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Life’s most interesting journeys often begin with a surprising coincidence. Sometimes a story finds you. In 2004, I traveled to Tasmania to join two wilderness treks. Challenging myself among a group of highly experienced trekkers, I completed the eighty-kilometer Overland Track in the Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park and climbed Mt. Ossa, Tasmania’s highest peak. I also explored the Bay of Fires in Mt. William National Park, where huge Aboriginal middens mark Musselroe Point.

During a break from hiking, I happened to meet Christina Henri, a Tasmanian commemorative artist whose work honors the twenty-five thousand women exiled from the British Isles to Australia. She was standing in line ahead of me in a post office in Launceston, Tasmania. Without knowing that I’m a writer, she turned to me and said: “I have a story I want to tell you.”

I knew little about this chapter in history until that day I stood in the queue chatting with Christina. Out of the blue, she began to describe the piece of paper she held in her hand, a pattern for a christening bonnet. Christina was mailing one of nine hundred bonnet patterns to a volunteer helping her create a traveling memorial honoring the nine hundred infants and children who died at the Cascades Female Factory. Newspapers of the day had labeled the damp, converted distillery, hidden under the cliffs of Mt. Wellington, “the Valley of the Shadow of Death.” This was the prison that housed the women featured in The Tin Ticket.

The backdrop for these women’s lives exposes a time in history still unknown to many. The journey of the convict women began in slums all across the British Isles, where the destitute struggled to survive. Profit trumped morality as wigged and powdered Parliamentarians sold grain at inflated prices to other countries and ignored widespread hunger and homelessness among their own citizens.

High levels of unemployment, created by the Industrial Revolution and an exploding urban population, left a working-class girl with few options in the early 1800s. Even a woman fortunate enough to find work was always paid less than a man. When thousands of soldiers returned from the Napoleonic Wars, many female factory workers lost their jobs to the men. The Glasgow Courier suggested that if a woman was “not ugly,” she might “find relief in prostitution” instead of a crippling life in the textile mills.1 Many girls had no choice but to resort to selling their bodies, which was not a crime in nineteenth-century Britain. Others staved off starvation by collecting and selling bones, singing ballads for pennies, picking pockets, or pilfering small items that might be traded for food or a place to sleep. Petty theft was a way of life for women, men, and children desperate to make it through another day. As a result, prisons across the British Isles were packed far beyond capacity.

For nearly one hundred years, England had routinely disposed of its convict population in the American colonies, and built its rich empire on the backs of convict and slave labor. However, the American Revolution, followed by the abolition of slavery, eliminated this option. During the frenzied imperial land grab at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Great Britain could not persuade its “proper” citizenry to homestead its new colonies in Van Diemen’s Land and in New South Wales. Few responded to ads in London newspapers seeking single women to populate a land where men outnumbered them nine to one. Parliament’s solution was to conscript a slave labor force using the Transportation Act, an old law passed in 1718 that allowed prisoners to be shipped anywhere in the world. Originally crafted to be a humane substitute for the death penalty, it served a new purpose at the close of the eighteenth century. Under the pretense of justice, a greed-driven government expatriated the powerless. Ever since Captain James Cook’s discovery of Australia in 1770, England resolved to keep it for herself. The empire was especially concerned with France, its longtime enemy, which had already laid claim to Tahiti.

Under the Transportation Act, 162,000 women, men, and children were exiled to Australia from 1788 to 1868. The legislation resolved several problems. It supplied cheap, disposable labor and removed the “unsightly” poor from Britain’s shores. Most important, it provided a steady supply of young women who could serve as breeders for the empire’s newest crown jewel: Australia. Once the government shifted the focus of the Transportation Act to include more women, constables targeted and arrested female petty thieves in droves. The women were placed in irons, packed onto ships, and exiled to New South Wales and Van Die-men’s Land, known today as Tasmania. Of the twenty-five thousand sent, fewer than 2 percent had committed a violent crime, and 65 percent were first offenders.

The Tin Ticket focuses on the women and children shipped to Van Diemen’s Land, whose horrific journey and miraculous survival has largely been overlooked in written history. The tale unfolds through the eyes of the women themselves. Agnes McMillan was one of thousands of children cast into a system where the punishment far exceeded the scope of the crime. The Tin Ticket explores the background, the daily life, the brutal choices, and the surprising destiny of this struggling young girl who grew up in extraordinary times.

