Gaol / imprisonment was a secondary punishment comprising a period of confinement as determined by magistrates and courts. The scope of the punishment for female convicts in VDL is difficult to determine as there were many ways to be gaoled or imprisoned: being returned to the government and sentenced to time at a Female Factory or House of Correction, separate apartments or solitary confinement at the Female Factory or any of the county gaols. Furthermore, hard labour or bread and water punishment would also require supervision in a confined space.


The offences occasioning long term imprisonment, often followed by several months of probation, were for more serious crimes such as attempted murder, violent assault, larceny, absconding, receiving and offences against property (arson, damages) while the less serious crimes requiring shorter periods of confinement included non-payment of fines, disobedience and public disorderly conduct such as drunkenness.


Every convict woman transported to VDL would have had prior first-hand experience of imprisonment in the infamous prisons of Britain; convict Mary Haigh stated in 1842: ‘The Factory is a great deal less severe than the English Gaols’.[1] For the women too old or infirm to work and no place to live, being imprisoned provided shelter, food and a bed at the government’s expense. Some women possibly preferred the Female Factories to life outside where they would have to fend for themselves, as discussed in an article reporting on the coronial inquest into the deaths of Thomas Vowles (child) and Barbara Hemmings (per Atwick) (Hobart Town Courier, 30 March 1838 p.2):

The very anomaly which exists of complaints on the one hand, of the sufferings and misery of the women confined there for their misdemeanours, contrasted with their usual insolent cry (when spoken to by their masters or mistresses, in private service) of - " Well, if I don't suit you, you can send me to the Factory ;" or, " I'd sooner by half be in the Factory, there isn't half so much work there," is proof sufficient that the code of discipline is somewhere defective or misapplied.


Gaols, Female Factories and Houses of Correction

The three institutions where female convicts could be imprisoned were the local gaols, Female Factories or Houses of Correction. 

The term 'Female Factory', often used confusingly and interchangeably with 'Female House of Correction', indicated the role of these institutions as more than prisons. What the new colony needed, according to Surveyor-General John Oxley in 1810, was a 'Well regulated Factory' to teach women 'habits of Industry' so that they became useful to society rather than burdens upon it.


A ‘house of correction’ is generally defined as ‘a place where persons who have committed minor offenses and who are considered capable of reformation are confined’.[2] 


A female factory, in comparison, comprised multiple functions: it was a place of lodging, hiring or assignment, a hospital, nursery, training institution and a place of secondary punishment.


The distinctions between Houses of Correction, Female Factories and gaols became blurred after August 1835 with significant changes introduced in the Consolidation Act (see below).


Early days

Only three convict women were recorded as being imprisoned prior to 1817: 


- Hester Roberts per Northampton and Emu (1815), after absconding from the service of SJ Drummond Esq., was sentenced on 7 Nov 1815 to be confined 14 days and fed on bread and water only during that time. (Hester or Esther Roberts accompanied John Drummond's family to Hobart from NSW as their servant).


- Ann Ward arrived in VDL per Active 1813 (and Experiment to NSW 1809): for stealing the the property of her master, John Ingle, she was sentenced to wear an iron collar for a week and to be kept at hard labour in the Gaol (no length of time was specified). Ann may have been the female prisoner mentioned in a Hobart Town Gazette article in August 1816:

On the occasion of His Royal Highness the PRINCE REGENT''S Birth Day, His Honor the Lieutenant GOVERNOR was humanely pleased to liberate seven Prisoners under sentence in the Gaol Gang for various periods; and one female prisoner (wearing an iron-collar) confined in the Watch House. [3]


- Judith Quinlan arrived in VDL on the Lady Nelson in 1812 (and to NSW per Providence 1811). In November 1816 Judith was confined in the watch house for eloping with Thomas Murphy (per Indefatigable) from George Town to Hobart where, not having the necessary passes for that settlement, they were immediately apprehended by the police.


