Common section


More Sinned Against Than Sinning

Birds of a Feather

The stormy heavens exploded in driving rain and spectacular lightning displays over Sullivans Cove. Blustering westerly winds pelted hailstones across the Westmoreland’s wooden deck. Surgeon Superintendent Ellis ordered all the prisoners belowdecks. If this was supposed to be summer, Agnes couldn’t begin to fathom what winter might bring. The Hobart Town Courier recorded weather so awful in December 1836 that migrating birds failed to stop on the island: “The unusual inclemency of the present season is doubtless the cause of this phenomenon. No inhabitant of the island has any recollection of so long a continuance of cold fluctuating weather, which appears to have affected many other objects of nature besides the swallows, the absence of which our correspondent has so well remarked.”1 Even the raucous yellow-tailed black cockatoos avoided Van Diemen’s Land the year Agnes arrived.

The Westmoreland anchored off Hunter Island in the River Derwent. Mr. Ellis was immediately rowed ashore to meet with local officials and turn over his now-dog-eared leather ledger along with court records for each prisoner. Because it was Saturday and government offices were closed on Sunday, the transfer of paperwork would take four full days. The gravely ill couldn’t wait that long and were moved to the Hobart Town Colonial Hospital.

Seventeen-year-old Jane Thompson, who’d spent most of the sea journey inside the Westmoreland’s infirmary, was lowered into the waiting skiff lashed to a stretcher. After being transported around the world, she died seven days later in a ward full of strangers. Sarah Robinson was also sent to the hospital, suffering from complications after giving birth to her baby girl in the water closet a few weeks earlier. Mary Ring and Sarah Slow, both in the final stages of pregnancy, found comfort in the prospect of giving birth on dry land.2

Quarantined in limbo on the orlop deck, Agnes and Janet lay in their berths, not daring to contemplate where they’d sleep next. At the unexpected hour of six A.M., shouting blasted from the forecastle. “Rouse out there! Turn out! Turn out! Huzzah for the shore!” screamed the Officer of the Guard.3 A drowsy Agnes opened her eyes and sat up with a start. She grabbed the little burlap bag given her by Mrs. Fry and tied it tight to protect her small comb and a few stray pieces of colored thread. The remnants of her Bible had turned grey and mildewed, so she left it on the straw mattress and headed under the hatch toward the main deck.

It was Tuesday the sixth of December, and Captain Brigstock awaited the arrival of Josiah Spode, Principal Superintendent of Convicts. He arrived accompanied by Muster Master William Thomas Napier Champ, a British soldier previously charged with the government mission to hunt down Aborigines. The two stern men were rowed from Hobart Town to the Westmoreland by male convicts who’d been conscripted into the police force because of a shortage of both funding and able men.

Spode, now a naval officer, had once worked in his grandfather’s famous pottery business in England. He had little tolerance for the women, deeming them “worse in every respect to manage than male convicts. . . . They all feel they are working under compulsion which renders it almost a continual warfare between their employers and themselves.”4 Champ, who later became the first premier of Tasmania, was the record keeper for all convicts and also served as assistant police magistrate in Hobart Town.

Called in numerical order, Agnes and Janet were hurried on deck for inspection. Eyeing the grey-eyed lass up and down, Muster Master Champ compared the surgeon superintendent’s descriptions against the sixteen-year-old standing before him. As he evaluated Agnes’s health and ability to work, Champ considered her skills for assignment to a local colonist. Agnes confirmed that she could neither read nor write. According to indent records, when Muster Master Champ asked, “What is your trade?” she responded, “House servant.”5 Janet gave the same answer when it was her turn.

It took nearly two days to examine and interview the prisoners. Neither Mr. Spode nor Mr. Champ wanted to be blamed for disembarking contagiously ill transports. The whole colony had recently suffered from an outbreak of influenza, probably carried by a ship’s passenger from London.6After consulting with Surgeon Superintendent Ellis, the two bureaucrats finally cleared his charges for landing. The women and their children were rowed ashore to Hunter Island and walked over a muddy convict-built causeway, connecting the isle to Hobart Town. The girls from Glasgow finally heard the annoying toll of the Westmoreland bells for the last time. Catcalls from the wharf soon replaced the harsh clanging from the ship. A crowd of scruffy-looking creatures raced toward the waterfront to inspect the Crown’s latest chattel.

While the Westmoreland lay at anchor, Agnes had taken a good look at where she was headed. The busy little port of fourteen thousand sat on the river below soft green hills that lay dominated by the cliffs of an enormous mountain. The strangest creatures Agnes had ever seen bounced over the slopes on their huge hind legs and disappeared into the lush countryside. Black swans with bright red beaks floated at river’s edge. Seagulls flying overhead appeared like the ones seen in the British Isles, but their calls were sharply different.7 Everything, even the scavenger birds, seemed topsy-turvy.

Journalist Minister John West offers a clue about how Agnes felt on the day she set foot on the other side of the earth. Eleven years her senior, he lived in Tasmania in 1836 and wrote about the convicts who were among the first transported: “The letters they addressed to their friends . . . were filled with lamentations. They deeply deplored that the distance of their exile cut off the hope of return . . . they expected to be destroyed by savages, or to pine away in want. The females seemed least to fear their banishment; and while several of the men were deeply moved, a spectator, who curiously remarked the mental influence of their prospects, saw only one woman weep.”8

Convict men outnumbered the female prisoners by nearly nine to one, creating an imbalance of uncivilized proportions. The arrival of a boatload of women quickly drew most Hobart Town men toward the wharves. “All kinds of men, except apparently decent ones, would gather round the waterfront and form an almost impossible mob, through which the girls had to make their way, the while insults, lewd suggestions, and all kind of horrible offers were hurled at them to the intense amusement of the crowd and the horror of those who were good among the girls. . . .”9

These days, men queued up at the quayside were still rambunctious, but less barbaric than in the early days of transport, when a man could buy a bonnie lass right on the spot in exchange for a bottle of rum. During the first twenty years of transport, female prisoners were left to fend for themselves. If a settler didn’t choose a woman, she was forced to find lodging on her own.10 “There was little delicacy of choice: they landed, and vanished; and some carried into the bush, changed their destination before they reached their homes.”11

Fortunately, the two Scottish birds in forced exile arrived as a pair. Janet held tight to her friend’s hand, and they both looked straight ahead, ignoring the screaming men who waved hats in their faces. Back on solid ground for the first time in 117 days, Agnes’s not-so-steady land legs took their first rubbery steps onto the shores of Van Diemen’s Land. A contingent of soldiers, dressed in scarlet uniforms, stood stiffly as Muster Master Champ directed the girls to wait for the next group. Under his watchful gaze, Agnes smelled the mud flats and took in the ramshackle riverfront wooden cottages and stone watermills, which created little waterfalls as they turned.12 Wharfside pubs filled with sailors, a bond store, and warehouses for importers and exporters signaled the importance of this shipping port. The Westmoreland’s cargo was bound for a warehouse of a different sort, a fortress known as the Cascades Female Factory.

