Up until 1843, female convicts were assigned into service upon arrival in Van Diemen's Land. From 1844, they were hired under the Probation System.
In the early days of the colony, the assignment of convicts was relatively unstructured. In 1826 Lieutenant-Governor Arthur appointed an Assignment Board to manage the assignment of convicts to settlers, which resulted in better record-keeping.
When female convicts landed, they were assigned to masters as domestic servants. If all went well, they remained: some female convicts remained with the one master for their entire sentence. But if they committed an offence the master or mistress considered serious, such as insolence, neglect of work, getting drunk or being absent without leave, they were taken before a magistrate and tried. They were acquitted, admonished or punished by being sent to a female factory and either serving a term in Crime Class or serving a sentence in solitary, sometimes on bread and water, (Corporal punishment was also used in the very early days), see ‘Convict Institutions – Punishments’.
Many female convicts on assignment learnt domestic skills which were useful to them in later life, either earning a living or running their own homes. However, without the protection of their family and with little protection by the state, they were also vulnerable to abuse, mental or physical. Many became pregnant, voluntarily or involuntarily.
After serving a certain part of their sentence female convicts could apply for a ticket of leave. Like parole, this meant they were independent and free to earn a living, only having to report regularly to the police. When their sentence was nearly complete they could apply for a conditional pardon, the condition being that they could not return to Britain. When they had served their sentences, they were free by servitude.
The assignment system was maligned by reformists and the media, with emphasis placed on the corruption of newly arrived convicts. A letter to the editor which appeared in the Colonial Times on 23 March 1827 (p.4 c.3–4) discusses the ways in which newly arrived female convicts were corrupted.
Companion to Tasmanian History
Libraries Tasmania: Convict Life
National Library of Australia: Convict Assignment
THE ASSIGNMENT SYSTEM OF CONVICT LABOUR VAN DIEMENS LAND 1824 -1842, a thesis by Anne McKay