In  February 1817 the Hobart Town Gaol was opened. Of brick and stone construction, it was built as part of a Public Works initiative in 1815[4].   This, the first 'proper' gaol * in the colony of VDL, was not initially intended for confining misbehaving female convicts, the colony had greater concerns with bushranging and runaways.  Governor Macquarie in letters to Governor Sorell in 1818, considered that there were not enough female convicts to warrant building a gender-specific barracks.  If some form of imprisonment was required for disorderly and ill-behaved females they could be sent to the Parramatta or Coal River (Newcastle) female factories in NSW. [refer to Punishments: Sent to Parramatta and Newcastle.]


The gaol was continually subjected to criticism.[5] The many breakouts led to the walls being extended within a few years.  It was located on the south-west corner of Macquarie and Murray Streets. The stocks were located outside the walls of the gaol, and the gallows, which were originally located at the wharf, were re-located to the yard of the gaol in 1828.


In cases where women were confined in the gaol, they were initially held in a single room and, as stated by AWH Humphrey when examined at the Bigge Inquiry in 1820, laboured at cleaning tasks:

Q. What Punishment do you Inflict upon the women who behave ill?

A. Confining them to the Gaols and Hard Labour there such as washing for the Prisoners and cleaning the Gaol.[6]



Ann King (Bass) (per Canada 1817) was possibly the first female convict to be imprisoned in the Hobart Town gaol for any length of time:

BENCH OF MAGISTRATES.—On Wednesday Ann Bass, a crown servant, was brought before a Bench of Magistrates, charged with behaving in a riotous and disorderly manner to her mistress, and attempting to quit her place without leave, contrary to the Colonial Regulations. The charge being most clearly proved, she was sentenced to be put in the stocks 8 hours, at two different periods, with an iron collar placed upon her neck, and to be imprisoned in the county gaol for 3 months. The complaint was peculiar aggravating, this woman having only been released from prison a few days back on a similar case.

The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter, Saturday 27 September 1817 - Page 2



With the increasing numbers of female convict arrivals resulting from direct transportation from Britain to VDL, it became apparent that dedicated facilities were needed for lodging, employing and keeping the women in order.[7]   In 1821, after appeals by Governor Sorell to Governor Macquarie in NSW, separate barracks were completed for confining male and female convicts. The female barracks was known as the Hobart Town Female Factory; built within the Hobart Town Gaol precinct, it was separated from the Gaol proper by a brick wall.  In 1824 a report from Lt-Governor Arthur mentions:

I placed the Small Factory adjoining the present prison, with a view that the Two might, after a new Gaol was prepared, be united as one Factory or House of Correction for Females.[8] [9]




As discussed by Tardiff, 'before the building of the Cascades Female Factory, the women of Hobart Town undergoing punishment were kept in a section of the gaol, where the punishment, according to gaoler William Peichey, was nothing ‘but the Labour of cleaning the Prison, washing the Prisoners Cloaths, and Diminished Food’. The building itself, located at the corner of Macquarie and Murray Streets, was in a very dilapidated state.’[10]





In 1821 Elizabeth Sidwell (Janus 1820) had two stints in the Hobart Town Gaol.  In June, for repeated drunkenness and insolence to her mistress, Mrs Hull, she was confined in a solitary cell and fed on bread and water for 14 days.  In November, while assigned to E F Bromley, she was charged with repeated drunkenness and neglect of duty as a servant, and gaoled for 2 months;  for the 1st week she was fed on bread and water only. She also had to sit in the stocks 3 times, for 2 hours each time.


Mary Gibson (Providence 1821), while also assigned to Dr Bromley, was also charged for repeated drunkenness.  Confined in a solitary cell and fed on bread and water for 1 week, she afterwards performed hard labour at the gaol.