Like livestock on the way to market, the 182 women and 18 children were paraded up Macquarie Street from the turn at the Old Wharf. Several women, in various stages of pregnancy, lumbered up the muddy hill a bit slower than the rest. Lagging as far behind as the soldiers allowed was Anne Sergeantson, the red-haired nursemaid who’d lost her six-day-old infant a few weeks earlier.

When clouds thundered down the valley and let loose a drenching rain, the leering welcome party began to disperse. The shift given to Agnes by Mrs. Fry’s volunteers in Newgate had worn quite thin, and she shivered under the soaking onslaught. Giant leafy ferns trembled in the wind gusts, like another group of mocking spectators along the route.

The well-guarded entourage marched past Government House, the courthouse, and St. David’s Church. The stucco and painted brick cathedral was crowned by a black lead-covered dome known as the “pepper pot.” When the pepper pot’s three-faced clock chimed the hour, it resounded all across the valley.13 If Agnes thought she had heard the last of ringing bells, she was sadly mistaken.

St. David’s was one of several churches where settlers, soldiers, and convicts gathered Sunday morning, the prisoners seated separately. Sometimes blurred but never forgotten, lines of class distinction followed Agnes to Van Diemen’s Land. Few settlers could avoid mingling with the transports who kept the economy afloat, but the “convicts sometimes appeared like a pariah caste rather than a lower class.”14 Under his scruffy hair and unkempt beard, Muster Master Champ sat proudly in a front pew. Slayer of Aborigines in the Black War, the future premier condemned the petty thieves, who were more sinned against than sinning.

An 1838 Report from the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Transportation summarized the welcome extended for Agnes and Janet: “For want of servants a settler must apply to Government for convicts. He then becomes a slave-owner, not like the planters of the West Indies, or of the southern states of America, whose slaves, if not by nature, by education in bondage at least, are an inferior race, and having from youth been ignorant of freedom, consider it almost an honour to serve the white. On the other hand, the Australian settler has a property in men of his own race, hardened, desperate, and profligate ruffians, who have been nurtured in vice and crime, and have given way to the vilest passions.”15

Conditions were even worse before Cascades opened. Women were imprisoned in an overcrowded holding area tacked onto the Hobart Town male prison and overlooking the execution yard, loosely guarded by male convicts; “trafficking,” or contact with the outside world, was all too easy. In 1827, a concerned citizen wrote a letter to the local paper expressing his consternation over the “immorality of the lower class of people in Van Diemen’s Land.” He offered the following details: “I remember one night walking by the building . . . at the time the females were confined there; when I saw the place surrounded by many fellows, who were feeing the constables and sentries to gain admission, while language and imprecations the most disgusting and appalling issued from within. The next day I mentioned the circumstances to several persons, who said it was useless to kick up a stir about it, for no notice would be taken of it.”16

As the demand for female servants grew and transport numbers rose, Lieutenant Governor Arthur responded in December 1828 by opening a new gaol in a converted rum distillery well outside the town. It was christened the Cascades Female Factory, belying its true purpose. Five years prior, Elizabeth Fry had approached Britain’s Under Secretary of State for the Colonies with recommendations that he passed on to the governor. Her ideas for prison reform included specific plans for a new women’s gaol, and Governor Arthur adopted most of them. Once again, the timely intervention of the Angel of Newgate saved Agnes, Janet, and many others from a fate even worse than the frightening scene they now faced.

In 1830, the gaoled women had witnessed the hanging of Mary McLauchlan, who had been transported from Glasgow for theft by housebreaking. Forced to leave her husband and two young daughters behind, she found herself pregnant by a man in Hobart Town who refused to recognize his paternity. As was often the case for convict maids with child, the father was likely her master. The baby either was stillborn or died soon after birth, and Mary was convicted of killing him. A large crowd gathered to witness the hanging of the woman who wore a white dress tied with a black ribbon.17 Mary McLauchlan was the first woman executed in Van Diemen’s Land.

Agnes stared at the tall gaol barricade along Macquarie Street, a monument of the penal colony’s history and the first transport of three women in 1803. By the year the Westmoreland disembarked, public spectacles in Hobart Town were less gruesome. Freed convicts and settlers who were arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct spent a few hours in the town stocks, located prominently in front of the Macquarie Street Treasury. Female prisoners who acted out were punished away from town, unseen behind the thick stone walls of Cascades.

Well-to-do settlers, getting rich on whale oil and wool, resented both convicts and the Crown. A year before Agnes landed, many signed a petition to His Majesty requesting the removal of “unspeakable evils”: “We, the undersigned, feeling that the measures adopted by the British Government, of increasing the penal character of the Colony . . . affix a moral degradation upon us, and our children . . . request you will convene a Public Meeting of the Colonists, for the purpose of addressing the King thereon.”18

Reminders of the Crown’s rule were everywhere on display. British soldiers, pressing muskets against their shoulders, guarded government buildings constructed in soft-brown sandstone and built by the hands of male convicts. Sentries posted at the gates outside George’s Square stood locked at attention under leather shako hats topped with white woolen pom-poms, utterly impractical under the driving rain.19 Scarlet-coated soldiers even guarded a makeshift zoo located behind the governor’s mansion, lest the island’s wildlife forget who was in charge of Van Die-men’s Land. As the prisoner’s parade filed past the governor’s mansion, wild creatures on exhibit in the old paddock came into view. Emus strutted about, standing six feet high on spindly legs and swathed in swirls of soft brown feathers. Agnes looked across the street in amazement at the huge gawky birds and brown-eyed wallabies. If the island’s chickens and rats were this big, what else might be wandering the forests?

