Lashing was a common form of corporal punishment in British gaols, until it was outlawed for women in 1817.[1][2] Recognised as a convenient physical punishment for male convicts that could be carried out anywhere and anytime, it was also a brutal and degrading punishment which was inflicted on early female convicts in New South Wales and in one recorded case in Van Diemen's Land (VDL).


The earliest recorded lashing of a female convict was that of Nance Ferrel, who was lashed on the Lady Juliana in 1789, according to the journal of John Nicol, mariner:

We were forced to tie her up like a man, and give her one dozen with the cat-o'-nine-tails, and assure her of a clawing every offence. This alone reduced her to any kind of order.[3]


One of the earliest punishments of a female convict recorded in Van Diemen’s Land was the lashing of Elizabeth Murphy.  Elizabeth was 19 years old when tried at Middlesex on 28 October 1801 for stealing a straw bonnet.  She was sentenced to transportation for 7 years, arriving in NSW on the Glatton on 11 March 1803.  She was transferred to Van Diemen’s Land on the Sophia in early February 1805, becoming one of the first female convicts to arrive in the state; only 12 female convicts were recorded as having previously arrived before this date. On 15 March 1806, Elizabeth was accused of ‘writing or causing to be wrote a letter directed to Francis Dring* containing the most infamous language & accusing him of a most heinous Crime’. She was sentenced by His Honor the Lieut. Governor to be tied by her hands to the cart drawn by the gaol gang, to be stripped and receive 25 lashes before being sent to the settlement at Risdon. In the early years of settlement the lashings were carried out by the Drummers of the Marine Detachment (HRAIII,I,p.57).  The punishment of 25 lashes was equivalent to the minimum given to male convicts, who would normally receive sentences of between 25 and 300 lashes.


Elizabeth Murphy’s punishment fits the description given in the article ANCIENT PUNISHMENTS IN THE BAD OLD TIMES’ in the Examiner on 19 January 1907:


Whipping posts were sometimes attached to the stocks for convenience in thrashing beggars and petty thieves whose delinquencies were thought to merit the double punishment. These poor wretches were generally stripped from the waist upwards, and the lash laid on with such unsparing hand that often enough their backs were covered with blood long before the chastisement was concluded. Some offenders were whipped at the cart's tail, i.e., they were tied to the end of a cart after being stripped partially or wholly naked, and 'then dragged through the public streets, and thashed unmercifully throughout the whole of the journey.[4]


The lashing of Elizabeth Murphy may have been the only recorded sentence of lashing (or flogging) of a female convict in Van Diemen’s Land, however there is evidence of female convicts who arrived in VDL having experienced the lash on Norfolk Island.  Martha Hudson who arrived in NSW on the Experiment in 1804 was mentioned in the letters of George Prideaux Harris as having been ordered by Edward Lord to be tied to a cart's tail and flogged down the parade ground.  As with Elizabeth Murphy, the procedure was to strip the woman to the waist.  Martha received an initial two dozen lashes; Lord called for a doctor, to ask if she could bear two dozen more lashes. The doctor agreed.**  Another two former female convicts who arrived in VDL in 1808 on the City of Edinburgh also experienced  lashings on Norfolk Island.  First Fleeter, Elizabeth Bruce per Lady Penrhyn to Sydney, arriving in 1788, was sent to Norfolk Island on the Golden Grove 10 months later. In 1790 she received 25 lashes for allowing one of her pigs to go into someone’s garden and another 75 lashes in 1791 for stealing a hen. She left the island as a freewoman on the City of Edinburgh, arriving in Hobart in 1808. Also on the ‘City of Edinburgh’, arriving Hobart in 1808, was Mary Higgins who had arrived in NSW on the Lady Juliana in 1790. She had been sentenced on Norfolk Island in 1791 to 50 lashes, receiving 26 lashes. Her offence was stealing corn from the public fields (with Catherine White) - caught by John Thomas Dodge, Superintendent of Convicts.  Ann Coomb, who arrived in VDL year unknown, while on Norfolk Island was ordered to receive 50 lashes for defrauding Thomas Jones of provisions. The next day she was ordered to receive 100 lashes for stealing two shirts from Francis Mee. The floggings of Martha Hudson, Elizabeth Bruce, Mary Higgins and Ann Coomb were not  isolated incidents in New South Wales as evidenced by a letter addressed to Earl Bathurst, per Favour of the Sydney Gazette on October 12th 1825:  ‘The history of Castle Hill, and Toongabbee;- of the system of stripping females and flogging them in the common gaol-yard of Sydney...’[5]


