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Female Convicts

Convicts and transportation

Black Velvet Band

Ratcliffe Highway, Stepney, was the roughest thoroughfare in London’s East End and with its sailor’s lodgings, pubs and brothels, was obviously the British sailor’s favoured destination for a bit of fun and frivolity. Several songs, including shanties, tell of visits to this strip and inevitably the poor tar is relived of his wallet, given the pox or, on his return, presented with a bouncing baby. In this early salty broadside ballad the philandering sailor is twice caught and given a ‘free passage’ to Van Diemen’s Land for his troubles, ‘Faking his cly’ was the vernacular expression for flash or cant – in other words, impersonating his style of speech. This is from the Mitchell Library Collection, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney. There are four broadsides of tis popular ballad in the Mitchell. This one is published by J. Birt, Seven Dials, London. This sheet did not specify a tune, though the other here noted Tars of the Blanch. Like many broadside ballads a shorter, more lyrical version entered into oral circulation. Will Lawson, writing in the Bulletin magazine in the 1940s commented that the early Tasmanian whaling crews had a song known as The Hat With The Velvet Band’. Apparently they used it as a rhythmic work song but Lawson adds that they also used it ‘for drinking and fighting’. I collected a version from Arthur Stacey, of Bathurst, New South Wales, in 1975, which was used as a waltz for local dances in the twentieth century, including a chorus:

Oh, her eyes they shone like diamonds,

I thought her the pride of the land;

The hair that hung down on her shoulder,

Was tied with a black velvet band.

I have used the original broadside as I am fascinated by the song’s intent as a warning specifically about a then fashionable hair style!

Warren Fahey sings ‘Black Velvet Band

. Warren Fahey sings ‘William Donnelly’ a song that finds romance between two convicts in Tasmania.




The Flash Mob. Interpretation of female convicts. Fact: women could be transported for 'mooning' a parson!

The Flash Mob. Interpretation of female convicts. Fact: women could be transported for ‘mooning’ a parson!


It must not be forgotten that many of these living cargoes were made up of women, and many boys and girls, mere children, were included. And the fearful orgies which took place on some of the vessels bearing female convicts cannot possibly be described. A few extracts from contemporaneous writers will best serve to faintly outline the ghastly transactions. ” The captain and each officer,” says Captain Bertram, writing in 1806, ” enjoy the right of selection. Thus they continue the habit of concubinage until the convicts arrive at Sydney town. Each sailor and soldier is allowed to attach himself to one of the females.” The same writer tells us that should any of the women refuse to be ” selected,” consent was won by scourging, and the lash was applied without unnecessary ceremony. One of the vessels brought out as many as 226 women, and the voyage extended over fifteen months ! The record does not say whether the delay was caused by foul weather or by still more foul proceedings on the part of the soldiers and sailors who were supposed to work the ship.


“Every convict ship.” writes one early historian, ” carries out a herd of females of all ages, and of every gradation in vice, from the veriest troll to the fine madam who displayed her attractions in the theatres. All who can, carry with them the whole paraphernalia of the toilet, with trunks and boxes stuffed with every kind of female dress and decoration that they can come at.” The women had freedom at fixed periods of the day on deck, and mixed indiscriminately in their “boxes” during the rest of the time, the more accomplished in vice bending their whole energies to the work of destroying whatever remains of modesty and womanliness their younger and more innocent companions may have possessed. Of the more abandoned portion of the women, this writer says :” Their language, disgusting even when heard by profligate men, would pollute the eyes cast upon it in writing. Their open and shameless vices must not be told. Their fierce and untamable audacity would not be believed. . . . Were the veil raised, and the appalling spectacle exhibited as it really is, the picture would be too horrid for affrighted humanity to look upon.” These were not the women who felt the shame and the horror of the situation to which they had been doomed ; but the poor creatures whose offences had been slight, who had been torn away from respectable surroundings, and who could lay claim to greater sensitiveness than some high-born ladies. There were many of these amongst the female convicts ”poor girls, whose poverty may have driven them to commit some petty theft ; and upon these the voyage out served either as a means to absolute moral degradation or as an instrument of death.