 Hobart Town Gaol, source: Archives Office of Tasmania


Developments between 1825 - 1834

In  July 1825 Lt-Governor Arthur complained that the old Hobart Gaol was a ‘miserable Jail’…

‘so insecure that Condition of not one single Felon can with safety be lodged in it; and yet Hobart town, there are generally Two Hundred Prisoners in confinement of the most desperate Character, huddled together within the crumbling Walls of this miserable Prison.[11]


Frustrated that over-crowding at the Hobart Town Gaol had defeated any attempt at order and reformation, Arthur also pointed out:

‘throughout the settled districts Hobart Town to Launceston, a distance of One Hundred and Twenty Miles, there is no Court house, nor Jail for secure imprisonment; and hence, whatever Crimes are committed in the Interior, the Criminals are from necessity sent from thence to Hobart Town, which throngs the Jail in the manner I have described’.


The same 1825 report mentioned over eighty females were confined at the small adjacent Female Factory, describing it as ‘worse than the Jail!’. A major problem with this Factory was the ease with which female convicts could escape [refer to Hobart Town Female Factory]. Following on from unsatisfactory reports in 1826 that condemned the building, the women imprisoned there, including those awaiting assignment, were transferred to the newly built Cascades Female Factory  in December 1828 and January 1829.


The lack of infrastructure, including government store houses (commissariat magazines), in country areas was also hindering prisoners being sent into the interior to the service of settlers.[12] This problem was solved when, after the establishment of seven Police Districts in 1827, government precincts with court houses and gaols were established at New Norfolk, Oatlands, Campbell Town, Norfolk Plains [Longford], and Richmond. George Town already had gaol cells built during the expansion of public buildings in the northern settlements a decade earlier, and 1829 saw the opening of the George Town Female Factory. Launceston’s gaol was built in 1827 and in 1832 the adjacent Launceston Female Factory was completed.[13] As the Police districts extended to nine, and  sub-districts became established, small gaols were built at Bothwell (Clyde district), Swansea (Oyster Bay district), Brighton and many of the smaller towns.  Finally, the Ross Female Factory was completed in 1848.


The gaol enclosures in the larger Police District precints evolved over time, dictated by overcrowding and modernisation of facilities, to include a receiving room, gender specific bunk rooms, solitary confinement cells and day rooms, sick rooms, store room, exercise yards, washing rooms, cook house, wash-tub facilities, privies and, importantly, high solid-stone or brick walls.



Visiting justices were appointed by Quarter sessions to inspect gaols, and correct abuses, and punish refractory behaviour of persons therein. Any five justices at Quarter sessions to have power to make prison regulations. Any breach of such regulations to be punishable in petty cases by the gaoler, and in others by the visiting justices.

By His Excellency's command,

John Montagu.

The Hobart Town Courier, Friday 29 May 1835 - Page 2



The 1835 Consolidation Act

Around 1835, female convict records began to indicate that imprisonment was gaining momentum as a convenient punishment. Prior to 1835 imprisonment options were to escort the convicted women to a Female Factory, or to hold them in a local gaol that had not been designed to imprison women. One of the triggers for increased imprisonments was the growing distaste for corporal punishment of females, coinciding with the building or renovating of gaols that actually catered for female prisoners.  Furthermore, in August 1835, an Act by Lieutenant Governor George Arthur [14] enacted that every building used as a Gaol in the Police Districts of Hobart Town, Launceston, Richmond, New Norfolk, Oatlands, Campbell Town, and Longford should also be deemed a House of Correction and that the Factories in Launceston and Hobart Town used for the reception of transported female offenders were to become Houses of Correction. The superintendent of either a Penitentiary, Factory or Gaol was given the powers and authorities of a Gaoler. Any prisoner committed to a House of Correction, or sentenced to solitary confinement or imprisonment with hard labour, could serve their sentence in either one of the Gaols or House of Correction. [15]


The Consolidation Act 1835, Clause LXIX.-AND BE IT ENACTED that where any Act of Parliament authorises or directs in any case, a committal to a House of Correction or the passing of a sentence of solitary confinement or imprisonment with hard labour a committal may be made to or any sentence of solitary confinement or imprisonment with hard labour be carried into effect in either of the said Gaols or Houses of Correction … And every such Gaol or House of Correction shall for those purposes be deemed to be a House of Correction within the intent and meaning of every such Act of Parliament. [16]


The 1835 Act solved several logistical problems associated with transferring female convicts to Female Factories at Launceston or Hobart, including the hiring of horses and carts[17] and the behaviour of the guards employed to escort the prisoners, who were often accused of taking liberties along the way. (Mary Haigh)  The convenience of female convicts serving a short sentence in a local gaol meant they could be easily returned to their places of assignment, if still wanted. (Appendix 1 lists examples of sentences at the various gaols around VDL).



