Hard Labour was perhaps the most common of the punishments handed down by the Magistrates and the Supreme Court to female convicts, comprising up to one-third of all punishments. The women were returned to a Female Factory or House of Correction to serve out the sentence, which was commonly between one to six months in length, although instances ranging between 24 hours and 6 years have been recorded.


Authorities had been placed in an awkward position of determining a suitable punishment for female convicts on an appropriate level with the harsh hard labour punishments handed out to male convicts, such as  treadmills (also used for male and female prisoner hard labour in some British prisons), and the road or chain gang, yet acceptable for public critique. An Act promulgated in 1826 codified the summary punishment of misbehaving female convicts, including the sentence of Hard Labour. This was reported in the Colonial Times:

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. After reciting that in an Act of Sir Thomas Brisbane, passed in the sixth year of his present Majesty, provision was made for the summary punishment of male convicts, but that no provision was thereby made for punishing the misbehaviour of females. It enacts :-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.[1]


The exact work required of female convicts with a sentence of Hard Labour was usually not specified by the magistrates and tasks would have been allocated at the discretion of the superintendents or overseers of the Female Factories or Houses of Correction.[*] In cases where magistrates did specify a hard labour punishment it was usually hard labour at the wash tub. Hard Labour was usually accompanied by other punishments including suspension of ticket-of-leave, wearing of an iron collar, imprisonment in crime class, solitary or separate working cells, removal to the interior (country) or forfeit of wages.



Mary Jones (2),(per Sir Robert Steppings ) Must surely hold the record for the punishment of hard labour.  Mary was a 54 year-old widow when she arrived in Van Diemen's Land in 1852.  Between 1852 and 1878 Mary was punished 52 times by the magistrates, 43 of these was at hard labour, accumulating to 135 months (11.25 years) and six days.  While Mary's crimes started out to be wide-ranging, ironically, her main crime for the last 14 years appears to be 'idle and disorderley'.  Mary died three years after her last crime, in 1881 - she would have been 83 years old!  




Within the Female Factories and Houses of Correction the women were allocated to solitary confinement cells or to a particular yard, and the work they did depended on the tasks that could be completed in those areas. The wash tub yard was used for heavy duty washing for institutions such as the hospitals, military barracks and orphan school. For those in solitary confinement, plain needlework or picking oakum were regular tasks.  Picking oakum involved working with old tarred and oiled ropes, which were cut into two foot lengths, beaten with a mallet to remove the tar[2]  and then unravelled and shredded into fibres.  In the police reports for 10 February 1849:

Jane Willis, overcome with alcohol on her master's premises yesterday evening at the early hour of [8] o'clock, three months hard labour in the female house of correction, where she will have to pick oakum, preparatory to an inland tour up the country.[3].

Picking oakum was not a pleasant task and it was shared by male and female prisoners and people in workhouses as a way to pay for their lodgings. Picking oakum was, at times, considered hard labour (even for males) and in other accounts was considered light labour.[4] [5] [6] The Government would sell the oakum, which would be re-used as caulking to fill in the gaps between the wooden planks of ships to make them watertight.[7] [8]


All the women, whether awaiting assignment or serving a term of punishment, usually had a quota and/or standard of task work to complete and if this was not done the Female Factory Punishment Book records that they were punished with a range of measures including the wash tub, bread and water or solitary confinement. 



Mr Elliston: Women sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour at the Cascades are employed at the wash-tub. While in separate treatment they do needlework. All women received are subject to a certain portion of separate treatment in cells. The needle-work is government work, No embroidery, crochet, or fancy work is done by those in separate treatment Fine work is done for families. Many women are incapable of using their needle; they are employed at picking oakum and hair. The charge for fine work is according to the description of article; gentlemen's plain shirts are charged 3s, fancy ditto up to 5s. Those regulations are published; there is a scale of charges in .the office. Very many private individuals avail themselves of this regulation The clerk, Mr. Atkins, receives the money. He pays it to the Superintendent When the women are discharged from separate treatment they go to the wash-tub. That is considered hard. labour.[9] [†]       

With regard to the means for placing Females to labor in the Crime Class Yard; measures for this there are really none, the only employment is carding and spinning, which for want of room can be performed but by few, and so far from being a punishment it appears to be rather a mere pastime, for small is the number of those who are not soon tired of total idleness and at such work they can exert themselves as much or as little as they please. The 1841-1843 Enquiry into Female Convict Conduct p. 126.





