declarations of what was then called “depravity”. The second concluded the same thing, and said that “its existence is a stigma upon the Colony”. Charles la Trobe, the author of the second report, openly worried about contamination, and wondered if it would be possible to convince these “lower classes” to adopt stricter moral codes and abandon their “unnatural acts”. Question is, of course, whether all the women’s protests were sexually motivated, or whether they often just used their bodies to tell the powers-that-be that they were fed up. In 1842, for instance, the superintendent of Cascades heard a noise at night and found five women “dancing perfectly naked, and making obscene attitudes towards each other.” They were also “singing and shouting and making use of most disgusting language…in imitation of men and women together.” A few months later it happened again, this time in front of his wife, the matron of the Factory. The women “shouted and clapped their hands, stamped and made noise with their feet.” “It was a riot,” was the conclusion, but when the women were forced to give up their leaders, they started chanting “we are all alike, we are all alike.” To me, that sounds like resistance to authority. Sticking it up the ruling classes with everything you’ve got. When men did that, they called it unionism or revolution. In women, it was proof of their criminality and unfeminine character.

Transgression: it is all in the eye of the beholder.


For this story I have used the following sources:

E.C. Casella ‘To watch or restrain: Female convict prisons in 19th century Tasmania’, International Journal of Historical Archeology, March 2001, Vol. 5, Iss. 1, pp. 45-72

Kay Daniels. ‘The flash mob: Rebellion, rough culture and sexuality in the female factories of Van Diemen’s Land’, Australian Feminist Studies, Vol. 8, 1993, Iss. 18, 133-150

Blathnaid Nolan, ‘Up close and personal: Lesbian subculture in the female factories of Van Diemen’s Land, Journal of Lesbian Studies, Vol. 17, Iss. 3-4, p 291 ‘Infant mortality’ 10 March 1840 ‘Female Factory: The Flash Mob’ 11 May 1839 ‘Female Factory’ 19 March 1836 ‘Female Factory’ 31 October 1827 ‘Riot at the Female Factory’



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