The Early Years: an overview

Dianne Snowden

This paper was presented to the Female Convicts Research Centre Seminar on 2 May 2021.


The lives of female convicts in the early years of colonial Van Diemen’s Land are a neglected part of our convict history.

Philip Tardif states in his book, Notorious Strumpets and Dangerous Girls, ‘More often than not [convict women] are dismissed with only a passing reference [in what is] no more than a regurgitation of earlier subjective opinion’.[1]

Tardif suggests that there are three main reasons for the invisibility of convict women:

  1. More men than women were transported (five out of every six convicts were men);
  2. Most histories have been written by men, drawing on original sources kept almost exclusively by men; and
  3. The society in which convict women lived placed severe constraints on their behaviour – with few exceptions, women were restricted to the role of wife, mother, housekeeper, or prostitute.

Tardif argues that: ‘Such domestic occupations created an impression that that the women’s lives were of less interest than their male counterparts and that their behaviour could be dismissed with a few sweeping generalisations.’ He cites John West, who wrote: ‘The description of the conduct of female prisoners is so uniform that any date and any account of female prisoners might be joined at random’.[2]

There is another reason for the invisibility of the lives of convict women in the early years of Van Diemen’s Land. The original convict record series held by the Tasmanian Archives was created in 1824. However, the records also include information retrospectively entered. Much of this early information is minimal, with often just basic details.

Early conduct records and indents often have only the names of the convict, the ship on which a convict woman arrived, and her date and place of trial. It was not until the arrival of Lieutenant-Governor Arthur in 1824, that colonial record keeping was reorganised and detailed.

Even then, the image of the convict woman was often negative, skewed as it was towards the troublesome and the badly-behaved. As Tardif writes, ‘The quiet and industrious were virtually ignored’.[3]



From the beginning of transportation in 1788 to its cessation in 1868, just over 160,000 convicts left Britain for the Australian colonies. Nearly 25,000 were women. Approximately half this number came to Van Diemen’s Land.[4]

Convict women were present from the beginning of the colonisation of Van Diemen’s Land.

There were three convict women in the small party of soldiers, settlers, and convicts, commanded by Lieutenant John Bowen, at Risdon Cove in 1803.[5] One of these was Mary Lawler, tried in Tipperary in 1801 and sentenced to transportation for seven years. She died in Hobart Town in 1814.[6] Little is known about her.

Another was Mary Maria Hayes, who ran a public house in London with her husband, Henry Hayes. She was tried with Henry in Middlesex in 1801 and was transported 14 years for receiving stolen goods. About 1807, Mary opened the Derwent Hotel in Elizabeth Street, Hobart Town.[7] [this was on the corner of Lord’s Lane on the northern side of present GPO] Henry died in 1816 and Mary married William Thomas Stocker. She died in Hobart Town in 1813.[8] Mary brought her daughter, Martha, with her to New South Wales and then to Risdon Cove.[9] In his diary, Rev. Knopwood coyly described Martha as ‘Bowen’s young friend’.[10] She had two children to Bowen.[11]

The third woman has not been identified.

A year after Bowen arrived at Risdon Cove, a small number of convict women accompanied Lieutenant-Colonel Paterson to Port Dalrymple in the north of the colony. One of these was Ann Simmonds, tried in Middlesex in 1793 and sentenced to transportation for life. She arrived in Sydney on the Surprize in 1794. Another was Ann Middlebrook or Keating, tried in Stafford in 1801, and transported for 14 years. She married in Launceston in 1811.[12] Another woman, known only as Mary, died on the way to Port Dalrymple.[13]

The population increased significantly in 1804 when David Collins brought several hundred men, women, and children from England, and again from 1807 when 554 people were relocated from Norfolk Island.[14]

By 1810, the population was 1,321, including 221 male convicts and 23 female convicts.[15]

In the following years, the population increased significantly. By 1823, it was approximately 10,000 and by 1835, it was nearly 40,000.[16]

Population growth led to an increased demand for female convict labour. Female convicts continued to arrive in small, irregular shipments. Until 1820, when the Morley arrived in Hobart, female convicts to Van Diemen’s Land sailed first to Sydney. For many of these convict women, their stay in Sydney was brief. Ships arriving in Sydney at this time included: Catherine (1814); Alexander II (1816); Canada (1817); Friendship (1818); Maria I (1818) and Janus (1820). Within four weeks, generally, the women were transferred to small intercolonial vessels sailing either to Hobart or Port Dalrymple. Over the next few years, small groups followed, sometimes years after they arrived in Sydney.

