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A Tale from Tasmania's Dark Side - Vale of Sorrow

Entrance to "The Valley of the Shadow of Death"

Behind these grim walls just a kilometre or two from the CBD is the Cascade Female Factory, a place of correction for female convicts transported between 1822 and 1856. Together with 10 other convict sites it was inscribed in the World Heritage List in 2010. While Port Arthur is probably the best known of these and the work of male convicts is apparent in the building of infrastructure, clearing of land and the cutting of stone and timber, Cascades Female Factory is a memorial the 12,000 women who were transported to Van Diemen's Land. Most of them were guilty of only minor infractions - the theft of clothing, a pair of boots, a few coins, a bolt of cloth, a parasol or just  food, saying more about conditions in England than about the convicts themselves. Many had originally come from Ireland, which was experiencing the worst famine in European history.

It was fitting that my daughter and I had come here on a cold winter's day with snow on the mountain. It really gave us a feel for what it must have been like for the original occupants. It was also good that we had paid a little extra for a guided tour since many of the buildings are now gone and much of the history not readily apparent. The guide's voice echoed hollowly in what was once a crowded but silent enclave and a pervasive sense of sorrow remains.

Shelley, the guide stands in one of the low doorways. Most convict women were under five foot one, another indication of the harshness of the times
Women were in great demand in the colony since the ratio of males to females was seven to one. Soldiers, administrators, free men and settlers, especially farmers, wanted women as wives or domestics. Lieutenant Governor Arthur also had a hidden nation building agenda, hoping that once men were settled with wives and families, the lawlessness and unfortunate roots of the colony as a penal settlement would be overcome. To this end he divided the women into three classes. 

First Class was for those women awaiting assignment. These were women who had behaved well on the four to five months sea voyage or who had been returned by their masters through no fault of their own as well as those who had worked their way up through the system. Later, as the prison became unbearably crowded, Probation of six months was carried out on a Prison hulk anchored in the bay where women were given moral instruction and taught domestic skills such as sewing to enable them to make their way in the Colony. Class Two was for women who were doing their duty - possibly working in the kitchens, the hospital or the nursery, and working towards freedom. Their duties were usually lighter, though if they misbehaved, absconded,  were insolent to their masters or keepers or any number of graded infractions, they were immediately condemned to  Class Three, the Criminal Class reserved for severe or repeat offenders.

Entrance to Yard 1

The heaviest work and the most severe punishments were reserved  for the women of Class Three. Governor Arthur's aim was to make the prison self -supporting so women were consigned to the washtub, doing the industrial laundry of Hobart. Dressed in their coarse woollen clothing, also made at the "Factory" and emblazoned with a letter "C,"  they washed in open troughs in the yard using water from the adjacent  Rivulet. The little stream was by now little more than an open sewer and often flooded the yard in the winter. Another occupation was picking oakum - pulling tar from sections of thick ship's rope until their fingers bled. They slept in solitary cells barely big enough for one person to lie down in and in the event of misbehaviour, were forced to wear a large spiked collar which made sleep even more impossible, except perhaps for the fact that they were worked from sunrise to sunset. Not all inmates suffered in silence. Members of the "Flash Mob" defied authority by rioting, trafficking in banned substances such as tobacco, putting on plays and making up songs that poked fun at their gaolers. Not that it did them much good since they were then certain to be placed in the solitary cells and put on reduced rations instead of their already meagre diet of sheep's head broth.

Underground Solitary Cells
Originally designed to hold two hundred women, the prison was soon overcrowded. By 1841, it held 730 women and 130 babies. Women who fell pregnant during service  -not uncommon since abuse and exploitation were occupational hazards -were also sent back there for confinement. In consequence of the appalling conditions, many women lost their babies and infants. It is said that of 1270 babies born in the prison, 900 died. Once a child was around three months it was weaned and sent to the nursery which was crowded and unsanitary. After a public outcry, the nursery was relocated to Dynnryne in 1838, but after the completion of a new yard, it was restored to The Cascades at the end of the 1840's.  Little is known of the fate of the children who survived, though some of their tragic stories can be read in the former matron's house.
Matron's Quarters -a semblance of normality. In response to complaints about the state of the Female Factory and more enlightened ideas about the purpose and management of prisons,  caretakers were replaced by a matron when a new spacious yard was built in 1850, shortly before the whole enterprise of transportation was discontinued.

When transportation ended in 1853 (This is also when Tasmania changed its name from Van Diemen's Land - to mark the end of a sorry past) and the last of the prisoners had passed through in 1856, the buildings went through several incarnations - first as government buildings of various kinds - a male invalid depot, a female invalid depot, a boy's reformatory, a Contagious Diseases Hospital, a Lying- In Home and a Hospital for the Insane, before finally being subdivided and auctioned off to private enterprises including a winery, a paint factory and a fudge factory and even a tennis court, before being bought with Federal grant money through the efforts of the Women's Electoral Lobby in the 1970s.

Of the women who passed through its doors, with a few notorious exceptions, most went on to marry and become the solid citizens as Governor Arthur had hoped. Their stories are now being collected and published by the Female Convicts Research Centre. You can also learn more about them at Cascades.  

Memorial Garden
We finish our tour at the memorial garden where a few wan shafts of sunlight filter through the bare branches. It is  beside the Visitors Centre where yard three used to be. I'm sure the female inmates of the factory would have given anything for a few minutes of quiet relaxation like this.
The Female Factory is open from 9.30 a.m to 4 p.m. daily. As well as the tour which we enjoyed there is also a dramatised version involving two actors "Her Story" which happens daily at noon though you do need to book for this.