Tasmania’s Female Convict History

There would be few tourists to Tasmania who miss visiting Port Arthur, yet many still don’t even know of the existence of the Female Factories. Port Arthur is indeed a must see, not only is the site itself beautiful but the infrastructure that still exists, fascinating and well preserved. The site too is well interpreted and, at this time of year, they too present plays which help to bring the male convict history to life.
However, significant as Port Arthur is, there were more women imprisoned in the Cascades Female Factory (at any one time) than there were ever men (at any one time) at Port Arthur. At its peak in the early 1850’s, there were between nine hundred and a thousand women incarcerated in the Cascades Female Factory, compared to around eight hundred men at Port Arthur. Why is it then that Port Arthur has a much higher profile than our Female Factories? Perhaps a blog post is not the place to debate such a complex question! However, if anyone reading this wants to contribute please, go ahead.

There were four Female Factories in Van Diemens Land: George Town, Launceston, Ross and The Cascades. There is virtually nothing left at George Town. What is left at Launceston has been swallowed up by the Launceston College; in its foyer you can see the old well where the women would haul water from the Cataract Gorge to provide water for the Factory. There is also the remains of one of the surrounding walls within the college complex. The Factory at Ross is one of my favourite sites, evoking as it does the desolation of the Midlands. A walk up to the old cemetery is well worth it and, if you are like me and enjoy reading old headstones, makes a fascinating hour or so. Which brings us to the Cascades Female Factory with its three remaining Yards available for public inspection, Matron’s cottage and high stone walls. The site has been nominated for World Heritage status and has received quite a face lift as a result. Building works are still in progress which necessitates Louisa’s Walk audiences gaining access to Yard One (where our story is enacted) through Yard Three at the side. Gabion walls have been really effective in representing the original ones. The steel structure in Yard One has proved a brilliant solution to the bowing out of the stone walls, providing as it does, not only a bracing but a representation of the size of the buildings within the walls.

Many people ask us why they were called Female Factories? We are not able to offer a definitive answer. We feel it reflects a certain euphemistic tendency (in the 19th century) to clothe anything to do with women in a veil of propriety. It was also, genuinely, a place where the women worked and produced goods, surely the definition of “factory”?

Whatever your thoughts, be sure not to miss Louisa’s Walk, a graphic and memorable way of bringing Tasmania’s female convict history to life.

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