The 1841-1843 Enquiry into Female Convict Conduct examined the punishment regime at the Female Factory: 

Q.9. Under what circumstances are these women placed under your charge?  With the exception of five [sic] they are sent in under magisterial sentences & those of the Supreme Court.

Q.10. How are they employed in the establishment & to what punishment are they subjected?  In picking, carding & spinning wool, oakum & horse hair; washing for the colonial hospital, military hospital, and military barracks, the ordinance store, & the orphan school: - their punishments are solitary confinement in cells with work or in dark cells with bread & water, & confinement in the crime class and probationary yards.

Q.11. What do you mean by the crime class & probationary yard?  It is the yard into which all women under a general sentence to hard labour are received.

Q.104. When a convict woman is sent in under punishment what is done with her? She is received in the same way, searched and dressed and sent to her proper place according to the warrant, viz, the cells, the wash-house or the third yard – if the sentence be generally to hard labour for three months she is sent to the second yard, if for more than three months to the third yard.

Q.105. What is the labour performed in the second yard?  Picking, carding and spinning.

Q.106. Do you consider that more severe than the labour of the first yard?  Yes, it is more severe– carding is hard work so is spinning – picking is light work – they take generally turn about of the different kinds of work. [10]



Although the Act specified that the punishment of Hard Labour was not to exceed three months, in practise, however, it was regularly extended:

The punishment of Mary Pendle for stealing in a dwelling house, was necessarily different from that of the others guilty of a like offence, owing to the difficulty at present existing in the Colony of finding punishments suited to female offenders. She was sentenced to Six months’ imprisonment and hard labour, and his Honor added, that he really hoped the labour she would undergo would be hard.[11]


The longest recorded sentence of Hard Labour was that of Judy Collins (per Australasia) in 1862, for stealing £16. The Supreme Court sentenced her to 6 years’ penal servitude. Under the Penal Servitude Act of 1857, penal servitude replaced transportation and included hard labour for repeat offenders.[12]

Another female convict serving a long sentence of hard labour was Isabella Thompson (ship unknown) who was sentenced in 1863 to 3 years’ imprisonment with hard labour at Launceston House of Correction for house breaking.


Spinning Jenny

Between 1834 and 1840, newspapers regularly published reports of women (mostly free) who were sentenced to spend time at the Cascades House of Correction on the spinning jenny.  The spinning jenny was a multi-spindle spinning frame and was one of the key developments in the industrialization of weaving during the early Industrial Revolution.[13]


Conduct records do not mention the spinning jennies as a specific punishment, but spinning generally was task work allocated to women within the House of Correction, and was considered hard work, as mentioned above. However,  as mentioned in the following newspaper articles, in some cases it was not perceived as a worthy punishment:

- January 28, 1834: ‘Margaret Mason, having paid so many recent visits at this office, was ordered three months to the Cascade spinning jenny, for the benefit of her health.’[14]

- October 3, 1834, ‘Elizabeth Humphries, Jane Welsh, MaryAnn Norman, Sarah Smith, John Elliot, and Elizabeth Knight—such of those persons as could not pay five shillings for drunkenness, each defaulter received an extra dose – the ladies to the Spinning Jenny, and the gentlemen, to the Stock Exchange.’[15]

