Convict women in Australia

Convict women in Australia
Black-eyed Sue and Sweet Poll of Plymouth taking leave of their lovers who are going to Botany Bay

Convict women in Australia were the female segment of British prisoners transported during the 18th and 19th centuries to carry out their sentences in what is now Australia.

Transportation to the penal settlement in Australia was an alternative for other harsh punishments such as death by hanging. The poverty stricken female convicts were viewed as prostitutes when compared with the upper class women in Britain. Although many women were driven to prostitution during the hard convict life in Australia, none were transported for the transgression from Britain because it was never a transportable offence. During the long voyage from Britain to Australia and upon arrival, many women took advantage of their sex as a way of improving their situation. Those convicts who were not given assigned work were sent to factories to carry out their sentences.



18th century Britain experienced a huge gulf in economic wealth, with the vast majority of the country living in extreme poverty. The rift between rich and poor led to a high crime rate. The prisons in England were overcrowded, there was no attempt to segregate the prisoners by their offence, age or sex.

In response to growing crime, the British government began to issue harsh punishments such as public hangings or exile. During the 18th and 19th centuries many prisoners were transported to Australia to carry out their sentence, a relatively small percentage of whom were women (between 1788 and 1852, male convicts outnumbered the female convicts six to one[1]). Convict women varied from small children to old women, but the majority were in their twenties or thirties. The British Government called for more women of “marriageable” age to be sent to Australia in order to promote family development for emancipated convicts and free settlers.

Despite the belief that convict women during the transportation period were all prostitutes, no women were transported for that offence. The majority of women sent to Australia were convicted for what would now be considered minor offences (such as petty theft), most did not receive sentences of more than seven years. Many women were driven to prostitution upon their arrival in Australia as means of survival because they were often required to house themselves or buy clothing and bedding on their own.

Convict population of New South Wales during the period

Year Males Females Total
1788[2] 529 188 717
1790[2] 297 70 367
1800[2] 1,230 328 1,558
1805[2] 1,561 516 2,077
1819[2] 8,920 1,066 9,986
1828[2] 16,442 1,544 17,986
1836[2] 25,254 2,577 27,831
1841[2] 23,844 3,133 26,977
Total 78,077 9,422 87,099


The First Fleet was the first set of ships to transport convicts to Australia, it sailed in 1787. Ships continued to transport convicts to Western Australia until 1868. The beginning of the transportation years brought ships at inconsistent times and the death rate on these ships remained high; in the Second Fleet, 267 out of 1,006 prisoners died at sea. However, at the peak of transportation, the death rate was a little more than one percent.[3]

Ralph Clark, an officer on board the Friendship in the First Fleet, kept a journal of his journey to Australia. He described the women on board as "abandoned wenches" and continually expressed a negative attitude towards them (common for men of Clark’s social standing). When four sailors on board the Friendship were caught with four female convicts, the captain of the ship had the sailors flogged. In Clark's journal he confesses, "If I had been the Commander I would have flogged the four whores also." [4] Ralph Clark fathered a child with a convict woman named Mary Branham in July 1791.[5]

Despite the critical attitude towards the female convicts, some seamen developed relationships with the women whilst on the voyage. Women often used their bodies as a way of bettering their conditions. On the Lady Juliana, a ship in the Second Fleet, female convicts began to pair off with the seamen, which mirrored the arrangement in subsequent voyages. John Nicol, a Scottish steward recalled, "Every man on board took a wife from among the convicts, they nothing loath."[6] These relationships were not always exclusively sexual. Nicol himself expresses his desire to marry and bring back to England his convict "wife", Sarah Whitlam, after her release.

Female factories

Female factories in Australia housed convict women who were awaiting assignment, pregnant or undergoing punishment. They were called factories because the women were expected to work and because they also employed free working women. Task work was established in female factories in 1849, requiring the occupants to do chores, needle-work and washing. If extra work was done, the convict's sentence might be shortened.[7] Punishments for misconduct in the factories were often humiliating, a common one was to shave the woman's head.

Conditions in these factories were miserable. In the Parramatta female factory the occupants were not given mattresses or blankets to sleep on and the social conditions inside were indecent.

Parramatta female factory

The Parramatta female factory was the first built in Australia and was located in Parramatta, New South Wales. The factory had room for only a third of the female prisoners, the rest had to find lodgings with the local settlers at some cost (usually about four shillings a week).[8] Many women could only pay for this cost by offering sexual services. Their customers were usually the male convicts who came and left the factory as they pleased.

In 1819 Macquarie county had ex-convict Francis Greenway create a new design for the factory. This new design had the inmates divided into three categories: the "general", "merit" and "crime" class.[9] The "crime" class women had their hair cropped as a mark of disgrace and were the incorrigibles. The "merit" or first class comprised women who had been well behaved for at least six months and women who had recently arrived from England. These girls were eligible to marry and eligible for assignment. The second or "general" class was made up of women who were sentenced for minor offences and could be transferred to the first class after a period of probation. This class consisted of many women who had become pregnant during their assigned service. The factory at Parramatta was a source of wives for settlers and emancipated convicts. With a written permit from the Reverend Samuel Marsden and a written note to the matron, a bachelor could take his pick of a willing "factory lass."

Family and marriage

Marriage between male and female convicts and raising a family was encouraged because of the government’s intentions of developing a free colony. It was the objective of the British government to establish a colony in Australia rather than have it remain as a penal settlement. This compelled the government to send more women to Australia as a way of establishing a native population. On the arrival of 'female' ships, colonists would swarm to the dock to bargain for a servant. High ranking officers had first pick. Some women were taken as mistresses, others as servants. There were no legal ties for these assignments, so a settler could dismiss a convict woman freely. When this did occur, it created a class of woman who often resorted to prostitution in order to feed and house themselves properly.

The Reverend Samuel Marsden categorized the women convicts into being married or prostitutes. If a woman were to have a relationship out of wedlock, Marsden considered this whoredom. Many couples lived and cohabited together monogamously without being officially married, yet these women were recorded as being prostitutes. The women were scarred from being convicted and could not redeem their status because it differed so greatly from the British ideal of a woman, who was virtuous, polite and a woman of the family.

Popular media

There has been a resurgence in interest in this topic in recent years. Some of the leading historians associated with this topic are Deborah Oxley, Anne Summers and Joy Damousi. There have been several films depicting the lives and experiences of women in Colonial Australia, most notably the recent minseries Mary Bryant [1] and the film "Adam's Woman" [2].


  1. ^ Hughes 244
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Summers 275
  3. ^ Hughes 145
  4. ^ Hughes 249
  5. ^ Hughes 250
  6. ^ Hughes 251
  7. ^ Female Factory Research Group, "Hobart Town Female Factory"
  8. ^ Hughes 255
  9. ^ Hughes 256


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