Wandering Glasgow’s back alleys in 1832, abandoned by her parents at age twelve, Agnes McMillan could rely on no one but herself and her thirteen-year-old surrogate big sister, Janet Houston. Mates in the truest sense of the word, the two young lasses sacrificed neither loyalty nor hope as they traveled together to a land where even the stars in the sky seemed out of place and upside down. Friendship, ingenuity, and irreverent humor helped sustain Agnes and Janet as they came of age in the face of unimaginable hardship and humiliation. These same traits, their descendants suggest, permeate the Australian character today.

Ludlow Tedder represents another important part of the convict women’s story. Like many mothers, she was transported with her youngest child. A widow who worked as a maid, the mother of four never earned enough to make ends meet. In 1838, she lost poverty’s gamble, which thousands of others took every day, when she pilfered eleven spoons and a bread basket from her employer. Tried for petty theft in London’s Central Criminal Court, Ludlow was sentenced to ten years in Van Diemen’s Land with her nine-year-old daughter, Arabella. Innocent children suffered the same punishment as their mothers, and sometimes worse, yet their voices have been largely ignored, their existence buried in government reports. Ludlow and Arabella were forced to leave behind the rest of their family, and thus transport was a life sentence for them, because there was no way back.

Arrested for minor crimes, tagged and numbered as chattel for forced migration to Australia, women like Agnes McMillan, Janet Houston, and Ludlow Tedder were identified in Newgate Prison and on certain ships by a tiny tin ticket hung around their necks. Surprisingly, these women—more sinned against than sinning—found an ally in Elizabeth Gurney Fry, a Quaker reformer whose tireless labors proved how simple acts of compassion can change the fate of many. Her influence brightened hope for the female convicts and paralleled their harrowing journeys from Newgate Prison to the transport ships and finally to the Cascades Female Factory in Van Diemen’s Land.

Fry’s personal journal chronicles a deep understanding of what the convict women endured, including a description of the numbered tickets she placed around their necks on a red ribbon. The fateful tin tags are also mentioned in the second officer’s report for the convict ship Garland Grove and in the diary of Lady Jane Franklin, the wife of the governor of Van Diemen’s Land.2

A radical for her time, Elizabeth Fry was the first woman to speak before Parliament, lobbying on behalf of prison reform. Her diary reverberates with the power and the passion of her convictions, a revolutionary voice in the raging Victorian debate that deemed only men capable of reform and redemption. Believing that education and learning a skill could change the lives of the desperately poor, the forward-thinking Mrs. Fry set up a school for the children of convict women and taught their mothers how to sew while they awaited transport.

Fry and her volunteers met with nearly half of the female transports. They boarded the convict ships and gave each prisoner a packet containing patchwork pieces, needles, and thread for stitching quilts that could later be sold in Australia. One such quilt, assembled aboard the convict ship Rajah during its 105-day voyage in 1841, was found stored in an attic in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1987. Today this treasure is housed in the National Gallery of Australia, stained with the blood and sweat of girls and women who would become colonial pioneers and founding mothers of modern Australia.

Primary sources for The Tin Ticket meticulously document comprehensive and often surprising facts about the women’s lives. For example, Agnes McMillan’s court transcripts reveal her occupation: “age 12, ballad singer.” Even the fact that her fence, Daniel Campbell, carried his belongings in a red handkerchief is carefully noted.

Convict musters archived by the Tasmanian government describe each woman’s physical characteristics: eye and hair color, height, shape of face, shade of complexion, freckles, dimples, pock marks. They also describe her demeanor, acts of rebellion, marriage applications, and where she lived and worked once freed.

Details of time and place are drawn from original nineteenth-century documents, including ship logs, newspaper accounts, letters, and diaries written by ship officers, ship surgeons, police magistrates, and religious reformers; trial and police transcripts; statements issued by the women; prison and orphan school records; and government publications, including select committee reports that investigated allegations of mistreatment and abuse.

