Number Three

At the early hour of five o'clock on a glorious summer morning in the month of January, 1829, a stranger passing by the door in the brick wall of 'The Factory' in Murray street, Hobart Town, would have seen its inmates streaming and swarming through the narrow portal like bees in search of a new home. Women of all ages—girls of 16 or 18, handsome in feature, but bold and unblushing; women of mature age, hardened and impudent; old women, ugly and wrinkled by intemperance and vice—were pouring out by scores into the street, where, as fast as they came up, they were formed into a long procession. No one will suppose from the above remarks that I—a child of seven years old—was given to moralising. To me it was simply a season of intense excitement; yet the sage moralist, looking on the scene there presented, would have found food for sad reflection. As soon as the last prisoner had left, the door was slammed to and locked; and the procession—flanked by constables and a few soldiers from the garrison, and preceded and directed by the two superintendents—moved at a slow pace up Macquarie street towards their new quarters at the Cascades. The 'Borneo' women, who had been located in the Domain for several weeks, had been removed on the preceding day, and had prepared and pre-arranged everything in readiness for the arrival of the others, who, as they swarmed in through the big gates, at once sat down to their scanty regulation breakfast of coarse seconds bread and salted skilley. Then came the task of classifying, and the women were soon made sensible that a new order of things was being inaugurated, and were not slow to mark the contrast between their past condition and that into which they had now entered. Their 'house in town' had been a place for confinement rather than for coercion—of detention than discipline; their 'country house' was to be a 'house of correction,' where crime would meet with severe punishment, and the most rigid discipline be enforced, with 'ample scope and verge enough' to carry them out in their entirety. The list of sentences was read out at a general muster, and these terms whether newly received or partly run out were given effect to at once. Some went to the cells, some to the crime class, others to the second class, and the rest to the assignable class. A few went into the hospital. The children were taken from their mothers if old enough to be weaned, and consigned to the nursery. The prison dress was uniform, consisting of a dark brown serge, a close fitting white cotton cap, and coloured cotton neckerchief. On the jackets of those in the crime class were sewn two large letters C, cut out of scarlet cloth; the one being fixed on the right sleeve, and the other on the back. The women were employed in picking, carding, and spinning wool, and the whirr of the wheels was heard all day long, producing fine yarn for the purpose of being woven into the rough material from which the garments of the male convicts were manufactured. The washing for the hospital and the King's Orphan Schools—the latter only recently established—was all done in the 'House', and the premises appropriated to the latter occupation were rather extensive. Still the work in which they were employed was not laborious, and there were several hours in the summer days in which the women wandered listlessly about the yards. The dietary scale was very meagre, the rations per head per diem being one pound of coarse brown bread, and half a pound of meat (bone included), with one pint of "skilley" each morning and evening. In addition to the meat at dinner, there was served out a pint of water in which the latter was cooked, slightly thickened with flour. On one day in the week, one pint of pea soup well made and nourishing was substituted for the meat allowance. Such as it was it appeared to satisfy the women, or they made up their minds to bow to the force of circumstances.

In describing the penal character of the institution, it may be affirmed that one of the most severe modes of punishment—although comparatively short in duration—was confinement in the cells. These were situated on the ground floor of an isolated building, and hemmed in by stone walls in which no opening existed through which a single ray of light could penetrate. A massive iron-bound door in the stone wall opened into a long narrow corridor, on one side of which were eight cells, in size about six feet by four. Each cell had its own door which was bolted and locked on the outside. A similar door, corridor, and cells adjoined, each divided from the other by a thick stone wall, thus providing accommodation for sixteen inmates. Cold, damp, dark as Egyptian night, and silent as a vault, the entombed wretch, after being supplied with her allowance of a pound of bread and small 'piggin' of water, was left to her own reflections and introspection. For one half-hour out of the twenty-four, the occupant was allowed to walk in a solitary yard, taking nearly the whole of the short respite to accustom her eyes to the blinding sunlight ere she was again shut up in her dungeon. The ordinary term of sentence was one week, but in a great number of instances the penalty imposed was fourteen days. Confinement in the cells was invariably the introduction—kind of appetiser—to a longer or shorter period of imprisonment in the crime clags.

