Female convicts sentenced to Solitary Confinement were imprisoned and isolated in small, single cells where outside contact, comfort, exercise, diet and even light were closely controlled. In its harshest form this punishment was one of sensory deprivation in dark, cramped and sometimes suffocating cells.


Solitary confinement was a secondary punishment that enhanced the privations of a punishment such as imprisonment. Sentences of solitary confinement were handed down by visiting magistrates or, in cases where women were already detained in female factories, by resident Superintendents. The women could be confined in any gaol cell, purpose-built solitary cell or secure, isolated building.


Historically there has been some confusion as to whether “Separate Treatment” and “Solitary Confinement” were the same entity. The News, Saturday 17 October 1925 -  explains that “Separate Treatment” and “Solitary Confinement” were interchangeable terms at the women’s prison, carried out in the Separate Apartments [1]  The confusion continues when The Colonial Times 9 October 1856 mentions a women who was placed in a light cell under separate treatment, which is convict-department language for solitary confinement’, while 2 days later the same newspaper describes ‘solitary confinement, which is Convict Department language for something worse than separate treatment’.[2]  Perhaps the best understanding of the difference comes from The Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 31 July 1841 when, in printing the New Probation Regulations for men, explains: ‘The Third Class will be subjected to the separate system of confinement; but care must be taken not to confound it with solitary confinement in cells’.[3]  The confusion may have arisen because cells were inconsistently named as ‘solitary apartments’, ‘separate apartments’, ‘solitary working cells’ or ‘separate working cells’. Separate Treatment was a psychological process based on reflection and reformation, carried out in individual cells over an extended period of time (usually several months). Solitary confinement, in comparison, was a stricter short-term punishment perceived as the ultimate form of sensory deprivation and isolation punishment. In many instances solitary confinement sentences were paired with a strictly supervised bread and water diet or with hard labour.  


It is difficult to establish how widespread the use of the solitary confinement punishment was for women in Van Diemen’s Land (VDL);  its interpretation often varied depending on the magistrate, reporting procedures, or the overseer in charge of supervising the punishment. Under the 1826 Act for the Summary Punishment of Disorderly Conduct in Female Offenders the maximum number of days a prisoner could spend in solitary confinement at one stretch was fourteen, however records have been found where this regulation was exceeded. There are also some reports that the sentence was used to excess in contravention of rules and regulations.[4]  In August 1835, a Consolidation Act determined that any offender could be kept to hard labour in the day time and under solitary confinement at night only on the authority of the Lieutenant Governor.

[5] Several women at the Female House of Correction were punished with ‘Hard labour in the Separate working Cells’, also known as solitary working cells.

Whether the punishment was solitary confinement, solitary confinement on bread and water, or hard labour in the separate working cells, the purpose and outcome remained the same for the convict women; punitive and harsh, short-term imprisonment.  It could be carried out in any confined gaol cell, purpose-built solitary cells, or locked in a remote hut, as described in a report from 1820 which mentions female Prisoners at George Town being ‘put into solitary confinement in a hut near the Barracks’.[6] [†] 



In July 1836, at the Hobart Quarter Sessions, Elizabeth Tod (Lady of the Lake 1829) was  [re] transported for 14 years with the first 6 months to be spent in solitary confinement. Her crime was feloniously stealing 1 Promissory Note of the Derwent Bank, value £20, and other monies of the value of £230, property of Ann Bridger. (Source: CON40). 



Jane Wheeler (per Catherine and Kangaroo) was the first recorded female convict to receive a sentence of solitary confinement in VDL. For leaving Hobart Town without a pass in 1814, she was sentenced to be kept in solitary confinement for 14 days on bread and water. The sentence was carried out in the Hobart Town Gaol which, at that time, was the only location available for solitary confinement – the Cascades Female Factory was not opened until 1828. 


Types of Solitary Confinement Cells:

Depending on the severity of the charges, the behaviour of the convict and their geographical location, solitary confinement sentences were served in either ‘light’ or ‘dark’ cells.


