The first female convicts arrived in Australia in 1790 aboard the Lady Juliana. Most had been convicted on minor theft charges, but there was an assumption that many of the women were prostitutes.
“There were not a great many very bad characters; the greater number were for petty crimes, and a great proportion for only being disorderly, that is, street walkers; the colony at the time being in great want of women,” wrote John Nicol, a steward on the ship.
The women seen as “most difficult” were sent to forced labour camps, known as female factories, so that they could be educated on the “value of morality.”
Punishments for poor behaviour were humiliating and public. Some camp techniques included gagging, shaving their heads and forcing them to wear iron collars.
Fed up with being poorly treated, the women at the Cascades Female Factory in Van Diemen’s Land (now known as Tasmania) decided a protest was necessary.
When the Governor of Van Diemen’s Land visited the factory and attend a service at the chapel, the women saw their chance.
According to Reverend William Bedford, a much-hated presence at the camp, once he had finished his speech, “the "the three hundred women turned right around and at one impulse pulled up their clothes showing their naked posteriors which they simultaneously smacked with their hands making a loud and not very musical noise.”
“This was the work of a moment, and although constables, warders etc. were there in plenty, yet 300 women could not well be all arrested and tried for such an offence, and when all did the same act the ringleaders could not be picked out."
By all accounts, this behaviour “horrified and astounded” the Governor and his male companions vowed the visit would be their last – but the ladies in his party could not control their laughter.
It wasn’t the only time the women showed their dislike for dislike for Reverend Bedford and his morality campaigns.
On another occasion, “some dozen or twenty women seized upon him, took off his trousers and deliberately endeavoured to deprive him of his manhood.”
To say life was not easy for the first female convicts would be an understatement. Male convicts had a chance at redeeming themselves with hard work and penance, but the women were seen as too far past the boundaries of class to find salvation.
But, by the mid-1800s, the scarcity of women in Australia led to more opportunities for female convicts. Many successfully merged into society, building families, and through good conduct forged new lives.
[Image: Artist Peter Gouldthorpe’s representation of the women’s protest]