- February 3, 1835: Ann Dutton, a free woman living with Mr. Rowlands; who has continually set all laws at defiance, to convince her that though free, she was subject to restrictions as well as her neighbours, she was ordered seven days at the Cascade spinning jenny for misbehaviour in her service and absconding. [16] Catherine Rooke was fined 5s. for drunkenness, and 5s. for using her clapper too indecently and freely, and in default of payment, was ordered to the spinning jenny for a month.[17]

- May 5, 1835: James Humphries, Elizabeth Simpson, and Ann Neale, were all convicted of drunkenness, and fined 5s. each. The ladies had no loose change, money nor friends, and, having made so many visits at this office, in default of payment, they were ordered to a little Spinning Jenny work, at the Cascade, for fourteen days each.-[These are free women, sent to the Female Convict Factory. This is prison discipline, for which the free Colonists pay one hundred thousand pounds a year !-ED.][18]

- June 7, 1836: Mary Norman was ordered to retire to the Cascade nunnery, to enjoy the amusement of the spinning jenny for three months; to keep her from bad company.[19]

- February 6, 1838: James Morrow, John Sykes. James Revell, Henry Warner, Elizabeth O'Neil, William Carter, Hugh Green, Margaret Mason, Ann Newell, Richard Lears, Charles Hinton, John Petquin, George Paul, John Burns, Ransom Reynolds, Peter Grant, John Leunan, James Wilson, John, Kermode, and Thomas Randall,a tolerable specimen of sober morals, for nearly all pleaded guilty to drunkenness, and made many excuses. Some six or seven having no funds, the males were ordered to grace the stocks, and the females to amuse themselves with the spinning jenny at the Factory.[20]   

- February 7, 1840: Several ladies of distinction, notorious for their rambling propensities at unseasonable hours in the public streets, were now provided with board and lodging according to the provisions of the Police Act, namely, wash-tub, spinning-jenny, and other such like amusements at the house of correction.[21]


[*] Women allocated to the crime class and probationary yards in the Female Factories and Houses of Correction were mainly employed in task work that included needlework; knitting; wool-picking, carding, spinning and weaving; cleaning the dormitory and hospital; cleaning the yards; work in the cookhouse; duty in the hospital yard and at Brickfields, New Town Farm, the Watch houses.

[†]  https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/docs/disciplineinquiry/TranscriptofInquirywithtables.pdf


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

[2] https://historyhouse.co.uk/articles/junk_and_oakum.html accessed 1/03/2020

[3] Hobarton Guardian, or, True Friend of Tasmania, Saturday 10 February 1849 p 3

[4] Colonial Times (Hobart, Tas. : 1828 - 1857) Friday 19 April 1850 p 4

[5] The Mercury, Thursday 19 June 1862 p 2

[6] https://historyhouse.co.uk/articles/junk_and_oakum.html accessed 1/03/2020

[7] The Mercury, Thursday 19 September 1861 p 4

[8] https://historyhouse.co.uk/articles/junk_and_oakum.html

[9] The Courier, Monday 24 December 1855 p 2

[10] https://femaleconvicts.org.au/docs/disciplineinquiry/TranscriptofInquirywithtables.pdf p.37

[11] Criminal Court, Hobart Town, December 30,1826, Hobart Town Gazette, Saturday 6 January 1827 p 4

[12] https://blog.digitalpanopticon.org/tag/penal-servitude/

[13] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spinning_jenny

[14] Colonial Times, Tuesday 28 January 1834 p 7

[15] Trumpeter General, Friday 3 October 1834 p 2

[16] Morning Star and Commercial Advertiser, Tuesday 3 February 1835 p 2

[17] Colonial Times, Tuesday 3 February 1835 p 8

[18] Colonial Times, Tuesday 5 May 1835 p 7                                                                 

[19] Colonial Times, Tuesday 7 June 1836 p 8

[20] Colonial Times, Tuesday 6 February 1838 p 7

[21] Tasmanian Weekly Dispatch, Friday 7 February 1840 p 6


Further Resources:

Picking Oakum: https://historyhouse.co.uk/articles/junk_and_oakum.html



By E. Crawford (Oct. 2021)



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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].