For many of the convict women who arrived during the early years, their date of arrival in Van Diemen’s Land is not clear and only an estimate can be made based on muster, marriage, or death records.

From 1840, when transportation to New South Wales ceased, all female convicts were sent to Van Diemen’s Land, dramatically increasing the number of arrivals.

Despite their growing numbers, women remained heavily outnumbered by men throughout this period, although the imbalance gradually lessened. In 1820, for example, the ratio of men to women in the colony was almost 10:3, and nearly 9:1 among the convict population. By 1835, the ratios stood at 7:3 and 7:1 respectively.[17] Tardif comments, ‘As might be expected, such an imbalance had a significant effect on the nature of Van Diemen’s Land Society. While the result was a greater degree of sexual exploitation, at times the very level of demand for women must have given them an influence over their fates that they could never have enjoyed in their native England’.[18]


Assignment in the early years

In the colony’s first twenty years, the assignment system was only loosely regulated. Historian John West noted that ‘During Davey’s government (1813-1817), two hundred female prisoners were brought down from Sydney … proclamation was made, and the settlers were invited to receive them. There was little delicacy of choice: they landed, and vanished; and some, carried into the bush, changed their destinations before they reached their homes’.[19] At the Bigge enquiry in 1820, A.W.H. Humphrey testified that female convicts on arrival were: ‘assigned to such married persons as apply for them and the remainder are suffered to find their own Lodgings’.[20]


Who were the women who arrived in the early years?

Approximately 1,675 women served time as convicts in Van Diemen’s Land before 1830.[21] Of these women, 75 per cent were convicted in English courts; 16 per cent were from Ireland and 8 per cent were from Scotland. One, Maria, a slave, was from Honduras.

Most of the women – 41 per cent – were tried at the Old Bailey. Another 11 per cent were from Lancashire, centring on the new industrial areas of Manchester and Liverpool.

The dominance of the large urban centres as a source of convicts was even more striking in Scotland and Ireland. 76 per cent of all Scottish women were tried in Edinburgh or Glasgow. 65 per cent of Irish women were tried in Dublin or Cork.

Fourteen per cent of those convicted in England and Scotland were of Irish origin.

Most were sentenced to transportation for seven years (63 per cent) and most were convicted of petty theft. At least half had previous convictions.

Just under half claimed to have been married and a quarter were widowed.

Many were pockpitted and some were tattooed, usually with letters or rings on their fingers.

Many had lost teeth – ‘On the Harmony, for example, the grin of every fifth woman was marred by at least one missing front tooth’.[22]

The average age on arrival was 27. Two-in-five were aged 18 to 24. Only 13 per cent were younger than 18 or older than 40. The youngest was Sarah Barnes, aged 13, who was tried in 1828 in Shropshire for stealing and was sentenced to transportation for 14 years. She arrived on the Borneo in October 1828.[23] Sarah’s shipmate, Mary Campbell or McLillan, a public house keeper ‘all her life’ was tried in Perth for stealing. She admitted that she had ‘a drop of liquor’ in her when she committed the crime and confessed that she had often been at the Police Office for drink. She thought she was aged somewhere between 62 and 70. She spent time at the Asylum for the Insane at New Norfolk.[24] As Tardif comments, ‘Only the negative aspects, the deviations from normality, were thought note-worthy’.[25]

For the convict women in the early years of Van Diemen’s land, life was difficult, uncertain, and challenging. Despite the paucity of information on early convict records, it is important to remember these early convict women as individuals, with unique and multi-layered experiences.

