Challenging Assumptions: Colonial Convict Women

Recently I listened to Australian academic Carol Liston talk about a research project she is working on with Dr Kathrine Reynolds. One of the aims of the project is to better understand the lives and circumstances of women from England, Scotland and Wales who were sent to Australia as convicts from 1810 to 1835. Due to record limitations, Irish female convicts were not included.

A common perception about convicts sent to Australia from 1788 to 1868 is that many were sent for minor misdemeanours such as the theft of a loaf of bread or that ultimate fashion accessory, a handkerchief. There are instances of this, but by casting a wide net over three decades and looking at trends across the female convicts, the perception is firmly challenged. The women who were sentenced to transportation were usually repeat offenders and thefts were often significant – in many cases the financial equivalent of a year’s wage or more. Another perception about female convicts is that they were usually young, in their late teens or early twenties, and of childbearing age. The research indicates that the average age was closer to twenty-nine, and that there were many instances of women in their forties and fifties being sent across the seas.

During the period in question, over 5,000 women were transported to the Australian colonies. The sheer volume of women, although significantly lower than the number of men transported over this period, means that the ability to focus on individual stories is limited. As genealogists know, tracing female convicts can be challenging as there can be various name changes for marriage and other reasons, making it difficult to have a clear or continuous record. Sources used to assist with the research include trial documents, newspapers, correspondence, surgeon journals and petitions.

Evidence confirms that in many instances the women were organised, risk-taking innovators; in some cases there were networks of criminals fencing stolen goods or acting in groups to lure victims and steal from them. Part of the challenge for the successful criminal, male or female, was the limited ways in which to spend their ill-gotten gains. The property market was controlled by the aristocracy so money was spent on food, alcohol, clothes and travel – ‘flash’ criminals would be seen travelling around in carriages above their station and attract suspicion.

To be sentenced to transportation was a life-changing event. Part of the consideration of the research project is the impact this had on the women. There are stories of successful female convicts – ask any descendant and they can usually confirm the success in the simple fact that they are here, the maternal line survived – but what of those who struggled with the upheaval and psychological impact of being sent to other side of the world with very limited chance of return? To be leaving behind family and friends and in some cases, their children and husbands? Children were allowed to be transported in some instances, and there are a few examples of husbands and children following the convicted women but these are the exception. How did the convict system take care of those who didn’t cope?

Prior to transportation there were some measures put in place in an attempt to ensure that convicts were fit to travel before they boarded the ship. Various strategies were employed by some women to try to defer or cancel their departure, including pregnancy (which might delay the inevitable for up to a year) or pouring boiling water over their feet. During the trip, some convicts became so upset as to die on the voyage or arrive in a state of distress. Some deaths on the trips were put down to broken hearts, the toll of being sent away simply too much to bear. An example was given of a French governess who was transported to the colonies. The records show that she went from being an English-speaking woman, able to take care of her appearance and manage herself prior to departure to becoming so distressed during the voyage that she was able to communicate only in French, with six convicts being assigned to take care of her during the voyage as she could no longer manage to feed or take care of herself.

In some cases, women who were unable to cope with the life in the colonies ended up self-harming, struggling with alcoholism or committing suicide. Some ended up in colonial hospitals and asylums. But the records also show the spirit of resilience and acceptance. One woman, convicted for theft, applied to have some of her property including cash that had been her own but confiscated by the local sheriffs following her conviction returned to her so that she might be able to purchase provisions for the long and arduous trip as well as goods to set herself up in the colony.

Have you had any of your historical perceptions challenged recently?

Carol Liston is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Western Sydney, and I listened to her talk at a meeting of the Fellowship of the First Fleeters – Eastern Farms Chapter. 

[Photo taken at the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart, Tasmania: Through this gate passed thousands of women and children. Lest we forget.]

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7 thoughts on “Challenging Assumptions: Colonial Convict Women

    • Thanks, Terry. There is more research material becoming available and accessible through records being uploaded on the web, and I guess as society’s perception changes, this information is being seen with a more modern context.

    • My pleasure, and thank you for your comments, Barbara. I thought, based on some general reading, that I had a bit of an idea as to what it might have been like for convicts being transported to Australia, but there is more to the story than I thought. And having a couple of individual situations outlined really brought it to life for me. Thank you for reading.

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