Another form of punishment that was only resorted to in cases of violent insubordination was the iron collar. This instrument of torture (I use the term advisedly) was formed of a band of iron of about an inch and a half in depth, opening by a hinge at the back and, being clasped round the neck, was fastened in front by a padlock. From this collar band projected four iron spikes of about a foot in length tapering off and terminating in sharp points, the whole weight of iron resting on the collar bones of the woman being as supposed, peculiarly painful and irritating. No alleviation of the terrible and dreaded torture was provided for in the sentence recorded, but the humane feelings of one of the superintendents—to whom the punishment was particularly distasteful—and who, I may say in passing, was altogether too sensitive for his position—supplied relief, as far as it was possible, in the form of padding, to make the punishment easier to be borne. The term for wearing the collar was from 24 to 60 hours, and was intended to be continuous; but as it was impossible for the unhappy sufferer to take rest in sleep, this official chose to incur the risk of censure by having it removed at night and replaced in the morning. There was also another collar, lighter in weight, having longer spikes of 3/8 round iron, each spike terminating in a knob. This was for those who were of a pugilistic turn, the knobs answering the same purpose, I presume, as those placed on the horns of cattle to prevent them from goring their fellows. This punishment was very rarely inflicted.

For all those sentenced to the cells or crime class there was invariably a preliminary ordeal to be gone through in the loss of their hair. It certainly was a sight to arouse one's pity to witness the long flowing raven or auburn locks falling to the ground to the rhythmic snipping of the barber's great shears. The women looked upon it as a barbarous, personal outrage—a degrading humiliation. Many who would have borne stolidly any other kind of punishment shed bitter tears over the loss of their hair; some fainted, and now and then one would fight like a tigress for the retention of her highly valued and petted locks, and the operation had to be performed under the persuasive influence of physical force.

As a rule the women were submissive and orderly. Individual cases of insubordination occurred, but they were promptly suppressed and punished. There was, however, one instance of mutinous conduct which appeared to be general, and at the time was sufficiently alarming. As I was myself a witness of the whole scene, standing at the time at the window of our dwelling which overlooked it, and as all the details are still fresh in my memory I will endeavour to narrate them fully. Two of the most refractory women in the crime class had been sentenced for some offence to the cells. From some threatening remark dropped by one or both of them, the superintendents suspected that a serious emeute would take place when effect was attempted to be given to the sentence. They therefore took the precaution of keeping them back until all the women in the crime class—through which they would have to pass—were securely warded and locked in for the night. At dusk—which being summer time, was about 8 o'clock—the two prisoners were brought through on their way to the cells; but on entering the yard they refused to proceed any further, and during the interval that occurred, while the constables were being sent for, they stood at the unglazed iron-barred window of the ward, engaged in close conversation with those within. When the constables arrived they took the two struggling and resisting women to the cells by force. Then the storm of rage and fury burst forth from the (fortunately) confined women in the wards. Howls, yells, shrieks, curses and imprecations rose in one prolonged and discordant chorus. The superintendents seeing that matters were assuming a serious and threatening aspect, at once wrote to Mr Gordon (who was, I suppose, the Superintendent of Convicts at the time) describing the state of things, and asking for assistance in quelling the disturbance. The letter was sent off by the messenger, who was enjoined to make all haste. That messenger was a young man whose cognomen was 'Chequer Alley,' well known afterwards in Launceston for many years as 'Chequers' the bellman. Meanwhile, for more than two hours the uproar continued. Like excited caged wild beasts they shook the bars of their prison and hammered at the doors, and had they not been confined within stone walls would no doubt have effected an exit, the consequences of which in their infuriated state might have been disastrous. The excitement seemed to be contagious, for those in the second yard who, divided by a stone partition which cut off all communication, could have had no idea of the cause of the tumult, joined in with the like howls, yells, and shrieks, till the mingled din and uproar must have been heard at a considerable distance outside the walls. At intervals fire was mysteriously produced, and aprons, caps, handkerchiefs, in fact, anything that was combustible was ignited, and the flaming articles were borne waving aloft to every part of the ward. Then arose the piercing shriek of `Fire! Fire! Fire! Let us out.' At one time it was seriously feared that the place was on fire. One of the superintendents had stood at the door, and, patiently listening, was enabled to detect and make a list of fourteen of the ringleaders. Such was the state of things when, near midnight, Mr Gordon arrived, attended by twelve constables furnished with slaves and lanterns. The hushed silence as soon as they made their appearance was surprising. Taking his stand by the ward door Mr Gordon said, 'Mr Pullen, unlock that door.' Directly this was done Mr G. lifted up a formidable knobbed and knotted stick and cried out, 'The first woman that dares to rush out, I'll knock her down.' Then to the constables 'Go in with Mr Pullen, and bring out the women that he gives into your charge'. They had scarcely entered the ward when they were assailed by a shower of missiles—stools, buckets, pannikins, and other things. However, the ringleaders were seized—some of them being sound asleep in their hammocks, brought out and conveyed at once to the cells, the ward was locked, and silence and order once more prevailed. The next day the ringleaders were tried, and sentenced to twenty-eight days in the cells, in two instalments of fourteen days each with a week's interval, twelve months' hard labour in the crime class, which carried with it an additional six months in the second class, making eighteen months' imprisonment before they became assignable. Then ended what has been rather grandiloquently styled 'the mutiny of 1830.' (To be Continued) 1