‘Wash tub’ was a secondary punishment handed down by Magistrates, and was the only punishment specifically nominated as hard labour for female convicts in Van Diemen’s Land (VDL). This sentence was mostly a stand-alone punishment for female convicts, although it was sometimes accompanied with other punishments, including sleeping in a solitary cell at night and assignment to the interior. The colonial crimes that would result in a sentence of ‘wash tub’ included absconding, drunkenness, absent without leave, neglect of duty, insolence and disobedience.


Wash Tub was mainly confined to the Assignment Period of 1832 to 1844; approximately 1475 sentences at the wash tub were recorded in conduct records. After 1844 there were very few wash tub sentences recorded in the conduct records, but since several Female Factories were operating commercial laundries the women would still have been labouring at the wash tub even if not specifically sentenced to do so.  The punishment of 'wash tub' was also regularly handed out by the superintendent or other staff at the Female Factories for disobedience or disorderly conduct within the establishment, as seen in the 1851-1854 Cascades Female Factory Punishment Book.


The Cascades Female Factory was opened in 1829. Before this time there were two reports of the Wash Tub punishment being handed out. The first was in 1817 when Catherine Wells (per Kangaroo 1816) was convicted of receiving stolen property and imprisoned; she was to wash for the Gaol Gang and to be confined in the gaol at nights.  The second was Jane Davis, a Native of Norfolk Island, who arrived free in VDL around 1824.  She and her husband were convicted of stealing sheep at Broadmarsh, and tried in Hobart in June 1824, both receiving 14 years’ transportation.  In 1826 she would have been one of the few female convicts to be assigned to Macquarie Harbour, where, on 20 May 1826, she was sentenced to wash 40 prisoner’s shirts weekly, a punishment for disobedience of orders and sending an improper message to the Assistant Surgeon.


At the Cascades Female Factory, washing was carried out for the colonial hospital, military hospital, military barracks, ordinance store, orphan schools, penitentiary and mental asylum, in addition to the Factory itself. The washing included all manner of clothes, bedding and towels.[1][2] The superintendent of the factory also stated that ‘it was impossible to maintain complete cleanliness given that bedding from prison ships, which were ‘generally covered with vermin’, were washed in the Factory by the women’.[3]


The Factory had a dedicated ‘light and airy’ wash house yard (Yard 2), which was opened in 1832.[4][5]  Extensive wash house sheds ran along the outer walls of the yard, and the centre was an open space for washing lines.[6] Although it is not known what laundry facilities were utilized throughout the early years of the female factories, washing machines and mangles were regularly advertised for sale in the local papers as early as 1823.[7]  Coppers for heating water would have been available.  Over time, appliances must have been introduced  as  a detailed description of the Cascades Wash House, (see below), indicates that by 1872, all these appliances were available at the premises of the Cascades Female House of Correction and Gaol, where inmates also washed for the attached pauper establishment for males and females and the reformatory for boys, and the public. Soap was a luxury item and was rationed to female convicts for personal hygiene, but for large-scale laundry purposes, a mixture of animal fat, ash and lye was used in the early 19th century. [8]


Female Prisoners in Brixton prison wash house


Wash-house at the Brixton Prison (1862). From J. Binney and H. Mayhew The Criminal Prisons of London


The specified time for sentences at the wash tub ranged between 6 days[*] to 6 months, with exceptions where women were awaiting further orders.  Between 1836 and 1839, there were several instances of excessive or undefined periods at the wash tub:

- Eleanor Brown (per America 1831), in 1831 for not doing her work in a proper manner and when spoken to on the subject being insolent:

It appearing to the P.S. [Principal Superintendent of Convicts] that this Female does not do her work sufficiently she is to be kept at hard labor at the Wash Tub in the House of Correction until such time the P.S. thinks her sufficiently improved in her conduct to return to her Service.[9]

- Mary Ann Little (per Arab 1836), for refusing to return to her Masters service in 1837: ‘the 2 years addition to her existing sentence to be passed at the Wash Tub’.[10]

- Mary Williams (3) (per America 1831) in 1836 was sentenced to nine months hard labor at the Wash Tub and to have her head shaved for the ‘grossest insolence and disobedience of orders’. Williams had previously served 3 months at the wash tub in 1832, and another month in 1835.

- Mary Price (per Borneo 1828), who had gathered a total of 29 offences, was sentenced to 18 months hard labor at the Wash Tub at the Female House of Correction Launceston, for absconding in 1839.

- Ann Murrell (per America 1831) for being absent without leave, was sentenced to 2 months at the wash tub. In 1836, for the same offence, she was reprimanded “but having refused to go back to her service, was placed at the Wash Tub until she chooses to go back and to sleep in a solitary cell at night.”


Whilst work at the wash tub would have been physically demanding, it was derided as a punishment in the opinion piece appearing in the Colonial Times 18 February 1840:


The system, with regard to the management of Female Prisoners, is decidedly and most radically wrong; they are subjected to no punishment, they are exposed to no, or at least but too few, hardships- The wash tub affords an opportunity for the merry laugh, the song and the joke, and this punishment is laughed at, absolutely laughed at.[11]


This was backed up by a statement by Mary Kirk in the 1841 Enquiry into Convict Discipline: ‘The cells are considered as punishment but the wash tub is not, the well-disposed women prefer being there to the crime class yard. Mrs Pearson generally selects the best disposed women & young girls for the wash tub. I think the wash tub is unpleasant work though I think by working hard they might do their days work in 6 or 7 hours’.[12]  Women set to task work were required to work for a fixed number of hours per day: ten in summer, reducing to seven and a quarter in winter with intermediate hours in spring and autumn.


