Historical Context

Newgate Prison

The colonial convict women coming to Australia would have been experiencing and witnessing the full effects of the  industrial and agrarian revolutions, American War of Independence, French Revolution, failed Irish Revolution,  Napoleonic Wars and Irish famines. Some certainly participated in and witnessed the breaking of the looms in England’s north. Some would have committed crimes just for survival while others were recidivists. Their stories range from those of machine breakers and displaced farm workers to petty thieves and family women just trying to survive.

The women came from different parts of the British Empire but mainly from the British Isles. They were from rural locations, villages and cities. Their stories were not that of just ‘one bad girl’ but were stories that impacted on a whole family. Even if the physical quality of their life was poor, these convict women left behind all that was meaningful and familiar to them. They lost all they loved, as well as their freedom.

Arrest, trial and prison was familiar to some but for many it was a first offence. There is a tendency to think the motives for the crimes were mostly about destitution and hunger but in fact the crimes were as varied as the individuals with the majority relating to different forms of larceny. There were crimes resulting from the devastating impacts of life in dire circumstance and then there are those crimes that were just a part of the regular pattern of living for some.

Experiencing confinement is difficult enough but prisons in the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century were dismal places and rife with disease. What happened to the women in prison was of little concern to the authorities. Transportation began before the results of the work of great prison reformers such as John Howard, Jeremy Bentham and Elizabeth Fry.

Imprisonment was followed by transportation , sometimes months later and other times years later. There was a sense of the perilous as well as travelling to a new world and new possibilities. In some cases the sense of peril was well founded such as with the Amphitrite and the Neva. The Amphitrite, a female transport ship was one of these cases. There were 120 women and their children who lost their lives before sailing into the Atlantic. The Neva was shipwrecked in Bass Strait. All but 6 of the 214 people on board perished. 

There were voyages like the Lady Juliana, ‘the floating brothel’ where women were treated as little more than cargo. However there were also voyages like the Morley in 1820 where the women were given opportunities for education and were under a proper duty of care.

The voyages ranged from three months to eight months depending on routes taken and whether earlier or later in the transportation period. Convict women were transported from one place to another, one life to another, one world to another.