Some of the female convicts on the voyage out were subjected to most brutal treatment. Here is an extract concerning one of the transport vessels, “The Friendship” which came out in 18I8, having l01 female convicts on board, 19 free passengers, and 65 children.” On the 22nd September at night the ship anchored on the coast of Africa, and the next morning the cable parted from the anchor, and the ship was in great danger of being driven upon the breakers, which were very nigh. On the 15th October the ”Friendship” arrived at St. Helena, where she remained for one week. From the 12th July to 15th October, there had been no means used by the master and surgeon to prevent an improper intercourse between the sailors and the female convicts ; all were at full liberty to act in this respect as their inclinations led them ; this caused universal insubordination and confusion in the ship. On the 14th January, after a long, tedious, and painful passage, the Friendship arrived at Port Jackson. The conduct of the surgeon and master during the whole passage was very bad ; they seldom spoke to any of the convicts without oaths, their treatment of the convicts and others was truly distressing ; little or no attention was paid to cleanliness, no vice restrained, excepting in the latter part of the voyage. On our arrival at St. Helena the names of the female convicts were called over, and from that time they were locked down at night between decks. The passengers and convicts suffered much from want of water, though there was plenty on board. The quantity allowed to a grown person was about three pints for the 24 hours, for all purposes of cooking, &c., and half that quantity for a child under 13 years old. This quantity was not more than half enough in the hot weather, and the children suffered very much on this account. The canisters of fresh meat, of veal, mutton and beef, were eat principally at the captain’s table, and the offals sent to the sick prisoners in lieu. From the whole the prisoners and passengers suffered greatly from the unfeeling conduct of the master and surgeon, who are both very profane men, possessed of little humanity.”


This was the report of a passenger, John Gedes, Missionary to the South Seas. One of the women on this ship, named Jane Brown, met an untimely death through the severity of the captain. She had a quarrel with one of her fellow-prisoners, and was selected by the Captain for punishment, the other offender being let off. She told the captain and surgeon that if she was punished she would : throw herself into the sea. A wooden collar was put about her neck, which she wore the whole of that day ; but in the night she got the collar off. Next day the captain observed this, and after tearing her bonnet and shawl off, with many oaths, said he would put another collar on. The woman repeated that she would throw herself overboard if he did. He ordered the collar and advanced towards her, when she at once jumped over and was drowned. This happened off the Cape of Good Hope.


A resident of the colony in 1818 furnishes the following account :  “Two or three years ago a ship arrived with female convicts, and many of them, according to custom, were sent up to Parramatta, where I reside. On my first interview with them they informed me how they had been treated on board. I selected two of the women as domestic servants for my own family. Both of these women had received a superior education. The offence for which one of them had been transported was small in a moral, though great in a political sense ; she assisted a prisoner of war, an officer of rank in the French navy, to make his escape, though he was apprehended afterwards. This woman lived in my family until she was married, and has now a good name of her own. She was strictly honest and well behaved at all times. The other woman is married also. These women informed me, as well as others of their shipmates, that they were subject to every insult from the master of the ship, and the sailors; that the master stript several of them and publicly whipped them ; that the master beat one of the women that lived with me with a rope with his own hands till she was bruised in her arms, breasts, and other parts of her body. I am certain, from her general good conduct since she arrived to the present day, she could not have merited any cruelty from him. They further stated that they were almost famished for want of water. In addition to the insults they were subject to on board, the youngest and handsomest of the women were selected from the other convicts and sent on board, by order of the master, the King’s ships which were at that time in the fleet, for the vilest purpose ; both of my servants were of that number. One of them told me that when in bed she received an order from the captain to come on deck, which order she was obliged to obey, when she was put into a boat with others and sent off to the King’s ships. This was not the only time they were sent during the passage. They further informed me that they were promised ;f 30, but none of which was received ; and it was also said that rope and canvas had been given as the wages of iniquity.