The soldier in charge of the human prisoners tolerated not a moment of dawdling. The group of two hundred transports still had a two-mile march uphill before they reached the Female Factory. Agnes and Janet followed a muddy path toward the towering mountain, whose highest elevations were hidden under cloud cover. Shopkeepers leaned out their doorsills to inspect the latest shipment of new maids and helpers. Tucked behind white picket fences, neatly kept brick cottages lined upper Macquarie Street. Summer gardens were lush with raspberries, scarlet geraniums, and the rosy pink blossoms of sweetbriar plants. Ripe apricots and nectarines hung temptingly close along the track.20 The new and distinctive scent of eucalyptus wafted through a valley thick with trees bearing the bluish-green leaves. Here Agnes saw shades of green she had never seen in Scotland. Even the air smelled green.

Agnes’s knees were still shaky from months of walking unsteadily across the ship’s rocking decks. As the bedraggled prisoner approached the Hobart Rivulet, the steady incline grew steeper, and her legs started to ache. The sounds of running water and birds in the bush intermingled with the tramping of feet as her troop made its way along the bank of the tiny river. On the outskirts of town, scattered wooden shanties teetered along the water’s edge. Entrepreneurial settlers built breweries and sawmills next to the rivulet. Rats scurrying through the muddy gully were one of the few familiar reminders of home.

The stream meandered up the valley to the base of the cliff. Gradually the weather cleared, and the features of the summit came into view. The soldiers called it Mt. Wellington, named to reinforce Britain’s claim on the island after the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. It replaced the Aboriginal names—Unghbanyahletta and Poorawetter—given to the mountain layered in dense green forests and rising more than four thousand feet.21

Beneath this towering giant, Agnes shivered as the temperature dropped some ten degrees in the secluded hollow where her group was headed. After nearly an hour of stomping through the mud, a two-story stone fortress revealed itself at the soggy base of Mt. Wellington. Tucked away two miles beyond town, the prison lay hidden from the rising middle-class gentry. The building now used for the Cascades Female Factory began as a rum distillery and was hardly suited to house women and children. Raw sewage drained into the rivulet running next to the prison. Foothills cast long shadows over the institution, rendering it nearly sunless much of the year and damply cold in every season.

The largest of five female factories in Van Diemen’s Land, Cascades opened in 1828. Agnes and Janet waited outside a large wooden gate secured shut with heavy irons. From behind the guard wall, which was at least twice Agnes’s height, they heard the sounds of chopping wood and clanging pots bouncing off the face of the valley.22 As the rest of the tired troop caught up, red-coated soldiers nodded to the constable on duty and lined up the women and children in double file at the yard’s entrance. Stone barricades inside stone walls reinforced the austere greeting that awaited them. Walking under the tunneled entrance, not knowing if they would be separated, Agnes allowed her hand a brush against Janet’s.

At the soldier’s command, a gatekeeper unlatched the weighty entrance door. Unlike the boisterous clamor inside London’s Newgate Prison, the compound seemed eerily devoid of human voices. A rather imposing figure hurried toward the transports. White bonnet tied in a crisp bow under her wide chin, Matron Mary Hutchinson curtsied and greeted the British officers. A bundle of efficiency at twenty-six, she knew the factory system well, having grown up inside Sydney’s Parramatta Female Factory, run by her father. She was the no-nonsense woman in charge, heavy black dress buttoned tight to the neck. Shuffling behind was her husband, John, with his gaunt face, high cheekbones, and scraggly little whiskers hanging over his neck.

John Hutchinson, a Methodist minister, was seventeen years her senior. He was named superintendent in 1832, but Mary essentially ran Cascades, particularly when her husband’s health began to fail. Elizabeth Cato, who had arrived in 1831, assisted the Hutchinsons as deputy matron and midwife. Her husband, William, served as prison overseer.

The officer in charge of the soldiers observed the brief formality of handing over the women and children in his possession. Superintendent Hutchinson, an efficient bureaucrat, had already organized the conduct records and physical description for each prisoner. A porter opened a small, heavily reinforced door and led the weary transports into a paved yard. Agnes and Janet scanned the enclosure, filled with women busy at work but mum as mutes. They would soon learn the reason for silence. No one spoke, but their eyes told many stories. The two Glasgow lasses stared at the women in dingy uniforms coughing and running their tongues over sore gums and missing teeth. Surely they couldn’t have looked this bad upon arrival.

Gradually, Agnes moved to the front of the line for processing. Surgeon Superintendent Ellis had classified the grey-eyed lass as a troublemaker. She and Janet were listed as accomplices in crime, so Mr. Hutchinson considered it his duty to separate the pair immediately.

Clothes Don’t Make the Woman

Assistant Matron Cato brought one girl at a time into a small reception room, where Mrs. Hutchinson stood next to a tall stack of ugly dresses. Hairstyling was not allowed at the Female Factory, so Agnes was forced to hand over the comb Mrs. Fry had tucked inside her sturdy burlap bag. Mrs. Cato told Agnes she would put it in storage for safekeeping and gave her a nudge toward the washtub. Every prisoner was required to disrobe and bathe upon arrival.

Splashing the cold water over herself was a shock, though Agnes experienced some relief in removing salt and dirt accumulated from nearly four months aboard the Westmoreland. Most clothing worn at sea was beyond repair and thrown in a pile for burning. After checking Agnes’s head for lice, Mrs. Hutchinson issued the prison uniform, sewn from low-grade wool and chosen for its coarseness. It would be a constant reminder of the transgressions that brought the grey-eyed rebel to Van Diemen’s Land. Pulling the wool shift over her head, Agnes recalled many unpleasant memories of the days spent in Mr. Green’s Glasgow mill. The fabric was scratchy and the shift had no shape, but at least it was clean. New stockings were a pleasant surprise and, in spite of everything else, felt refreshing on her feet. Agnes received the remainder of the unfashionably dreary wardrobe for her seven-year sentence: a second shift for when she washed the first, two aprons, two caps, two handkerchiefs for her monthly flow, and a second pair of stockings.