In 1852, Emma Minton (Garland Grove 1843) was mentioned in the Punishment Book as being punished by the Warder, Miss Wigmore, for talking at the washing tub, requiring her to wear the punishment dress for 10 days, indicating that behaviour at the wash-tub was regulated - at times.[13]


'The washing for the hospital and the King's Orphan Schools the latter only recently established –was all done in the ' House,' and the premises appropriated to the latter occupation were rather extensive. Still the work in which they were employed was not laborious, and there were several hours in the summer days in which the women wandered listlessly about the yards.'

Backwards Glances by G.Pullen. [14]


(George Pullen, nephew of Jesse Pullen, an assistant superintendent in about 1829)


By 1839 the Launceston Female Factory was also operating a commercial laundry, albeit on a much smaller scale to the Cascades Female Factory. From January 1844, the Factories were advertising to take in washing from private individuals. If there were insufficient women sentenced specifically to the wash tub, their numbers were supplemented from those women serving the longest sentences.[15] The number of women sentenced to the Wash Tub was reported in the ‘State of the Factories’, printed weekly in the Hobart Town Gazette.  Records commenced for the Cascades Female Factory in September 1833, with 22 women, and in Launceston in February 1839, with 10 women. While the numbers at Launceston remained reasonably constant over the next 5 years, the maximum reached in Hobart was in the week ending 27th February 1844, when 138 women were sentenced to the wash tub.[16]


By June 1844, sentences at the wash tub were no longer included in the Gazette’s ‘State of the Factories’.  However, commercial laundry services continued, and would have been operated by women punished with hard labour by the courts or ‘in-house’ punishment within the relevant factories. It also appears that washing was still being undertaken at the Female House of Correction well after transportation had ceased, as per The Cornwall Chronicle, Monday 30 May 1870:

A man named James McKay, under sentence in the Male House of Correction, was one of a party who took up the week's washing from the Female House of Correction to the General Hospital, in a cart on Saturday. When returning through Bathurst-Street, McKay fell down opposite the Hibernia Inn, and was conveyed into the House of Correction, where he soon after expired.[17]


A detailed description of the washing facilities at the Cascades House of Correction and Gaol was printed in The Mercury, Monday 30 December 1872 - Page 2:

There are sheds under which the women wash, and there are washing and wringing machines, and in fact all the appliances for getting the work done well and expeditiously. There is a small room in which are the coppers where the water is heated, and from this place there is a pipe to supply the female paupers department. At the back of the yard, where the washing is done, there is a drying yard, and in the event of the weather rendering out-door drying impossible, there is a room in which the clothes are dried by heating the atmosphere with steam pipes,. A great deal of private washing is done at the female House of Correction, and it is all kept separate from that done for the Government establishments. Several women are at work in the laundry in which the private washing is "got up," and it is turned out well and at a moderate charge. The prison cart calls for the clothes at the different houses every Monday, and the washing is returned on Saturday.



[*] Sarah Hutson (per Edward 1834) for leaving her service on the pretence of getting married – wash tub 6 days. (CON40).



[1] RULES AND REGULATIONS. The Hobart Town Courier, Saturday 10 October 1829 p 4

[2] https://femaleconvicts.org.au/docs/disciplineinquiry/TranscriptofInquirywithtables.pdf p.25

[3] AOT CSO 1/895/19025, Letter from John Hutchinson to the Colonial Secretary, 22 December 1836, in Kippen R. The convict nursery at the Cascades Female Factory, Hobart, https://researchmgt.monash.edu/ws/portalfiles/portal/9389250/2009_Kippen_convictnursery.pdf accessed 2/05/2020.

[4] Coroner's Inquest. INSPECTION OF THE FEMALE FACTORY. Colonial Times (Hobart, Tas. : 1828 - 1857) Tuesday 3 April 1838 p 6

[5] https://femaleconvicts.org.au/docs/disciplineinquiry/TranscriptofInquirywithtables.pdf p.25

[6] Nash, M. 2016, Convict Places: A guide to Tasmanian Sites. P.65

[7] Hobart Town Gazette and Van Diemen's Land Advertiser  Sat 22 Mar 1823  p 2 

[8] http://www.oldandinteresting.com/history-of-washing-clothes.aspx

[9] https://stors.tas.gov.au/CON40-1-1$init=CON40-1-1p164

[10] TA CON40

[11] Female Servants. Colonial Times, Tuesday 18 February 1840 p 4

[12] https://femaleconvicts.org.au/docs/disciplineinquiry/TranscriptofInquirywithtables.pdf p.98-99

[13] TA Con13 p.196.

[14] BACKWARD GLANCES. No. 3.  Launceston Examiner, Saturday 19 November 1892 p 2

[15] https://femaleconvicts.org.au/docs/disciplineinquiry/TranscriptofInquirywithtables.pdf p.94

[16] https://www.femaleconvicts.org.au/convict-institutions/female-factories/state-of-factories

[17] The Cornwall Chronicle, Monday 30 May 1870 p 2




Further Reading:


James Parker: To The Tubs: The laundry as female punishment  FCRC Seminar Autumn 2012

Old and Interesting: History of laundry after 1800


 By E. Crawford (Jan. 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].