The ship for the women convicts was fitted up in the same way as for the men, excepting the addition of tables and shelves upon which to iron their clothes and stow away their tea-ware. No guard of soldiers was required, and consequently there was no bulk-head across the upper deck in midships. Their rations were the same as those served to the men, with the addition of tea and sugar, for the service of which a kettle was supplied to each mess and a tin-pot to each female, tea being usually made each night and morning. Cunningham used to allow them to draw their oatmeal as they required it, and they would take their gruel for supper with the utmost relish, while they would turn up their genteel noses at the same mess, formerly cooked for them under the vulgar sea-epithet of ‘bargou’ so much was there in the magic of a name. More accommodation was generally allowed for the women than for the men, the usual number of convict-women proceeding out in one vessel seldom exceeding ninety. A separate compartment was usually fitted up in the ship in the later voyages for the accommodation of the free women (with their children), coming out to join their husbands who were convicts in the colony ” a certain number being annually forwarded in this way by the Government to those husbands who behaved well and could support them. A similar mode of management was adopted with the women as with the men, a certain number of respectable old matrons from Magdalen Asylums and venerable pave peripatetics being appointed to superintend the manners and morals of their sisters during the voyage, and to see the prison kept in tidy trim, none except influential of this description being capable of managing the unruly throng.


The women were more quarrelsome and more difficult to control than the men, their tempers being more excitable, and a good deal being calculated on by them in respect to the usual leniency shewn their sex. They were more abandoned in their expressions, too, when excited ; but this, adds Cunningham, probably arose not so much from greater profligacy of disposition as from their having less control over their passions and their tongues. In the earlier voyages they lived promiscuously with the seamen on the passage out, and the voyage was certainly then brought to a close much more harmoniously than later, for the outward rules of decency were not grossly outraged in the intercourse. Speaking of this matter Cunningham says : ” The female convicts were generally on the best of terms with each other, and in speaking of each other they invariably made use of the term ladies, which they did more in sober earnest than in jest ; and whenever the ‘frail body ‘ was summonsed to attend for their rations, the call was ‘* Ladies, come up for your biscuit ; ladies, come up for sour pork ; ladies, the puddings are ready,” and so forth; yet, while affecting this gentility as a body, when particularising each other it was plain Poll, Kate, or Sail. Dancing was allowed several times a week in the evenings throughout the voyage and singing was kept up every night for an hour or two before bedtime, while occasionally concerts and masquerades were allowed, at which latter, dressed out in their gayest plumage, they would prolong the frolic till bedtime. Some of the cabin passengers would now and again go down into the prison to listen to the singing, which was charming in its vitality if in nothing else.


Among the ancient dames sent out was one described by Cunningham as a most trustworthy creature, who abominated a lie so thoroughly that all the others were afraid to commit any misdeed in her presence, knowing old Nanny would disclose instantly the *’ whole truth and nothing but the truth ” if questioned. She was ^o years of age, and had spent forty years , of her life in houses of correction and prison. The man with whom she had lived, and whose name she bore, was the last hung in chains on Pennenden Heath, for highway robber}-. She was a noted London thief and delighted in narrating how successfully she had “done” “an hospital physician in London”. Being ill with a cough and wheezing, she proceeded with a letter of admission to the hospital, when the examining physician, having looked at her tongue and felt her pulse, was called momentarily away, leaving the gold watch he had been counting the pidse with upon the table. The sight of such a gem ticking at a tempting distance before her, made Nanny’s very finger ends tingle, and operated upon her wheezing like a dose of the Gilead ”so, hastily snatching it up, she glided with light and nimble foot out of the door, and had a thimble of ruin on credit of her prize in ten minutes after the ” trump had turned up.”


As a body, the women were not given to pretensions to devoutness, like the men. The Bibles with which the females were supplied were taken good care of during the voyage ; but as they knew that these would be mustered at the end of the voyage, this consciousness might have had some effect, for the greater portion of the religious tracts which were promiscuously distributed disappeared ; and in what way, was satisfactorily demonstrated by shreds of them being picked up after a coterie of these nymphs had been unpapering their curls.

augustus Earle depiction of Parramatta Female Factory

augustus Earle depiction of Parramatta Female Factory


J.T.Bigge, The State of New South Wales, c. 1820

On their arrival there, they are allowed to remain in a wooden building that is near the factory; and if they have succeeded in bringing their bedding from the ships, they are permitted to deposit it there, or in the room in which the female prisoners are confined for punishment.  The first of these apartments is in the upper floor of a house that was built for the reception of pregnant females. It contains another apartment, on the ground floor, that is occupied by the men employed in the factory.  It is not surrounded by any wall or paling; and the upper room or garret has only one window, and an easy communication with the room below. No accommodation is afforded for cooking provisions in this building; nor does there exist either inducement to the female convicts to remain in it, or the means of preventing their escape.  The greater portion, therefore, betake themselves to the lodgings in the town of Parramatta, where they cohabit with the male convicts in the employ of government, or with any persons who will receive them.