The light cells, or solitary working cells, allowed light in above the door so that prisoners could undertake some form of task work whilst in confinement, such as needlework, or picking wool or oakum (horse-hair and coir rope).[7] The dark solitary cells would admit no light at all and incarceration in these cells would normally include the additional punishment of a bread and water diet.[8] 


Although a solitary confinement sentence was regularly handed down by VDL magistrates, they did not specify what type of cell was to be employed.  This was left to the discretion of the relevant female factory superintendents or gaol administrators. In comparison in NSW in 1835, confinement for female convicts in a dark cell for refusing to work was an accepted practice[9] with Parramatta having purpose-built cells specifically to accommodate this punishment.[10]   By 1839 the dark cells, at least in NSW, garnered a lot of media attention; an enquiry by the NSW Secretary of State determined that in general convicts did not consider it as any additional severity to be placed in dark cells; some of them said they could sleep better, and enjoy more rest, than they could in the light ones, and that they were also much warmer on account of their smaller size; he found that it was almost a general rule with them to prefer the larger light cells in summer, and the small dark ones in winter; there was, therefore, no great difference in the punishment.[11]  In 1839, the government of NSW took a significanly different approach to VDL when it introduced An Act[12]  that included the replacement of the punishment of Transportation with imprisonment, labour, and solitary confinement for specified periods, at the discretion of the Justices, in dark cells.  The Act only lasted two years before it was repealed in 1841- to abolish references to ‘dark’ cells.[13] 


The dark cells at Cascades were described in detail after they were inspected by the jury at the coroner’s inquest in March 1838, of Barbara Henning (per Atwick January 1838),[14]  (see extract below). After the coroner’s inquest the severe punishment of solitary confinement in a dark cell, on a bread and water diet, had become publicly pugnacious and unacceptable. The resulting media attention was possibly the catalyst for the Governor of VDL, abandoning the dark cells at Cascades Female Factory the following month.  Separate Treatment would eventually provide an alternate, yet also controversial, punishment. Its benefits were explained in the Launceston Examiner in 1845 by Mr F.M. Innes, a regular newspaper contributor,  anti-transportationist and eventual politician[15]. [Refer to Punishments: Separate Treatment]


Solitary Confinement at the Cascades Female Factory

The superintendent at the Cascades Female Factory was empowered under the 1826 Act for the Summary Punishment of disorderly Conduct in Female Offenders, to control misbehaviour and disorderly conduct with moderate punishment, which could include ‘solitary confinement on bread and water, in any place appointed for safe custody, for any term not exceeding Fourteen days’. This ability was further enforced in the 1829 Rules and Regulations,[‡] with the duration of the punishment reviewed again in 1839.


The 12 solitary cells installed at the Cascades Female Factory were located in Yard 3 (Crime class) and were criticised as being ’… so constructed, that the inmates can converse not only the one with the other but also with the prisoners in the respective yards’.[16] To deter this, a range of punishments were introduced for convicts in solitary confinement who attempted to communicate with others: these included admonishments, 2-3 days on bread and water or up to 3 days’ extension to their solitary confinement sentence.[17] Besides imposing extensions to the allowable time in solitary confinement the Superintendent could also apply a fresh sentence.


In 1851, the Factory Overseer punished Jane Whitton to 14 days in separate treatment for talking while under punishment in solitary confinement.[18] 



The type of cell ('dark or other cell') in which a solitary confinement sentence was served appears to have been left to the discretion of the Superintendent, as outlined in the 1829 Rules and Regulations:

Females guilty of disobedience of orders, neglect of work, profane, obscene, or abusive language, insubordination, or other turbulent or disorderly, or disrespectful conduct, shall be punished by the Superintendent with close confinement in a dark or other cell, until her case shall be brought under the consideration of the Principal Superintendent.


