The Bread and Water punishment diet was widely used in British institutions, including prisons, until the latter part of the 20th century. (On US Navy vessels the practise continued until 2018!).[1]  Many Van Diemen’s Land convicts would have received the punishment diet of bread and water in prisons before, during and after transportation, usually in conjunction with solitary confinement.


The surgeon superintendents on board the convict transport ships were very aware of the importance of diet in improving and maintaining health and well-being, and especially the value of lemon/lime juice in preventing scurvy on a long voyage. Often convicts boarding the transports were malnourished and it took a while for their depleted digestive systems to adjust to the ship’s ‘comparatively full diet‘.[2]  Placing a convict on a prolonged punishment diet of  bread and water would therefore be perceived as a threat to their physical health and, by combining it with solitary confinement, their mental well-being. The daily allowance of ‘bread’ on a convict ship was described as ‘biscuits’, with a ‘soft bread’ procured when in a port. [3]


From Rules and Regulations to be observed on Board the Lord Sidmouth Convict Ship, departing September 1822 for passage to Van Diemen’s land and New South Wales, which was displayed in the ship’s prison:

[Rule 2.] Any woman who shall be guilty of swearing or any expression of an indecent or immoral tendency (shall) be punished by solitary confinement and put on a bread and water ’till she shall appear to have mended her conduct.

[Rule 5.] Any person found thieving from others shall be made a severe example of by putting them in solitary confinement on Bread and water and stopping all indulgence untill evident signs of Reform take place.


In Van Diemen’s Land, the punishment of Bread and Water was prevalent during the assignment period of 1827 to 1841. More than 248 convicts were sentenced by the Magistrates to this punishment, many of them on multiple occasions. Bread and Water was also used extensively within the Cascades Female Factory as a punishment handed out by the Matron, Overseer or Superintendent. Some entries in the Female Factory Punishment Book refer to a punishment known as ‘brown rations’ - which was possibly the heavy, nutritionally-rich pollard or bran-laden brown bread, which was issued to miscreants 3 times a day for 2-3 days, usually for trifling misdemeanours.


At the 1841 Inquiry into Female Convict Discipline, the question was asked: 27: ‘Which of the punishments mentioned do they dread most?’ The answer was:  Solitary confinement on bread & water.[4] The horrors of solitary confinement were enhanced by the accompanying bread and water diet. Afterwards, the female convict would be removed to a different probationary yard within the Factory, returned to her assignment, or reassigned elsewhere. The intention of relocation was to remove them from bad habits or acquaintances.


The length of the punishment of Bread and Water, accompanied by solitary confinement or time in the cells, ranged from 2 days to 14 days. However, one of the early exceptions was Isabella Noble (Kangaroo 1814) who, on 11 December 1817, was convicted of stealing a quantity of wearing apparel, as reported in The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter:

On Thursday, Isabella Thomas, a prisoner, was charged with privately stealing out of the dwelling house of Mr. DAVIS in Liverpool-street a quantity of wearing apparel, on Tuesday night last. She was sentenced 12 months' imprisonment in the county gaol; the first three months to be kept in a solitary cell fed on bread and water alone, and the remaining nine months to hard labor with the rest of the female prisoners. This abandoned character, who came from Port Dalrymple, had only been liberated a few days ago from a sentence of 2 years' confinement, by the humanity of His HONOR the LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR.[5]

Susanna Wilson (Elizabeth Henrietta and Maria, 1818) endured 4 stints on Bread and Water. The first, in 1820, was combined with solitary confinement, her crime being neglect of duty and disobedience of her master’s orders.


Between 1821 and 1826 there were very few cases receiving bread and water punishments, but it appears that between these years a standard for this diet punishment was set for 7 up to a maximum of 14 days.  This maximum was defined in an Act in August 1826:

An Act has been promulgated in the Government gazette of last week, by His Excellency lieutenant Governor Arthur, for the summary punishment of disorderly conduct in female prisoners in this Colony.

1st, That it shall be lawful for any Justice of the Peace within this Colony, to take cognizance in a summary way of any complaint made before him against any female prisoner, whether in the service of Government or of any Inhabitant of this Colony ; and upon conviction to punish such female offender, either by solitary confinement on bread and water, in any place appointed for safe custody, for a term not exceeding 14 days, or by confinement and hard labour in such place not exceeding three calendar months, according to the nature and degree of the misbehaviour or disorderly conduct.[6]

The Act was to remain in place for 2 years[7] but for most sentences after this date the 14-day maximum limit still applied. However, there were exceptions. From 1829 to 1838 there were 22 female convicts who received sentences of 21 days or more in the cells or solitary confinement. Some examples are: 


- Elizabeth Ellerbeck of the Mary Anne received the sentence of ‘Cell on Bread and Water 28 days’ for being absent without leave in 1820.

- Catherine Lindsay had six spells on Bread and Water. Two of these, in 1836 and 1837, were in conjunction with 21 days’ solitary confinement.

- Mary Fearns, per Edward, received 7 sentences in the cells or in solitary confinement between 1834 and 1841, all of them on bread and water. These sentences ranged between 10 and 28 days.

- Harriet Matthews of the Edward must surely have set a record for her 23 sentences of bread and water in solitary confinement and the cells. One of these was for 21 days.


The amount of bread ration provided to female convicts on a bread and water punishment diet has not been recorded. However, male convicts in solitary confinement on a bread and water punishment diet received a daily ration of ‘1-1/2 lb bread and as much water as he liked’. [8]  This male punishment diet is ¼ lb more than the regular daily diet for female convicts outlined by the House of Correction and printed by The Tasmanian Weekly News in 1829:

The diet of the several classes shall be as follows:

Breakfast 1/2lb bread and a pint of gruel.

Dinner 1/2 lb. bread and a pint of soup.

Supper ¼ lb. bread and pint of soup.

The soup to be made in the proportion of 25 lbs. of meat to every 100 quarts of soup, and to be thickened with vegetables and peas, or barley, as may be most convenient.

Ox or sheep heads may be used advantageously for making the soup.[9]


The Hobart Town Courier Sat 7 Nov 1829 p.1 advertised specifications for the supply of bread:

The Bread for the Troops, Hospital, and Female Orphan School to be made of wheaten flour, from which 20 per cent, has been extracted ; and that for the Male and Female Prisoners, in and out of Barracks, the Gaol, &c  &c, from which [18] per cent. has been extracted as bran or pollard and the flour for the Troops at the Out-stations to have 20 per cent, of bran or pollard extracted.




[3] Bateson, C. The Convict Ships: 1787-1868, p.67, p.111.


[5] The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter, Saturday 13 December 1817 p 2

[6] Colonial Times and Tasmanian Advertiser  Friday 11 August 1826 p 2

[7] Colonial Times and Tasmanian Advertiser, Friday 11 August 1826 p 2

[8] Tasmanian Weekly News, Saturday 3 April 1858 p 8

[9] The Hobart Town Courier, Saturday 10 October 1829 p 4



By E. Crawford (Sept. 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].