James F.O’Connell, A Residence of Eleven Years in New Holland etc., Boston 1841

The process of a factory courtship is worth describing.  Let us suppose the suitor an old “stringy-bark”, such being’ the soubriquet in which inland settlers rejoice. He has no particular maid in view, but has obtained of Bishop Marsden permission to visit the factory and seek a wife, and a letter to the matron certifying- his intent.  The girls are paraded in each room as the Celebes enters it, that is, the marriageable ones of the first and second classes, and the visitor (sic) scans them as a Turk would Georgians in a slave-market. I have been myself present at two or three of these negotiations, as they usually take place upon visiting days, when the friends of the convicts are allowed to enter the factory. I would not be understood that I had friends there; Mr. Smith could always make some pretext to enter, and we visited them from curiosity. The girls, all agog for a husband, would show various faces upon the examination. Some, all sheepish smiles and blushes, would look as foolish as all young ladies are supposed to, when a third person happens in upon an interview at which the question has Just been popped Others would avert their faces in a sort of indifference; as, although a refusal is seldom met by an applicant, still these seekers for help-meets are not all of such an appearance as to tempt a woman halfway. A third set would most prudishly frown upon a proceeding which pays so little respect to the prescriptive rights of the ladies; while, as if purposely set in contrast to these fastidious ones, others would make attempts, not always successful, or with the best g-race, to appear as amiable and pretty as possible, spite of the Parramatta frock and petticoat of which they were evidently heartily tired.

It requires the face of a Turk to come on such an open and acknowledged errand; so the case is, that the inspector is usually at as much of a nonplus as the inspected. The matron accompanies him, and answers his questions respecting the particular lady or ladieswho attract his eye, giving each the best possible character. It is a regular frolic, after the first few moments, in each room. The matron cannot suppress a half laugh at the farcical scene, the Celebes begins to be dashed, and the girls break out into jokes upon his personal appearance, particularly if he happens to have passed the meridian. The chance is, that his quizzical reception by the first class, and the confusion of faces hindering his choice, will send him to the second and a preconceived and natural prejudice against No. 2 will send him back to No. 1 again. Upon his return, all pretense to reserve is thrown aside. “Ha! old boy, couldn’t you find a moll to suit? Is there never a blowen in the lot good enough for an old stringy-bark settler like you?” Flash is pattered at him with all a woman’s volubility, and the old blowens who have been so often turned back to the factory for drunkenness or other faults that their case is past redemption commence quizzing the wife-hunter. “There, there’s a new chum, just come out!” pointing to some uninviting looking maiden; “she’s the girl for you!” “There! there!” by a dozen bidders; or, “You’d better take one of your age!” from some old toothless Jezebel.

The matron and monitresses wink at these irregularities as things of course, and impossible of prevention. The choice at length made, spite of all the discouragements thrown in his way, the settler is seldom obliged to apply to more than one, and after uttering the awkward, “yes,” the bride elect flies round to her pals, bidding hasty adieus, and the bridegroom leads her out. “I’ll give you three months before you’re returned!” cries one, and “It’s a bargain you’ve got, old stringy-bark!” cries another. Hubbub and confusion mark the exit of the couple, and the bride’s character is immediately picked to pieces by the neglected, as soon as her back is turned, and the appearance of her husband elect most scientifically blasted, after the usual manner of decrying sour grapes. The clothes of the convict are returned to her, and, dressed again like a free woman, she hies with her suitor of an hour to the church. Government gives her a “ticket of exemption” as a dower, and she steps into her husband’s carriage to go to his farm.