Without the dedication of the Female Convicts Research Centre database team, particularly Colette McAlpine and Elaine Crawford, and our many transcribers, in Australia and overseas, our knowledge of the lives of Van Diemen’s Land’s early convict women would be much the poorer.



[1] Phillip Tardif, Notorious Strumpets and Dangerous Girls. convict women in Van Diemen's Land, 1803-1829, Sydney, 1990, p.2. Tardif’s meticulously researched seminal work is highly recommended for any study of female convicts to 1828. See also Dianne Snowden, ‘Female Convicts’ in Alison Alexander (ed.), The Companion To Tasmanian History, 2005, p.131 and Dianne Snowden, Unlock the Past Handy Guide, ‘Tasmanian Convicts’.

[2] John West, The History of Tasmania, Sydney, 1971, p.509 cit Tardif, Notorious Strumpets, p.2.

[3] Tardif, Notorious Strumpets, p.9.

[4] Charles Bateson, The Convict Ships, Sydney, 1983.

[5] The party comprised 36 men, 10 women and three children. The FCRC database has two convict women. See Philip Tardif, John Bowen’s Hobart: the beginning of European settlement in Tasmania, THRA, Sandy Bay, Tas., 2003.

[6] Tardif, Notorious Strumpets, No.17, p.59; TA, RGD34/1/1 Parish of St David’s, Hobart Town 1814/159 Mary Lawler (29 June 1814).

[7] C.J. Dennison, Here’s Cheers. A Pictorial History of Hotels, Taverns & Inns in Hobart, Hobart, 2008, p.4.

[8] Tardif, Notorious Strumpets, No.20, p.61.

[9] TA, CON40/1/5 Mary Maria Hayes Glatton 1803 [Image 9].

[10] Mary Nicholls (ed.), The Diary of the Reverend Robert Knopwood, 1803-1838: first Chaplain of Van Diemen’s Land, Sandy Bay, Tas., 1977, p.444 (29 March 1804).

[11] Tardif, Notorious Strumpets, No.20, p.61.

[12] Tardif, Notorious Strumpets, No.22, p.62.

[13] At Cape Barren Island, the Lady Nelson met up with the Francis, which was sheltering there. It was here that, Mary, one of the convict women, died. A coffin was made by the carpenter and she was buried on with a funeral service: Irene Schaffer, Accessed 19 April 2021.

[14] Collins had originally attempted to settle at Port Phillip but, finding the area not suitable, sailed south to the Derwent. He assumed control of the Risdon Cove settlement and relocated it across the river at Sullivan’s Cove, the present location of Hobart.

[15] C.M.H. Clark, A History of Australia, Vol.1, Melbourne, 1962, p.237; HRA Series III, Vol.4, pp.635-6 Return of population, livestock etc; NSW Miscellaneous Precis and Memoranda: Convicts etc, New South Wales and Tasmania, 1810-1855, CO206161 (AJCP 997) p.208 cit Tardif p.1771.

[16] HRA Series III, Vol.4. pp.635-6 Return of population, livestock etc cit Tardif p.1771.

[17] HRA Series III Vol.4, pp 638, 640, CO206/61 (AJCP 997) p.208 Returns of population in counties of Buckinghamshire and Cornwall, 18 January 1821 cit Tardif p.1772.

[18] Tardif, Notorious Strumpets, p.2.

[19] West, The History of Tasmania, p.47.

[20] HRA Series III Vol. 3 p.278: Examination of A.W.H. Humphrey, Bigge Commission of Inquiry, 13 March 1820.

[21] The following statistics are from Tardif, Notorious Strumpets, pp.3-9.

[22] Tardif, Notorious Strumpets, p.9.

[23] Tardif, Notorious Strumpets, No.1420, pp.1369-70.

[24] Tardif, Notorious Strumpets, No.1425, pp.1377-78.

[25] Tardif, Notorious Strumpets, p.9.


Further resources:

FCRC Research Seminars/Past Seminar Programs/2021: The Early Years, 1803-1828



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