Convict dress was meant to be a marker for the wearer, a warning that she was an untrustworthy outcast. The clothes Agnes and Janet wore were so unbecoming as to elicit derision from the highly decorated Colonel Mundy when he visited the Female Factory. After an initial observation that the prisoners appeared deaf and dumb performing their work in silence, he added: “there must be a good deal in dress as an element of beauty—for I scarcely saw a tolerably pretty woman.”23

Ugly attire in tow, Agnes held on to her familiar brown boots now stiffened with salt from the sea, the last remnants of her life in the Glasgow wynds. Officially a member of the Assignment Class, one of three Cascades ranks based on conduct, she joined a group of twelve. Bad behavior carried punishment in the Crime Class, followed by a sentence in Probation Class for those whose conduct improved, and finally return to the rank from which prisoners were assigned to settlers.

Janet underwent the same processing as Agnes, but the Hutchinsons directed her to a different mess. It was noon, and Mrs. Cato rang the bell for dinner, as the midday meal was called. Straggling at the back of the line, Agnes lifted her eyebrows the moment she caught Janet’s eyes. What in the bloody hell have we gotten ourselves into?

Prisoners rotated the duty of serving the meal to those seated on wooden benches at long tables. The menu remained the same, every day, every week. The two Glasgow lasses sipped their first taste of watery ox-head soup, garnished with a big hunk of brown bread. Prepared without regard for nutritional value, the recipe called for twenty-five pounds of meat for every one hundred quarts of broth. When the ox head wasn’t all bone, each girl received about four ounces of gristly protein a day.24

After the meal, Agnes and Janet milled about aimlessly until everyone was bathed and checked off the roster list. With a clap of her hands, Matron Hutchinson corralled the assembly of newly uniformed women and shushed their restless children. It was time for the first of many lectures by Superintendent Hutchinson. He opened his black leather book to the page inscribed “Rules and Regulations for the Management of the House of Correction for Females.” Rule Number One: No talking, no laughing, no whistling, no singing. No singing? The ballad crooner was appalled. Even London’s Newgate allowed song and conversation.

The governor of Van Diemen’s Land from 1824 to 1836, Colonel George Arthur, was a consummate bureaucrat. He wrote the Cascades rules and regulations himself. With military precision he demanded of “all the Female Convicts on their admission . . . the utmost cleanliness—the greatest quietness—perfect regularity—and entire submission. . . . If these be observed . . . patient industry will appear, and reformation of character must be the result.”25 The rules were printed everywhere, including in the Hobart Town Courier because “so many of our readers having expressed a desire that they should be printed. . . .”26 Yet most of the women at Cascades couldn’t read a word.

The Female Factory’s strict regulations relied on the presumption that if prisoners weren’t allowed to converse, disruptions and bad influences could be controlled. What the authorities never anticipated was how quickly creative measures arose among women who were told they couldn’t talk.

Not surprisingly, Reverend Hutchinson warned the Westmoreland transports about punishments suffered for smoking tobacco and using profanities. When the straight-laced superintendent read the rule that forbade bringing poultry, pigeons, or pigs into Cascades, several of the youngest prisoners let out a giggle. How in the bloody blazes could a girl get a pig over the top of these thick stone walls? Their merriment was quickly extinguished when Mrs. Cato hustled over to the troublemakers and hissed a stern warning from behind their shoulders.

Standing himself a bit taller, Superintendent Hutchinson concluded his monologue with a review of the daily routine, including mandatory chapel attendance twice a day, after breakfast at half past eight and after supper at eight P.M. The little church was designed to double as a school between services and provide space for quiet study. Although superintendents were supposed to teach prisoners to read, it rarely happened. The reality of managing more than three hundred women and their infants allowed Mr. Hutchinson little time to do anything beyond managing the paperwork it took to run the institution. Though Mrs. Fry argued fervently for a school within the female factories, Governor Arthur had largely ignored her recommendation, concentrating instead on bureaucratic details, such as the degree of roughness in the fabric for convict garb.

Indoctrination complete, Agnes and Janet followed the line of two hundred back into the main yard. The twenty-foot-high walls of the Female Factory cast long shadows across the interior yard when the sun dropped behind Mt. Wellington. Light faded quickly in the valley, and the temperature dipped yet again. Time took on another dimension inside the unforgiving fortress encased in double stone walls. The women who had arrived on earlier ships appeared to move in slow motion, looking more like chalky zombies than industrious workers. For some, Cascades chipped away humanity piece by piece.

At half past seven o’clock, Mrs. Cato clanged the supper bell. It was a repeat of the noontime repast: brown bread and a pint of ox-head soup. At five minutes to eight, the new congregation was ushered into the chapel, lit by two small candles on the altar. Mothers tried in vain to quiet their children until a distraction, entering from the back of the chapel, caught their attention. The Reverend William Bedford had arrived. Fancying himself a regal figure as chaplain for the Female Factory, he strutted by the pews filled with potential converts. His beak of a nose and protruding lower lip grew more prominent as his fire-and-brimstone preaching rose to a crescendo. By the end of the reverend’s half-hour rant, Agnes had a stiff neck from trying to hold her head up. At last, it was over.

Mrs. Hutchinson announced the roll call for the night’s bed check. Following factory regulations, Mrs. Cato designated an overseer for each mess, choosing one of the older women from the Westmoreland whom Surgeon Superintendent Ellis had reported as “orderly.” The convict overseer was responsible for the conduct of her eleven peer inmates, a daunting assignment under the best of circumstances.27

There was never enough space to accommodate the rising numbers of transported girls and women. Sleeping rooms were filled to capacity with hammocks slung in tight rows, leaving no room to walk unless the suspended beds were tipped to the side. It took more than a little spontaneous choreography to get four rows of women in place without tipping someone else to the floor. A single chamber pot sat in the far corner and was very difficult to reach in the darkness. Its distant location explained the dreadful stench beneath Agnes’s boots. She kept them tied close by and pulled both knees to her chest, trying to get comfortable. From time to time, she could still feel the rhythmic rocking of the ship.

Inside her low-slung hammock as she started to doze off, Agnes considered violating the first rule of silence. She knew her eleven bunk-mates well from nearly four months together aboard the ship, but could they really be trusted? What she really needed was to talk with Janet. Her canvas bedding smelled of mildew and crawled with fleas. At least there were no rules against dreaming.