In addition to the light and dark solitary cells, the Cascades Female Factory also had an extreme version of a dark cell, referred to as the ‘black-hole’, a term usually referring to a suffocating, dark prison cell, underground dungeon, or the coal hole on a transport ship.  Little is known about the ‘black hole’ at the Cascades Female Factory and only fragments of references to it remain. The only occasion that the black-hole was referred to in the Punishment Book of 1851-1855, kept by the Superintendent at the Cascades Female Factory, was for Margaret Haines (per St. Vincent) who was detained for 48 hours in the ‘black hole’ for disorderly conduct in 1852.[19] While the existence of the black-hole cell was scarcely mentioned to the outside world, it was discussed in the 1841 Enquiry into Female Convict Discipline, and again in The Tasmanian Tribune 1874.[§] 

…and went into a diabolical contrivance in the shape of a triple-door cell, which was used "in the infinite azure" for the purpose of making maniacs of refractory females. Without inquiry, we were solemnly assured by Miss Galt (the matron) and Miss Proctor, who has the control of the quarter in which the black-hole is situated, that it had not been used for years. [20]


Conditions in the dark cells at Cascades were publicised after the cells were inspected by the jury of the Coroner’s Inquest into the death of Barbara Henning (per Atwick) in March 1838.[23]  The jury condemned the conditions suffered by the women in the dark cells and also the inadequate amount of food provided on a bread and water diet. The resulting media attention was possibly the catalyst for the Governor of VDL, Sir John Franklin, abandoning the dark cells at Cascades Female Factory the following month:



Colonial Times, Tuesday 3 April 1838 - Page 6


The dark or solitary cells, next to the nursery, excited the greatest reprobation. They are, indeed, most frightful dungeons, such as we read of as appertaining only to the Spanish Inquisition. At the end of a narrow yard, you enter a passage, about four feet wide, and into this passage the cells open. When the outer door is closed, the passage is quite dark, as of course are the cells, into which no breath of pure air can by possibility find entrance. On the door of the first cell being opened, the stench was so great, as to make the gentlemen immediately near it, retreat into the open air ; in this, reclining on what was intended for a bed, at the further end, was a woman, one Margaret Fulford, who had been confined for five days and nights, for refusing to wash more than she was able. She complained of being ill and weak, but when Dr. Learmonth had seen her, he reported that there was not much the matter with her. In these cells (in which persons cannot well stand upright) the food is 1 lb of bread daily, with water, ad libitum ; each cell contains two tubs,-one, for nameless purposes, and the other for water ; and on asking how the in mates could distinguish the one from the other, we were informed, they must feel for them ! The only air that is ever admitted into these horrid receptacles, is once in twenty-four hours, when the cell is opened to be cleaned out ; the pound of bread is then given, the water tub replenished, and the door closed till the same hour the next day. It is frightful to contemplate the cruelty of which these cells are the instrument,-especially, when it is considered, that the fist of a single magistrate, can consign a female prisoner to them. We learnt, that the country magistrates, are far more severe in ordering the cell-punishment, than those in town ; because-(as it was presumed) they have never seen them, and are, therefore, ignorant of their horrid character. We were informed, also, that Colonel Arthur had inspected the cells, but that Sir John Franklin has only proceeded as far as the outer door of the passage, not venturing to explore the dark recesses of the interior…. Verdict-" We find that the deceased, Barbara Henning, died of diarrhoea and fever, produced by being confined in a crowded unwholesome place, without necessary air and exercise."



" The Jury further submit to His Excellency, that having been permitted to inspect the prison, (although the Coroner objected to their going into any evidence not immediately connected with the death of Barbara Hemming), they have respectfully to represent to His Excellency, the extraordinary offensive condition of the Dark Cells, in which the Jury found women closely confined upon bread and water, for periods of from seven days to one month.

"The Jury further submit to His Excellency, that the amount of food supplied to the women is extremely limited : in one of the working wards, the women receiving no food whatever from 12 o'clock in the day to 8 o'clock of the morning of the next day.