For the women too old or infirm to work and no place to live, being imprisoned provided shelter, food and a bed at the government’s expense:


Catherine Lowry (per Rajah) was convicted 74 times and between 1860-1897 served at least 32 terms of imprisonment.   She died in 1898 aged 78, at the Benevolent Asylum, Launceston. 


Ellen Holden, also from the Rajah, had a record showing 61 offences – besides many returns to the Female Factories of Van Diemen’s Land, Ellen’s later years were spent in Victoria, where she was imprisoned at least 44 times. Ellen died at the Melbourne Hospital in 1893 aged 70.


Margaret Behan (per Australasia 1849) was imprisoned 27 times between 1851 and 1890 for her 40 offences, including a stint at the remote Dover Gaol.




The Independent newspaper, Saturday 4 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!.




Richmond Gaol (and Court House) was built over a period of 15 years between 1825 and 1840. In 1835, women’s quarters were built to better segregate male and female prisoners.[18] The female wing contained a new cookhouse and bake oven. Solitary confinement cells were also added;  eight in the men’s wing and four incorporated within the women’s wing. 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. (Read more at Richmond Gaol website)


Elizabeth McConchie per Frances Charlotte arrived in VDL on 10th January 1833. Five years later, she died at the Richmond Gaol while still under sentence.  She was just 21 years old.  She was serving a sentence of 25 days solitary confinement at the Richmond Gaol for being absent without leave and gross disorderly conduct. This was her twelfth offence in the colony. She also served a sentence of solitary confinement at the Oatlands Gaol.



Post 1850

After the end of transportation in 1853, the punishment of ‘transportation’ was replaced with a sentence of Penal Servitude, which usually dictated a period of imprisonment followed by a period of probation. The remaining Female Factories were closed down over the next two years and converted to gaols, with responsibility transferred to the local authorities (Sheriff’s Department).   The Sheriff’s Department also took over gaol record-keeping, although the records of re-tried convict women were still maintained by the Convict Department for several more decades. In practise, both types of records were often maintained by the same officer using the same format of record keeping. [19]


The Campbell Street Gaol (Hobart Gaol), which began life as convict barracks, was converted in 1846 to serve as a civilian prison. It became Hobart's main gaol in 1853 and the only gaol in the south from 1877 after the Cascades Gaol closed.



A narrative of a walk-through of the Cascades House of Correction and Gaol, published in The Mercury 1872, published in The Mercury 1872, describes the building and the routine of female prisoners imprisoned under Penal Servitude.




See also Females Strip-searched by Female Searchers by Terry Newman (Dec 2020)

When convicts of both genders arrived in Tasmania they were effectively strip-searched to record their physical description.  This initial frisking would take place onboard ship upon its arrival in Hobart, and similar searches might reoccur at a gaol, house of correction, or police watchhouse.  There were many reasons given for a strip-search, especially when apprehended prisoners recaptured after absconding were searched for stolen items and to remove objects they might use to harm themselves or others. Terry Newman's paper explores many questionable practices imposed on female convicts, and highlights contemporary concerns expressed in the Tasmanian press that relate to the type of watchhouse keeper employed, and presents some personal background on some of these male ‘keepers’.



Appendix 1: Examples of female convicts imprisoned in VDL gaols

Mary Howard (Guilder) (per Nautilus) was sentenced to 3 months hard labour at the Longford Gaol in both 1873 and 1875 for being idle and disorderly.