By sunrise, the odor of human waste dominated the cramped space that had no ventilation and no windows. At five thirty A.M. the bells rang, and Agnes was rousted from her hammock for morning muster in the yard. Matron Hutchinson walked the long rows of women and children for morning inspection, making certain they looked somewhat clean and tidy. Today was the day most would be assigned to local settlers who would wield complete control over their lives. Mrs. Hutchinson, herself a parent and descendant of a convict grandmother, informed the mothers what would become of their children. Those younger than three would be housed in a nursery inside the factory. The rest would soon be transferred to the Queen’s Orphanage, where well-behaved mothers could visit them on Sundays if their masters issued a pass.

One mess at a time, Mrs. Hutchinson directed the new arrivals to a very large yard on the other side of the complex. Her purpose was abundantly clear as she showed Agnes and her group what happened to girls who disobeyed rules and were sent to the Crime Class. It was only six A.M., and several hundred girls and women were busy at work. Most were scrubbing clothing inside stone washtubs, while others hung the laundry to dry across wooden rails. Mrs. Hutchinson issued a stern warning as she pointed to the cells for solitary confinement. Pretending to pay attention, Agnes covertly studied a woman with yellow Cs emblazoned all over her clothing. Before long, she and Janet would learn the meaning of the yellow C.

The breakfast bell was ringing by the time Matron Hutchinson finished the Crime Class prison tour, which she hoped sent a warning. Agnes and Janet sat down in their separate groups to a pint of watered-down gruel and a piece of brown bread. Before they were done, each was summoned to Mr. Hutchinson’s office.

A string of settlers made the long walk up the valley and lined up outside Cascades to retrieve their free labor. Turning the transports over to colonists spared the government the expense of funding their food and lodging. The Female Factory was essentially a hiring depot for girls like Agnes. Her fate fell into a lottery. The luck of the draw determined for whom #253 worked and what she might be forced to endure at the hands of her master.

Treatment ran the gauntlet from kindness to torture. Plum assignments went to women with special skills, such as dressmaking or baking. Some girls were allowed to sit at their master’s dining table and were welcomed into a family. More commonly, they were treated like slaves, and many suffered sexual abuse, as evidenced by the number of women who returned pregnant to the factory.

The Assignment Board consisted of the chief police magistrate, the local treasurer, and the superintendent of prisoners. The bureaucracy ran rife with favoritism, which played a major role in their decisions. Military officers and wealthy businessmen were often rewarded with the cream of the transported crop. Women who could read to the colonists’ children or prepare a banquet were most desirable, and a pretty face was also coveted.

There was high demand for domestic help in the colony, so the women of the Westmoreland were not expected to stay at Cascades for long. Everyone from the Westmoreland, except women showing signs of pregnancy, was automatically “eligible for service.” One by one, they disappeared into Hobart Town, Sandy Bay, or one of the other nearby settlements, each at the mercy of an unregulated, indiscriminant assignment.

Young and healthy, #253 was immediately turned over to a Mr. Donahoo, who lived in Hobart Town. She stole a quick hug from Janet, who stood outside the superintendent’s door, and the two parted ways. Without question, they would find each other, some way, somehow. Taking her by the arm, Mr. Donahoo escorted his new servant back down the hillside she’d trudged all the way up just one day earlier.

Working as a housemaid for the Donahoos was nothing like being a servant in a fine Scottish home, a home like the one she and Janet had burglarized four years earlier. Doing laundry, ironing, scouring pots, scrubbing floors on her hands and knees, and endlessly chopping wood for the stove filled every waking hour of Agnes’s day. Lugging water up and down the Hobart Town hills was the worst of all chores. A pipeline from the Hobart Rivulet connected to a storage tower on Macquarie Street, where a brigade of servants with buckets waited their turn.

Agnes soon discovered an advantage to the work that nearly pulled her skinny arms from their sockets. For a precious few moments, she could sit and gossip with Janet on the Macquarie Street benches and plot their next rendezvous. Church services also provided a divine opportunity to see her friend. Many abusive masters, unrepentant sinners themselves, dragged their young servants to Sunday service under the guise of promoting their salvation. Relegated to the back of the church, the convict maids devised elaborate schemes to pass contraband in the form of tea and tobacco, often hidden under the mob caps issued at the Female Factory.

Most days, the girl from Glasgow was isolated and lonely. Walking through town, Agnes could sense dirty looks and not-so-furtive head shaking from citizens who resented her presence. Not every settler could afford the expense of feeding another mouth in return for free labor. Hobart’s struggling poor deemed the gruel and ox-head soup served at Cascades an unfair government handout. The convicts were perceived as taking their jobs. “Far better it is to arrive in this colony as a Prisoner of the Crown, than as a poor Free Settler!” blared a headline in the Colonial Times.28This angry, rising sentiment ignited the beginnings of an anti-transportation movement.

On her feet, worked to exhaustion six days a week and half the day on Sunday, Agnes had lots of time to think about the seven years ahead. Out on legitimate errands, she’d been down nearly every street and alley in Hobart Town. There was nowhere to run and nowhere to hide on this upside-down island surrounded by sharks. But without a doubt, she would find an easier way to do her bloody time.

Nearing the last day of December, Agnes hummed “Auld Lang Syne” under her breath, thinking about the Hogmanay celebration back in Scotland. The steady rain and stormy grey heavens sometimes reminded her of home, though there was a frightening unpredictability to the weather here. As the squalls reached gale force rumbling through the valley, Agnes put down her chopping ax and bolted inside for cover.

It was evening on Friday, December 30, when multihued streaks of lightning crashed across Mt. Wellington, with wind gusts reaching sixty miles an hour. The “hurricane” was described in the Hobart Town Courier as “a most awful storm unprecedented in the memory of the oldest settler”; chimneys crashed down on Macquarie Street, windows blew to bits, and several roofs collapsed. “The weightiest articles of timber were lifted up and blown about like straws. . . . Large, gigantic trees in all directions were thrown down, their power of withstanding the blast being weakened, from the unusually moist season having relaxed the roots.”29 The storm’s course of destruction rivaled the worst winter blizzard back in Glasgow. This was certainly no way to welcome in the new year.