His Excellency [Sir John Franklin ] has, we believe, determined upon suffering it no longer to disgrace the British name and character by being the death inducing abode —of imprisoning within its damp and gloomy walls—cheerless by the blessed light and influence of the sun, the wretched women and children now entombed therein.

It is highly to the credit of Mr. Spode that he lost no time in redeeming his pledge to the jury to submit to His Excellency the necessity of at once abandoning those dreadful tombs, the dark cells, the horrors of which we but inadequately described in our last, in which WOMEN were all but buried alive- We have sincere pleasure in announcing that His Excellency instantly acceded to it.




Examples of the trifling nature of some of the ‘offences’ occasioning punishment in solitary confinement at Cascades include:

- In 1853, thirteen days’ Solitary Confinement was handed out by the Overseer of Weavers to Ann Girvan (per Sir Robert Steppings) for breaking a comb issued for her use.[21]

- Mary Savage (per Earl Grey 1850), was found to have a blanket in her possession while undergoing 3 days of solitary confinement in 1852 (for the offence of not answering the night watchman).  She was further punished with 24 hours on bread and water.[22] 

- In May 1853, as winter approached, Martha Thomas (per Aurora 1851) was put in solitary confinement for 48 hours for wearing 2 pairs of stockings.



Solitary confinement in other locations

Many unruly female convicts would have had their first experience of solitary confinement in the British gaols or on the convict transport ships en route to Van Diemen’s Land. The early ships originally used the coal-hole, or ‘black-hole’, to isolate troublesome convicts, not having anywhere else on board suitable for the task. By 1830, Surgeons’ journals mention a solitary confinement box being fitted on the ships. It was an upright wooden box, painted black, approximately 2 metres high, 0.5 metres wide and 0.75 metres deep.  Across the top of the door and around each side were three round air holes.  The surgeon superintendents on board the convict transport ships were very aware of the threats to a convict’s physical and mental health brought about by extended confinement in these boxes on a prolonged diet of bread and water. Research into lengths of incarceration indicate the same considerations do not appear to be present once they arrived in the colony.


Solitary confinement boxes were not just located on convict transport ships: in 1855, Frederick D’Arcy Watson, medical dispenser at Brickfields and the Cascades Female Factory, gave evidence to the Select Committee on the Convict Department acknowledging the use of solitary confinement boxes, or ‘sentry boxes’ as he referred to them. Although unclear from his report, Watson could have been referring to either Brickfields Hiring Depot or the Cascades Female Factory.[24]  His description of the boxes matches that of the convict transport ships’ solitary confinement boxes as recorded by the ships’ surgeon superintendents. (Refer to Ship's Punishments)



On 17 December 1855, a sitting of the Select Committee on the Convict Department, heard a statement from Frederick D’Arcy Watson:

I have seen the boxes in which the factory women are placed; they are something like sentry boxes.  They are so confined and narrow that it is impossible either to sit down or kneel in them.  I have known women to be frequently put into these boxes, and on one occasion I was called in to see a woman who had attempted to hang herself in one.  There are three holes in the front and on each side of the boxes to admit air.  The holes are an inch in diameter. This woman tried to make use of her apron as a rope, by passing it through the holes, and tying it round her neck.  When mothers were confined in these boxes, their children were taken to them to suckle.  I have heard of a woman being confined in a box till the pains of labour came on her, and also that she was confined before she could be taken to the hospital.  A woman named Catherine Toomey was on one occasion confined to my knowledge for seven or eight days in one of these boxes. [25]


Kim Shaw, A Troublesome Geography in Convict Lives: Female Convicts at the New Norfolk Asylum, Dianne Snowden and Jane Harrington (eds) p. 138.



