Sunday, February 15
Imagine being locked up in solitary confinement in a completely dark and damp cell, 3 paces long and just 1 pace wide. For up to 3 months. In a faraway land.
That’s as good as it gets.
Now imagine having to work for more than 12 hours every day, oakum picking – meticulously unravelling, with your already raw hands – huge knotted ropes matted with tar and barnacles from the arduous 4 month sea crossing from England to Van Diemen’s Land. The knowledge that your efforts would be used for caulking the wooden seams of the weather-beaten ships would not be much consolation.
And now imagine having to do all that with the dreaded iron collar around your neck, a heavy metal instrument of torture, spiked and pulled so tightly that over the weeks and months you wear it – day and night – it rubs the flesh raw and damages your collarbone.
Worse still, you could be suffering all this ankle- or knee-deep in putrid water rushing down from Mount Wellington in the depths of winter.
Welcome to The Cascades Female Factory in Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land.
Yes, women – sometimes including girls as young as 11 – were subjected to these scarcely believable conditions. Between 1828 and 1856, at least 5,000 female convicts were transported from England to this newly settled island off the southern coast of Australia. And sometimes for having committed no worse a crime than stealing something to keep your family alive in times of abject poverty.
On arrival at the port in Hobart, you’d be subjected to the Walk of Shame, a 6 km march from Sullivan’s Cove to your new home, under the cover of darkness to avoid the lascivious intentions of the almost entirely male population.
There, you’d be stripped immediately of your hair, name, clothes and any remaining dignity.
If you obeyed the rigid rules, avoided conflict with bullying overseers and enjoyed an overdue slice of luck, the best you could hope for would be to work a long day in the laundry, scrubbing coarse clothes with your bare hands in freezing cold water. But at least you’d have the company of other convicts, even if complete silence was another strict rule.
But if you fell foul of the regime, off you’d go to solitary confinement…sometimes never to leave.
You might be picked out of the line one day, to go into a service with a family. But there was every chance life outside The Factory would be almost as harsh as within. And the most inhumane treatment of all was imposed if you became pregnant, whether through rape or your own indiscretion. For what good were you now?
Back inside The Factory, your newborn child would be weaned as quickly as possible, and you would be put back to work. With overcrowding and disease rife in the nursery, your baby would have only a 25% chance of surviving. At best, since official mortality records are quite likely to have been sugar-coated.
If your child saw its 2nd birthday in The Factory nursery, an orphanage would be next, followed by as normal a life as could be expected for a weak, socially inept progeny of a convict.
As for yourself, you might finally find a way out of The Factory if a successful application for marriage was made by any man who wanted to take a wife and raise a family in this new land. After all, the purpose of this convict transportation policy was colonisation, after a suitable period of punishment and contrition, wasn’t it?
It’s scarcely believable that this all happened less than 200 years ago.
And yet here we were, reliving such dreadful history on the site of The Cascades Female Factory on the outskirts of Hobart, high threatening walls in the shadow of Mount Wellington still intact, on a warm Sunday in February 2015.
Inside the walls, a few stones have been laid to delineate some of the cells and other defined areas within each yard. Otherwise pay for the Heritage Tour and, more importantly, make sure you immerse yourself in Her Story to bring the experience fully to life.
Her Story is a dramatised account of Mary, a convict sent to The Female Factory who becomes a victim of a brutal overseer’s bullying and endures the worst conditions described above. The other actor plays the overseer and a more kindly, well-intentioned doctor, and together they transport you back to the 19th century and all the horrors that women endured in this terrible place.
A chilling experience that made us ashamed to come from the country that dreamed up this vile policy. It may be a beautiful, enlightened country now but it certainly has a darker underbelly in its history.