Holy Willie

Shortly after the worst storm on record, another event dominated the Hobart Town Courier’s feature page. The island’s new governor and his wife had arrived. It was the same day the Westmoreland departed for Calcutta to pick up its return cargo of raw materials for London’s factories. On January 5, 1837, Sir John and Lady Franklin stepped off the passenger ship Fairlie onto the shores of Van Diemen’s Land. A naval officer known for his Arctic expeditions, Sir John was nicknamed “the man who ate his boots.” While mapping the Northwest Passage, his poor planning led his crew toward starvation along with reported cannibalism and eating of the leather from their boots. Knighted by George IV in 1818 despite his failings in the Arctic, Sir John was hailed as a hero by the London elite and given the assignment he wanted in the new British colony.

Van Diemen’s Land welcomed its new governor with a twenty-one-gun salute and cheering crowds along Macquarie Street. Later in the evening, the entire capital lit up for him. The Hobart Town Courier reported: “It was really amusing to witness the preparations, which even the humblest Hobartonian was busily making for the occasion: those who could not obtain lamps procured candles. . . . Almost every house . . . displayed its loyalty in some shape, and a general feeling of good will and amity seemed universally to prevail.” The newspaper also announced that “His Excellency . . . appeared in good health.”30

A male convict sentenced for being a political activist saw Governor Franklin quite differently, as he later wrote in a book: “Clad in his official garb, adorned with his star, and covered with his cocked cap and feather, no nabob of India could affect more dignity and importance. He appeared to feel, as he strutted about, that he was the only man on earth. His height was . . . about five feet nine inches; his circumference quite out of proportion, and clearly indicating, that however starved he might have been as ‘Captain Franklin,’ in his northern expedition . . . that here there was no scarcity of grease and good foraging.”31

Standing beside her portly husband, Lady Jane, the governor’s second wife, drew notice for the tight ringlets around her face and her custom-made lavender Burmese silk dress. Back in London, she had already met some of the convict women. A politically ambitious social climber, Jane Franklin visited Newgate Prison to observe Elizabeth Fry as one of London’s revered celebrities. After seeing the prisoners, Lady Jane wrote in her journal, judging almost all of them as “strapping ugly women with the most low-life air and impudent expression of countenance.”32

In London, Elizabeth thought she’d found an ally in asking the newly appointed governor’s wife to write about conditions in the Female Factory and to visit the women. It would be four and half years before Lady Jane found the time to send her first letter to Mrs. Fry. In the meantime, Fry had received news from some of the many thousands of women she had comforted inside Newgate. One letter from a mistress in Hobart Town was written on behalf of a convict maid assigned her: “She begs I will offer her grateful recollection of your kindness, and that of the other Ladies, and hopes never to forfeit the good opinion you have been pleased to bestow upon her.”33 Reassured that her work made a difference, Mrs. Fry wanted Lady Jane to take up her cause.

Elizabeth had asserted hands-on influence in mainland Australia, which she planned to extend to Van Diemen’s Land. Earlier in 1836, she sent Charlotte Anley, one of her volunteers, to inspect the conditions at the Parramatta Female Factory in New South Wales. The conditions she witnessed represented the more common experience for convict maids: “They told me of wrongs which no one heeded, or seemed to care for: that bad masters and cruel mistresses, often made them worse than they were; that in service they were treated ‘like dogs,’ and seldom spoken to without an oath, or ‘as devils,’ more than human beings.”34

A convict lass couldn’t escape an assignment unless she acted up. Three and a half months into her seven-year sentence, Agnes couldn’t take her indentured servitude any longer. On March 22, 1837, Mr. Donahoo dragged #253 before the Hobart Town magistrate for being “absent without leave and insolent.”35 Immediately declared guilty, Agnes was returned to Cascades, the punishment factory. She was sentenced to three months in the Crime Class.

The most dreaded punishment came first. Mrs. Cato went to her drawer for a pair of scissors. The deputy matron’s mood was stern when she approached the girl, whose grey eyes looked straight into hers. Not a word was spoken. The sheers clipped across the nape of Agnes’s neck and above her ear, cropping her hair like a boy’s. Donning the cap of humiliation, Agnes would soon wear the color of disgrace. Mrs. Cato handed her a needle, thread, and yellow fabric cut in the shape of a C, for “Crime Class.”

Having seen the woman in the washing yard, Agnes knew what was coming next. Forced to confirm her degraded status stitch by stitch, she sewed three large yellow Cs: one on her right jacket sleeve, another on the back, and a third on the hem of her petticoat. Displaying yellow, recognized as a color of infamy throughout Europe, she was meant to suffer shame and humiliation.

Dressed for the Crime Class, Agnes lumbered toward the washing yard, her assigned work station for the next three months. Deputy Matron Cato delivered an armful of dirty clothes. The laundry she scrubbed from townspeople generated income for the prison and punished her for acting out. The hard stone tubs scraped her knuckles, the harsh soap stung bruises, and her bent shoulders and neck ached all the time. Agnes stood ankle deep in water that seeped through her boots and her stockings. Beneath her boots, groundwater overflowed and formed deep pools in the yard. Agnes shivered in the shadows. Because Cascades was built on a rain-forest bog, drainage presented a chronic problem. Dampness crept over the floors and encased the stone walls, seeming to add yet another layer of impenetrability.

March’s days began to shorten and confused the Scottish transport, unaccustomed to seasons that fell opposite to the ones she had always known. Early autumn had arrived in the Southern Hemisphere, condensing a thick layer of dew over the complex and delivering a chilling wind down the valley. As the days blurred one into another, the Goosedubbs Street girl began to look forward to the warmth of the Female Factory’s ox-head soup. Dunking the brown bread up and down to soften the crust, she leaned on her elbow and held up her chin. The broth, reheated from the noon meal, tasted surprisingly good. Following the overseer appointed for her new group of twelve, Agnes sat on a hard chapel pew through another interminable sermon by the lisping and hissing Reverend Bedford. Back in the sleeping room, she settled into her hammock and pulled a thin blanket up around her chin. She tucked her legs in a fetal position trying to warm herself. Would she ever see Janet again?