SCB open SCB closed


Source: Collection: Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

S1994.367.1 Solitary confinement box , c1830  Wood and iron; wood and metal


The solitary confinement gaol cells in inland gaols (for example: Longford, Campbell Town, Oatlands, Richmond, New Norfolk) were used for the convenience of shorter sentences handed down by visiting Magistrates, or as a holding cell until a transfer could be arranged. The Independent newspaper, on the 4th February 1832, gives an insight into the conditions of solitary confinement for female prisoners in the recently completed Norfolk Plains gaol:


The magistrates then proceeded to visit the gaol lately built on the township. A general dissatisfaction was expressed at the total unfitness of the building for the purposes for which it was proposed, it consisting of only four cells, intended for the solitary confinement of offenders, with an intervening room, in which fourteen prisoners, with the gaoler, were accommodated, although the apartment was not by any means large enough for half that number of persons. The cells were inhabited by females, but which, being only separated from the room appropriated to the male prisoners by the doors are quite useless for all the purposes of solitary punishment-"—in fact, a constant communication must take place between the male and female prisoners; The only mode by which these cells are ventilated is, by an augur hole in the [ceiling] of about an inch in diameter ; and the want of air and sense of suffocation was such, that one of the magistrates (according' to our informant) compared these hells to the black hole of Calcutta!


Examples of the only remaining solitary confinement gaol cells used for female prisoners in VDL can be viewed at the Richmond Gaol.  The gaol has a total of 12 solitary cells in their original state, eight in the men’s wing and four that were incorporated within the women’s wing when the gaol was expanded in 1835. The cells measured 2.1m deep and 1.5m wide, were lined with timber plank and fitted with solid timber doors; the overall effect was box-like. They were also cold, damp and in total darkness, resulting in extreme physical and psychological discomfort for the inhabitants. 



Elizabeth McConchie

Frances Charlotte 1833

Fifteen-year old Elizabeth was tried in the Dumfries Court of Justiciary, Scotland, on the 10th April 1832.  She confessed to aggravated theft at her trial, was found guilty and transported to Van Diemen’s Land for seven years.

Elizabeth did not have a happy time in the colony.  She had eight masters in five years, and was charged and sentenced on multiple occasions; in total Elizabeth was sentenced to solitary confinement 7 times and the solitary working cells at hard labour for one month.

After just five years in the colony, Elizabeth died at the Richmond Gaol on 17th January 1838.  She would have been 21 years of age.  Elizabeth, at the time of her death was serving her seventh sentence of solitary confinement - 25 days in the Richmond Gaol’s solitary confinement cells for being absent without leave from her master, and gross disorderly conduct.  An Inquest (No. 171) was carried out and the panel of witnesses came to the conclusion that Elizabeth had died ‘by the visitation of God in Her Majesty’s Gaol at Richmond on the 17th day of January 1838’.





Mary Ann Furze, (per Princess Charlotte, 1820):  was sentenced to solitary confinement in the most remote place in Van Diemen’s Land – Sarah Island.


In 1821, for absconding into the woods and being absent from the service of her master Joseph Wright without a pass during several months, Mary Ann was ‘transported to such part of the Territory as His Honour the Lieutenant Governor may deem proper for the remainder of her sentence’. Mary Ann ended up at Macquarie Harbour, where she was punished for 3 more offences and sentenced to solitary confinement.  While the first sentence of solitary confinement does not mention the location, the next two sentences mention Sarah Island, where the gaol was described as "a miserable, small place, containing one room and three small cells." [26]

·      In May 1824, for disobeying orders at Macquarie Harbour, Mary Ann was punished by Solitary Confinement for 3 days and was to be fed on bread and water only.

·      On 31st Aug 1824, Mary Ann was sentenced to three days of solitary confinement on Sarah Island for neglect of duties.