After five years of research, I returned to Australia in 2009 to complete my work. My first stop was Tasmania’s capital, Hobart, and the ruins of the Cascades Female Factory. Once I finished my research in Hobart, I set out across Tasmania and then went on to mainland Australia, following the journey of the freed convict women portrayed in The Tin Ticket. I walked along the docks on Macquarie Street, where the women were paraded through crowds of hooting colonists. Under the shadows of Mt. Wellington, I placed my hands on the prison’s cold stone walls and viewed artifacts that offer a glimpse into the everyday lives of those who were transported: a tiny barred window that allowed only a sliver of light into the women’s ward, the damp solitary cell remains lying next to the Hobart rivulet, a stone washtub from Yard Two, perhaps the very one at which Agnes, Janet, and Ludlow spent their punishments and scraped their hands and elbows. Standing in the yard at midnight, I felt the chill left behind by the women and children who could not survive Cascades.

My initial research led me to descendants of the women featured in The Tin Ticket. After corresponding with them for several years, I was graciously invited into their homes on my return trip to Australia. They shared extensive collections of family history, granting me access to information and secrets that, for some, had been suppressed for generations. In a remarkable coincidence, the three women whose lives I chose to study were at the Cascades Female Factory at the same time. Their lives intersected in ways that surprised me as well as their descendant families.

As the paper trail unfolded, I began to see through Agnes McMillan’s eyes as her world changed from the black and white of the Glasgow woolen mills and Newgate Prison to the bright greens of untamed Tasmania, the Huon Forest, and later the dusty goldfields in Victoria.

In following the paths of the women and traveling with their descendants, we unearthed new facts about their lives that had been tucked away in used bookstores, small museum resource rooms, and the Archives Office of Tasmania. We discovered that Agnes McMillan’s family had witnessed an event that shook the continent, the Eureka Rebellion. A former female convict helped sew the well-known blue and white Southern Cross flag raised during this workers’ revolt. The rebellion would come to be known as the birth of Australian democracy, ignited by a furor over taxation without representation.

It is estimated that at least one in five Australians (and two million from the United Kingdom) share convict ancestry. This has recently become a source of pride for many. When I asked ten-year-old Keely Millikin what she knew about her great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Ludlow Tedder, she stood up very straight and replied: “She was a very strong woman.” Father Peter Rankin, parish priest in Kilmore, Victoria, also expressed his admiration for the resourceful and enterprising women “who had nothing and yet had it all,” and emerged “from the darkness of the ship’s hold to become the light of Australia’s future.”

The legacy of the transported women, once referred to as the “convict stain,” reveals new truths about a social engineering experiment that, for nearly a century, was covered up by both the British and the Australian governments. Not until the year 2000 was the practice of systematically destroying convict census records overturned by the Australian legislature. Fortunately, key records are intact for each woman featured in The Tin Ticket. In the final years of transportation, the after-math of the Irish potato famine led to a marked increase in women and men from Ireland who were exiled for stealing food, livestock, and clothing. Often overlooked, the Irish had a profound effect on early colonial history. To help tell their story, I chose Bridget Mulligan. Had Bridget not survived the harsh sentence imposed because she was Irish, her great-granddaughter Mary Binks would not be running Gran’s Van in 2010. Gran’s Van is a mobile soup kitchen for the homeless and the needy in Devonport, Tasmania. Former mayor of Devonport and a finalist for Australia’s Local Hero Award in 2009, Mary is a living legacy to the important role convicts played in helping found modern Australia.

During the nineteenth century, twenty-five thousand women were discarded by their homeland. For many, that journey began with the accident of being born poor and the crime of stealing food or an article of clothing. Yet by sheer force of will, those who survived forged a promising future and became the heart and soul of a new nation. In marked contrast to Britain’s rigid class system, freed convicts built, in record time, a society that enjoyed a vibrant economy alongside easy mobility between classes. Women who were banished by their home country saved a new colony from collapse, accelerated social change, and were among the first in the world to gain the right to vote and to own property.

Their epic tale reveals universal themes involving the depths and heights of humanity, long-suppressed intergenerational secrets, and the potential for nobility that lies within us all. Though some historians paint women like Agnes, Janet, Ludlow, and Bridget as harlots and criminals of the worst order, they were among the most resourceful and resilient women of their generation. Every breath and every step was a choice to survive rather than succumb to their captors’ cruelty. Theirs is a story of courage, transformation, and triumph.

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