It seemed like she had just closed her eyes when Agnes heard the ringing of the muster bell at six A.M., providing an extra half hour for sleep because of the autumn schedule. On her feet in the washing yard from sunrise until sunset, Agnes labored three months in Crime Class according to its rules and regulations. Back in the British Isles, King William IV had died on June 20, 1837, and Queen Victoria ascended the throne. Word of the colony’s new queen did not reach Hobart Town until late October, the middle of spring in Van Diemen’s Land.

While Victoria became accustomed to her new throne, Agnes found herself in a cart riding away from Hobart and into the bush. In late June, Mr. Hutchinson decided to send the troublesome #253 out to Mr. Parker’s farm, ordering that she was “not to be assigned to a town again.”36 Her red-haired friend was not faring much better. On August 12, 1837, a Mrs. Ray brought Janet before the magistrate for “disobedience of orders.” After serving her sentence of three days in solitary confinement, on only bread and water, the eighteen-year-old maid was retrieved by her mistress.

Agnes’s second assignment proved very rustic. While the eighteen-year-old Queen Victoria attended sumptuous state banquets, the grey-eyed Scot dined on what she deemed vermin. Her master called it kangaroo. The “roo” meat tasted gamy and tough, and she had to skin it before roasting. Cooking and cleaning, however, were the least of her worries. Never-ending wood chopping required her to brush away webs built by a wild assortment of spiders colored in red, green, and silver. At least their brilliant markings made them easy to spot. Lizards and frogs, on the other hand, blended into the forest and startled her every time she turned around. And the bloody serpents drove her mad.

Agnes had been warned about the poisonous snakes that killed horses, cattle, and sheep.37 She found the hissing creatures coiled inside the cupboard, under the dining table, and inside the outhouse she was required to clean. Her disgust for reptiles was probably the only passion the Scottish rebel shared with the governor’s wife. In her quest to civilize Van Diemen’s Land, Lady Jane Franklin had offered a reward of one shilling for every snake killed. Over the course of a year, she soon discovered that the fourteen thousand bounties she paid made little impact on the quickly reproducing snake population.

Out in the pastoral rolling hills, Agnes lost track of days except for the monthly wagon ride into Hobart Town to attend Sunday services. She turned seventeen on September 11, 1837, with neither notice nor celebration. The grey-eyed girl had no privacy and rarely a day off. People made fun of her short hair and her accent. Lugging the mistress’s chamber pots into the woods to be emptied, battling snakes, and fighting off loneliness, all of it was more than Agnes could tolerate. Once again, she walked off the job.

On November 3, Mr. Parker delivered his misbehaving servant to the Hobart Town court building. The magistrate pronounced Agnes guilty of “disobedience” and sentenced her to two months in the Cascades Crime Class. Trudging back up the hill toward the shaded morass, Agnes couldn’t help but notice how beautiful Hobart Town looked in the spring, outfitted in lush shades of purple and green.

New residences, built by convict labor, had sprung up throughout the valley, each red brick labeled and numbered to confirm the prisoner’s assigned quota. Imported roses, now in full bloom, tumbled over the painted white fences. Magpies and brightly feathered lorikeets fluttered over her path, and Agnes felt a warm breeze blowing up from the River Derwent. If her presence in Van Diemen’s Land had not been born of punishment, she might have relished this beautiful island, where she breathed the cleanest air on earth. For today, she was assaulted with the stink of the sewers as she approached the top of the town, along with the stone washtubs she knew were waiting for her.

The routine at Cascades was familiar, though no less humiliating, for the troublemaker known as #253. Brow furrowed, Mrs. Cato produced her scissors, clipped Agnes’s hair once again, and handed her more yellow Cs. Bloody hell, back to the washtubs she lumbered. Highly attuned to her surroundings from years on city streets, Agnes spotted a young woman whose eyes sparkled with fiery passion. It was the legendary Ellen Scott, the queen of troublemakers. Queen Victoria ruled the empire, but Ellen Scott ruled the Crime Class.

A native of Limerick, Ireland, Ellen was sentenced to transport for life because she had stolen a watch chain and had been arrested before on vagrancy charges. A hero among the Female Factory women, she affronted and provoked the Reverend William Bedford when he least expected it. Nicknamed “Holy Willie” by the prisoners, Bedford was charged with raising moral standards for the colony. Perhaps the biggest hypocrite ever to step foot inside Cascades, he was despised bitterly by the women for forcing himself on many of them. An impostor of all sorts, he had no theological training, though he’d received an honorary degree. Holy Willie was a married man, the father of two sons and a daughter, but that didn’t stop him from taking advantage of the women he was supposed to guide and protect. The self-important hypocrite was the first voice they heard in the morning and the last at night.

In October 1833, Ellen delivered her own message to the lecherous, grinning, always supercilious preacher. Her cheeky response to another condescending lecture was the ultimate working-class insult. The petite Irish prisoner turned around in her pew, lifted her skirt, and, wearing no undergarments, loudly slapped her bare behind. She was charged with “indecent behavior during the performance of divine service” and sentenced to an additional two months in Crime Class, commencing with thirty days in solitary confinement.38

Ellen was a charter member of the Flash Mob, a Crime Class subculture named for “flash” language, or the jargon of thieves. The now notorious Flash Mob reveled in tormenting their captors at every opportunity. They took special pride in “debagging” Holy Willie as he waddled down the chapel steps, where “some dozen or twenty women seized upon him, took off his trousers and deliberately endeavoured to deprive him of his manhood. They were, however, unable to effect their purpose in consequence of the opportune arrival of a few constables who seized the fair ladies.”39

The wash yard was a school of sorts. Under the corrupt tutelage of the cleverest, most resourceful women she’d ever met, #253 learned many tricks that undermined her captors’ control. With the help of their mates, prisoners retrieved locks of shorn hair from the trash. Weaving the strands together and placing them strategically under the gathered prison caps, the crafty lasses created the illusion of a full head of hair.