·      On 9th September 1824 while still on Sarah Island, Mary Ann was punished with a further three days of solitary confinement on bread and water only. Her crime was neglect of duty and using threatening language to the Dispenser of Medicine and destroying the fresh water kept for Hospital use.  (Female convicts were housed on Grunnet Island, while the hospital where they were employed was stationed on Sarah Island: ‘The small island, [Grunnet Island] like the settlement [Sarah Island] has no water, which, as well as wood, was carried over [every] day’. Launceston Advertiser, Thursday 31 August 1843 - Page 4)





[†] HISTORICAL RECORDS OF AUSTRALIA, 1820. 21 April. Examination of J. Lenahan. Punishment of Spirits available Q. Is the evidence taken in writing? A. It is and on oath and a record is made of the evidence, sentence and Punishment. Q. What Punishment is awarded to female Prisoners at George Town? A. They are put into solitary confinement in a hut near the Barracks and, for very incorrigible women, an Iron collar is used as a badge of female convicts, HRA III Vol.3 p.410

[‡] In the Female Factory Rules and Regulations published in 1829, the Superintendent at the Cascades Female Factory was 'empowered to confine any Female in a solitary cell, for disobedience of orders, neglect of duty, or other improper conduct, for a period not exceeding 24 hours, but, he is to enter the full particulars of each case in his Journal, and to report the same to the Principal Superintendent, on his visiting the Establishment'. (Rules and Regulations 1829).

[§] Q. 120. What of the dark cells? It depends very much upon the time women have been in them: the old hands care very little about them. P.39



[1] IN THE BAD OLD DAYS OF A CENTURY AGO Story of the House of Correction GRIM HISTORY OF AN ANCIENT RUINT reatment of Women under “The System” The News, Saturday 17 October 1925 - Page 7

[2] Colonial Times, 9 October 1856 - Page 2

[3] The Cornwall Chronicle, Saturday 31 July 1841 - Page 1

[4] Kim Shaw, ‘A Troublesome Geography’ in Dianne Snowden and Jane Harrington (eds.), Convict Lives. Female Convicts at the New Norfolk Asylum, p.38

[5]http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/tas/num_act/aatcaacotlrttcogqsattmepacotaoo6win21750/aatcaacotlrttcogqsattmepacotaoo6win21750.pdf, Clause LXXXIV, p.670

[6] HRA III Vol.3 p.410

[7] AOT CSO 22/1/50 p101.

[8] Ibid p.110, p.127.

[9] The Sydney Herald, Monday 27 1835 - Page 2

[10] The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Thursday 17 June 1841 - Page 2

[11] Government Gazette Proclamations And Legislation - New South Wales Government Gazette, Friday 11 June 1841 - Page 795

[12] No. 22. An Act to abolish the Transportation of Female "Convicts, and to provide for the more effectual "Punishment of Female Offenders within the "Colony of New South Wales. Government Gazette Proclamations And Legislation - New South Wales Government Gazette, Saturday 7 December 1839 - Page 1391

[13] No. 3, An Act to repeal so much of an Act, intituled, "An Act to abolish the Transportation of "Female Convicts, and to provide for the more "effectual punishment of Female Offenders, "within the Colony of New South Wales," as authorises the confinement of any Female Offender in a Dark Cell.

Government Gazette Proclamations And Legislation - New South Wales Government Gazette, Saturday 10 July 1841 - Page 933

[14] Coroner's Inquest. INSPECTION OF THE FEMALE FACTORY. Colonial Times, Tuesday 3 April 1838 - Page 6

[15] https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/innes-frederick-maitland-3835


[17] CON138/2/1

[18] CON138/1/1

[19] Con13 p.75 No.6

[20] OUR PUBLIC INSTITUTIONS. No. V. THE FEMALE HOUSE OF CORRECTION.  The Tasmanian Tribune, Friday 11 December 1874 p 3.

[21] CON138/2/1    

[22] CON138/1/1

[23] Coroner's Inquest. INSPECTION OF THE FEMALE FACTORY. Colonial Times, Tuesday 3 April 1838 - Page 6

[24] The Courier, Tuesday 18 December 1855 - Page 2

[25] Kim Shaw, ‘A Troublesome Geography’ in Dianne Snowden and Jane Harrington (eds.), Convict Lives. Female Convicts at the New Norfolk Asylum, p.38

[26] Advocate, Friday 21 June 1929 - Page 8


By E. Crawford (23/09/2021)


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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].