Mary Ann Smith (per Nautilus) : for wilful mismanagement of work was sentenced to 14 days cells on bread and water at Richmond Gaol in 1839. Again in 1839, for disobedience of orders, she served 10 days in a cell at Richmond Gaol before being returned to her service.

Christian Weir (per Nautilus) had two stints in the Launceston Gaol in 1846 and 1850. For the latter, charged with stealing a blanket, she was ‘to be Imprisoned and kept to hard Labor 12 Calendar months and to be kept in solitary confinement in the first and last months.’

Emma Bolton (per New Grove), for ‘Wilful prevarication on oath this day in her evidence in the Case Rex vs. Fletcher, 12 Months in the Crime Class in the Penitentiary [Campbell Street Gaol] Hobart.’

Maria Daly (per New Grove), had four stints in solitary confinement at Oatlands Gaol in 1836.

Ann Jubb (per New Grove) was charged with insolence & disobedience of orders, and sentenced to 4 months in the solitary working cells at Hobart Penitentiary in 1836.

Sarah Lawrence (per New Grove) was charged with drunkenness & neglect of duty in 1837 and sentenced to 8 days’ solitary confinement at the Campbell Town Gaol.

Jane Skinner (per New Grove) was tried in the Supreme Court for burglary in 1849 and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour at Launceston Gaol. The 8th and 24th months of this sentence were to be passed in solitary confinement.

Maria Benjamin (per Persian) was gaoled at the George Town House of Correction for 14 days for absenting herself from her master’s service from the 27th February to the 2nd March 1829.

Norah Cobbett (per Persian) was imprisoned in 1835 for drunkenness and ‘turbulent conduct’ at Oatlands, and had her Ticket of Leave suspended for three calendar months.

Susannah Riley (per Persian), for disobedience of orders and repeated insolence in 1828, spent 8 days on bread and water in the Bothwell Gaol, followed by 4 additional days of solitary confinement on bread and water.

Ann Clancey (per Providence) spent a fortnight in solitary confinement at New Norfolk Gaol and 6 Months in Crime Class at the Female Factory for insolence and refusal to work.

Margaret Little (per Kinnear) was imprisoned at both Oatlands and Bothwell.

Mary Ann Miller (per Kinnear) was gaoled at Oatlands for infanticide.

Five women were gaoled at Waterloo Point Gaol (Great Swanport), the site of the 88th military regiment,  including Mary Jones (Arab) who was detained for 7 days solitary confinement in the gaol's cells in 1837.




[1] Mary Haigh, March 23rd 1842, Inquiry into Female Convict Prison Discipline 1841-42, page 323,


[3] The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter, Saturday 17 August 1816 - Page 1

[4] HRA Series III, Vol.II,  pp.568, xviii

[5] HRA Series 3 Vol.II, page xviii-xix 

[6]HRA Series III Vol.III, p. 286, 13 March 1820  Examination of A. W. H. Humphrey. Taken Before John Thomas Bigge,! The Commissioner Of Inquiry

[7] HRA Ser.3 Vol.II, P.290

[8] HRA Series III Vol.IV p.146 June 1824

[9] HRA Series III vol. IV.,9 June 1824, p. 146, Report by Arthur to Bathurst on public buildings

[10] Tardiff, P., Notorious Strumpets and Dangerous Girls: Convict Women in Van Diemen’s Land 1803-1829. P.28

[11] HRA Series III, vol. IV., 3 July 1825, p. 287 Arthur to Bathurst

[12] HRA Series III Vol. IV. p. 287, July 1825

[13] HRA Series III Vol. II., 23rd June 1817 p.252

[14] August 20, 1835, The Hobart Town Gazette


[16], p.667 clause LXIX

[17] The Hobart Town Gazette and Southern Reporter Saturday 11 November 1820 - Page 1


[19] Eldershaw, P.R., 1965 (revised 2003), Archives Office Of Tasmania Guide To The Public Records Of Tasmania, Section Three, Convict Department,





By E. Crawford (9/10/2021)




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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].