In the dark of the night, the Flash Mob dressed for merriment, silk scarves saucily tied over their heads, earrings dangling fashionably, sparkling rings displayed on their fingers. Thriving underground trade provided the means to decorate their bland uniforms with forbidden ornaments. After the Hutchinsons retired for the evening, a new society took hold, and the Mob set the rules. Sneaking out the front entrance posed little challenge. Cascades guards, easily bribed with rum or coins, let the women slip into town, where they danced with abandon at a rowdy tavern of their choice. According to a male convict who arrived shortly after Agnes, “the ‘tip,’ it was said, was taken by every government officer in the colony, from the governor down to scavenger, and was what, in civilian countries is called bribery.”40

Trafficking and illicit commerce between turnkeys and prisoners enabled the women to purchase food, tea, tobacco, sugar, and liquor. The Mob broke even the unwritten rules, defying strict Victorian notions concerning sexuality. Some, including Ellen Scott, were punished for an “unnatural connexion” with another woman, although Ellen later married a freed male convict.

Both fearful of and fascinated by the Flash Mob, the local press described “women, who, by a simple process of initiation, are admitted into a series of unhallowed mysteries, similar, in many respects, to those which are described by Göethe, in his unrivalled Drama of Faust. . . . Like those abominable Saturnalia, they are performed in the dark and silent hour of night, but, unlike those, they are performed in solitude and secrecy, amongst only the duly initiated. With the fiendish fondness for sin, every effort, both in the Factory, and out of it, is made by these wretches, to acquire proselytes to their infamous practices . . .”41

The advantages amassed by members of the Flash Mob were later revealed in testimony by a Cascades prisoner assigned work as a guard: “I was once turnkey over the Crime Class and used to sell and buy on my own account Tobacco, Tea, Sugar, Meat etc. Two women after Muster were released, by me or by Mrs. Hutchinson’s servants, from the Cells as I managed to abstract the keys I wanted and we were supplied from over the Wall with what we wanted.”42

This sturdy Crime Class subculture, founded on rebellion and solidarity, managed better food, new clothing, and more merriment. The Cascades rebels drank, smoked, talked all night, played cards, exchanged ribald jokes, and put on elaborate theatrics that mocked the authorities. They danced in the moonlight, pretending to be goddesses at the base of Mt. Wellington, and they belted out bawdy songs night after night.

Many were punished for singing obscene lyrics. Others found protection in this rebellious sisterhood of solidarity and devised a myriad of schemes to try the pious patience of Matron Hutchinson. In one well-practiced stunt, the rebels sang at the top of their lungs. The minute they heard the matron’s heavy steps, their chorus fell silent. By the time Mrs. Hutchinson returned to her housing on the second floor of Cascades, the musical entertainment commenced all over again. Testifying before an inquiry into convict discipline, Mrs. Hutchinson admitted: “Their songs are sometimes very disgusting. They leave off when they know I am coming. When they do not (which is sometimes the case in a wet night when they do not hear my foot on the pavement) I turn out the whole ward till I get at the woman whom I send to a cell.”43

Agnes met members of the Flash Mob as she toiled along the washtubs. As a new arrival to the Crime Class, she may have been recruited into their fold, because the Mob would have welcomed the young Scot’s musical talent and her feisty disposition. After serving the second of her eventual twelve trips back to the Crime Class, Agnes was released in early January 1838 at summer’s peak in Van Diemen’s Land.

For eight months, she dutifully fulfilled her sentence until returned by her new master on September 8 for “refusing to return to her service.” 44 She was sentenced to ten days on bread and water. Three days later, Agnes spent her eighteenth birthday in solitary confinement, branded yet again with yellow letters on her clothing. Recalling her days in the mill, she’d spent the morning picking oakum, pulling apart coarse rope so that the recycled fibers could be used to caulk ships like the Westmoreland. Handed a hunk of bread and a bowl of water for dipping, she eagerly put aside the work assignment that had already bloodied her hands.

As she sat in a cell barely bigger than a coffin, Agnes cursed the captors who could never extinguish her spunk. Surprisingly, she found a small benefit in solitary confinement. The tiny opening to the outside was covered with iron grates but was wide enough to let in shades of light and shadows. Deprived of human contact, her senses became acute. She listened for the yellow wattlebirds and the kookaburra’s laughing call. She fingered the greyish-brown stone that never warmed to the touch. Assaulted by the disgusting stench from waste flowing next to her cell and into the rivulet, Agnes vowed to make it through the night. There was no other choice as she closed her eyes. Like heavy shadows in a jungle, blackness arrived in layers and lulled her into sleep.

Upon release from her solitary cell, Mr. Hutchinson assigned Agnes to a Mr. Harvey. The untamable lass was soon found “out after hours” and returned to Cascades for six additional days on bread and water. When Superintendent Hutchinson sent her back to Mr. Harvey, she immediately escalated her behavior, taking his two children on an excursion without permission. Agnes didn’t hurt the wee ones, who seemed to enjoy her company, but the magistrate was not amused. He sentenced her to one month in Crime Class, beginning with six more days on bread and water.

When Governor Arthur set the rules for solitary confinement, he had assumed that hunger would tame and temper a rebel like Agnes. In fact, malnutrition produced the opposite effect, rendering emotions more difficult to contain and increasing the likelihood that she would lash out with hostile confusion. Many girls and women imprisoned at Cascades broke under the stress and fell prey to the ills of depression, alcoholism, or madness.

Agnes turned more defiant with every return to the Female Factory. She and many of her cohorts quickly figured out the loopholes created by a high demand for maids and laborers. When she needed a break from service, she acted out, a pattern she would follow for her entire sentence. Seizing the upper hand and shifting the balance of power in her favor, she turned the tables on her captors. With every scrub of dirty drawers in the washtub, every mouthful of watery gruel, every chopping of her hair, Agnes McMillan willed herself to live for the day she walked free. Rather than breaking her, her captors made her stronger. Never remorseful yet ever hopeful, she remained open to what tomorrow would bring. At this point, there was little more they could take from her.

Agnes walked away from the assignment that followed Mr. Harvey’s. On December 7, 1838, she appeared before a now-familiar magistrate. He sentenced her to two months’ hard labor at the washtub and solitary confinement at night. Agnes would soon discover what a holiday blessing this proved to be. And her future would hold a series of surprising coincidences. As she glanced back toward the hills around Hobart Town, she had no way of knowing that, half a world away, someone she’d never met would influence both her life and Janet’s at the prison nursery on Liverpool Street.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!