Snippets of stories have intrigued me about the Female Factory - a matron who had to manage an incompetent husband, twelve pregnancies and one thousand convict women and another woman named Ellen who danced in a public house and slept with her master.
Clearly, lots went on in South Hobart between 1788 and 1853 when around 25,000 women were transported to Australia for their crimes. One stole a fiddle, another was sent here for seven years for stealing a turkey and an apron. Today, the Female Factory is Australia’s most significant site associated with the female convict story.
VISITING THE FEMALE FACTORY
It was time to find out what went on behind those South Hobart walls. The best way to do it? Heading there at noon for Her Story, a dramatised play run daily, or doing a Heritage Tour. Chris and Judith Cornish are the actors for Her Story, recently winning People’s Choice at the Tourism Awards for Louisa’s Walk, which has now been replaced with Her Story.
Arriving at 12, we’re enveloped into the story of a convict named Mary almost instantly. I am interested to know how a dramatised play might work on me, but work it does. No sooner do I step into the Female Factory’s gravel yards, I am standing beside Mary. Well, today the play is about Mary but in a way she represents the stories of many convict women as I look across hundreds of names etched into the walls.
She’s about to be taken of all her worldly goods, her clothing and the hair on her head. Granted, Mary is an actress, but standing beside her in the harsh sunlight, peering into her fearful eyes she has me believing and feeling every ounce of her trepidation. She’s being talked to with disdain and contempt, and the rest of us stand silently. A wooden stick is pointed at her, just beyond her nose, as another woman politely steps back a foot.
She’s wearing a bonnet, I’m not. Perhaps that’s why she’s selected from the line up to be gruffly yelled at. Around ten of us are on the tour today, and it’s fascinating how we all immediately fall into our roles without a word spoken. Did Tasmania become 1833 Van Diemen’s Land somewhere between the visitor counter and the hard stand-stone walls of Yard One?
As Mary is reprimanded and punished, we shuffle along beside her. We hear tales of some 1200 convict babies that don’t survive, squeezed into a tiny nursery, top and tailing in cots. A picture is painted of a dark, dank, cold place surrounded by lofty 13-foot high walls. Nearly 200 women worked, slept, ate, prayed and gave birth here beneath Mount Wellington.
By the time we venture over to the working cells, I’m asked to help Mary with her tasks. She whispers to me when the overseer has his back to us, and I’m taken back to school days when private whispers were charged with the possibility of punishment.
Would my talking to Mary conclude with banishment to the solitary cell? Or worse, would I have to wear a collar with lengthy spikes, as heavy as a bowling ball on my shoulders as punishment? It’s baffling that those in charge could dream up such a contraption. There was no reprieve at night either – women were forced to sleep with it around their neck for up to a month.
By the time Her Story was over, I wanted to walk straight out the Female Factory gates. But not without asking what happened to Mary and whether she reunited with her illegitimate son William. Mary, now acting as a real human I could address as Judith, looked at me with the same pain I saw in her acting eyes. She simply shrugged and said, “We don’t know what happened to Mary or William. Records were not kept beyond the Female Factory.”
If I hadn’t have completed the Heritage Tour before My Story, I’m not sure I could have stayed. The reality and brutality within those walls I’ve driven past as a local so many times had become eerily real. My mother’s name is Mary and my brother’s name is William. It was just a little too close to home, that only a short run of decades separated the fate of these two pairs by the same first names.
Experience this part history lesson, part roaming theatre show yourself. After all, 74 per cent of Tasmanians have convict ancestry and many of these convict women also ended up on mainland Australia. Whether a local or visitor, one never knows the connection you may have to Mary.
Cascades Female Factory
Cost $20 Adults, $12.50 Child, $60 family. ($10 off if joining Heritage Tour also)
Your launch pad for exploring Tasmania like a local.