Melbourne-based writer and journalist. Purveyor of finally crafted radio plays. A Muppet of a man.
The Cascades Female Factory doesn’t look like much on the surface.
The site consists of a number of yards with a gravel surface, and surrounded by high walls that echos the slightest sound. Besides these there’s nothing but some reconstructed foundations and a faded plaque to give you an idea of what went on there. It sits in the shadow of nearby Mount Wellington, making it one of those chilling places even when there’s sunlight.
The factory is where troublesome female convicts were sent for reform, one of a number of such places in Tasmania and Australia. It lies just south of Hobart and operated for almost thirty years from 1828.
Women made up around 15% of the convict population, the majority of them deported from England for petty acts like thievery. Their passage to Van Diemen’s Land was a dangerous one, and their ships travelled from port to port on the journey, becoming known as floating brothels.
It’s little wonder that life in the Cascades Female Factory was, predictably, harsh and difficult. Conditions were crowded, work was hard on the body and mind, and anyone who stepped out of line was harshly punished. While solitary confinement for extended periods was a standard punishment, another involved wearing a heavy iron collar with spikes, that chafed the neck and made it impossible to lie down.
While the women undertook hard labour in the prison, they could also be given out to free settlers as servants. Falling pregnant – a punishable offense – became so common that the factory required a nursery until the babies could be weaned and put in an orphanage. More than likely their mothers never saw them again. Poor sanitation and inadequate food made the chance of disease amongst the population high.
Conditions got so bad that in an act of synchronised defiance, 300 women stood as one and bared their asses at the visiting Governor and Reverend William Bedford during an assembly. Such was the co-ordination of their massed mooning that no one could be singled out and punished. The event was modestly immortalised in an engraving at the time, and the image makes regular appearances these days on souvenirs.
None of this comes across particularly well at the female factory. Besides a few perimeter walls and the matron’s cottage, everything else was demolished from the early 1900s following the sale of the site.
If it weren’t for a dramatic reenactment once a day, we wouldn’t have gotten a sense of the place at all. The half hour play, ‘Her Story’, was written and performed by Chris and Judith Cornish. It told the story of Mary James, a fictional female convict in the prison. While the setting was bare, their story was rich in colour and information. Judith’s performance drew a great deal of compassion from the small group who watched with us, and Chris’ presence was massive at times, his harsh booming voice while portraying the warden must be a common sound to those living near the prison site.
It was almost a shame that it was only seen by eight people. While the small number made the experience more personal and intimate, there was no way you could really appreciate what the women sent to the prison went through without the play.
Read more: Cascades Female Factory Female Convicts Research Centre