Although the type of lash used on Elizabeth Murphy is not recorded, the lash used at Port Arthur was the infamous ‘Cat-o’-nine-tails’. It was a wooden-handled whip with nine knotted whip cords, noted for its use on mariners, the Royal Navy and British Army long after its use at Port Arthur was discontinued.  Its construction meant that for every lash there would be 9 ‘stripes’ with the three knots along each cord adding extra weight to the punishment, and responsible for the clawing, as attributed to a cat, noted in the lashing of Nance Ferrel.


Unfortunately, male and female convicts were not the only people to experience the sting of the lash in VDL.  In 1839 the editor of the Hobart Town Courier newspaper raised the alarm that the cat-o’-nine-tails was being used by the Orphan School’s headmaster as an instrument of punishment on the boys[7]:

One of the charges preferred against Mr. Offer, was the extreme severity of treatment which he adopted towards the children. Mr. McKay, who was in the 21st regiment for twenty years, a testimonial of whose services and character is to be found in the handsome letter addressed to him on the part of the regiment by Major Deare, gave evidence to the effect, that during the whole period of his service, he had never witnessed flogging in the army more severe in proportion, than that which it was the constant habit of Mr. Offor to administer with a cat-o'-nine-tails, on the bare backs of lads under and about twelve years of age. By the written regulations of the School, the punishment allowed to be administered shall not exceed twelve lashes. Notwithstanding the constant remonstrances of Mr. Naylor, Mr. Offor boasted that he should do as he chose ; and in illustration of his position, frequently doubled the amount of punishment, and in one instance actually inflicted thirty-one lashes!

The Tasmanian and Australian Advertiser took up the story in 1841, confirming that the cat-of-nine-tails had been previously used for floggings at the Orphan School but reassuring readers that the practice had since ceased:

In regard to the last, the application of the infernal " cat-of-nine-tails" to those poor children, we are enabled to state in the most positive terms, that no such hateful instrument has been in the Institution, since the appointment of the Rev. Mr. Ewing, and the other changes in the direction, which some time since took place. It is quite true, that an individual formerly employed there, being charged with using such an abominable method of punishment, was removed from his employment, on that very ground (although the charge was by no means ascertained, at least to the extent apprehended), but we repeat, we are enabled to assert positively that from that period to this day, not only has no such hateful torture been known, but no such instrument for the inflicting it, been permitted in the Institution.[8]


Lashing or flogging continued as a punishment frequently imposed on male convicts up until 1840, when it was increasingly replaced with solitary confinement before being phased out for convicts by 1850.[6] 



*Francis Dring, a convict tried at Middlesex and sentenced to transportation for seven years, arrived on the Coromandel and Experiment 1804 to NSW.

** Information provided by Alison Alexander for FCRC database record on Martha Hudson, from her research on Maria Lord.



[1] accessed 2/03/2020

[2] Damousi, Joy, (1997) Depraved and Disorderly: Female Convicts, Sexuality and Gender in Colonial Australia, Cambridge University Press.

[3] The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, accessed 29/02/2020.

[4] ANCIENT PUNISHMENT. IN THE BAD OLD TIMES. Examiner, Saturday 19 January 1907 p 3

[5] The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Thursday 20 October 1825 p 4

[6] James Parker, accessed 1/03/2020

[7] The Hobart Town Courier and Van Diemen's Land Gazette, Friday 9 August 1839 p 2

[8]The Austral-Asiatic Review, Tasmanian and Australian Advertiser, Hobart Town, Tuesday 8 June 1841 p 2.


 By E. Crawford (Aug. 2020)


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For academic referencing (suggestion only) Database: [http address], FCRC Female Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land database, entry for xxxx ID no xxx, accessed online [date].

For academic referencing (suggestion only) Website:  Female Convicts Research Centre Inc., accessed online [date] from [http address].