Disrupting the Boundaries: Resistance and Convict Women

by Joy Damousi

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In 1838, The Governor of Van Diemens Land, Sir John and his wife, Lady Franklin visited and inspected the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart and attended a service in the factory chapel. At the time, services were being conducted by the Reverend William Bedford, the butt of convict ridicule — they called him ‘Hollie Willie’ — and was, on more than one occasion, the target of female convicts’ jests and pranks. In one incident,

as he was crossing the courtyard of the Female House of Correction, some dozen or twenty women seized upon him, took off his trousers and deliberately endeavoured to deprive him of his manhood. They were, however, unable to effect their purpose in consequence of the opportune arrival of a few constables who seized the fair ladies and place them in durance vile.

This same refractory spirit was illustrated by another occasion when convict women violated the boundaries that confined them. In defiance of their subordinate relationship to the Franklins and to the penal authorities, while standing in front of the vice regal party who addressed them from an elevated dais, all of a sudden,

the three hundred women turned right around and at one impulse pulled up their clothes shewing their naked posteriors which they simultaneously smacked with their hands making a loud and not very musical noise. This was the work of a moment, and although constables, warders etc. were there in plenty, yet 300 women could not well be all arrested and tried for such an offence and when all did the same act the ringleaders could not be picked out.

This cheeky behaviour had the desired impact. Although the witnesses to this event claimed that their ‘indecencies and insults had not the effect of creating either irritation or annoyance’, clearly the governor and his party had been ‘horrified and astounded’ and were determined ‘that this visit would be their last’. However, the ladies in the governor’s party, it was said, in at rare moment of collusion with the convict women ‘could not control their laughter’.

In the female prisons, the expression of laughter, jest and the indulgence of ‘play’ was a punishable offence. Although on the one hand the penal system treated convict women like children, with a system of reward and punishment, on the other, it recoiled at the expression of childlike pleasures.

Another incident further illustrates this power dynamic. In March 1842, when Hobart factory superintendent John Hutchinson heard a noise at about eight o’clock, he took his keys and went to investigate. He looked in at the window of the ward, and allowed himself some time to identify the five prisoners, Ellen Arnold, Elisabeth Armstrong, Frances Hutchinson, Eliza Smith and Mary Deverena, who were

dancing perfectly naked, and making obscene attitudes towards each other, they were also singing and shouting and making use of most disgusting language. There was a sixth woman but I could not positively swear to her, the disgusting attitudes towards each other were in imitation of men and women together.

Although this was obviously sexual play the women claimed they were washing themselves. But Hutchinson was clear as to their purpose. When he went into the room he discovered that there were no tubs, and ‘the language they used and the attitudes they made use of corresponded in obscenity so that no mistake could be made by me as the nature of both’. One of the convicts, Eliza Smith, claimed that their behaviour arose ‘from a mere joke’, but Hutchinson was not moved, claiming he saw only a dirty beastly action’. Although Frances Hutchinson was found to be dancing and not making any indecent attitudes’, she was given a six-month sentence, while the others received twelve months hard labour. All the women involved in this act of ‘merriment’ were placed in separate confinements.

A few months later, in a similar spirt of animation and frolic, women in the prison in Hobart were reported to be ‘singing and dancing and making a noise’. They refused to cease despite several requests for them to do so. When Mrs Hutchinson, the matron, entered the room, the women squatted down and refused to give the names of the ringleaders. The women ‘shouted and clapped their hands, stamped and made noise with their feet and this took place to such an extent that I conscientiously say it was a riot’. The superintendent attempted to persuade them to name the leaders but did so with little effect. The women, insisted Mrs Hutchinson, had plenty of opportunity to declare themselves not belonging to the ‘Mob’. The tumult continued each time the superintendent left the room. The police were called in to contain the calamity and the ‘hurrahing’, as District Constable Brice referred to it. The women ‘kept up a tremendous clatter with their tongues’, he reported, despite continued efforts to encourage the women to distance themselves from agitators in the group. In a display of solidarity, the women said they were unwilling to divide their own ranks in this way. ‘We are all alike, we are all alike’, they chanted. When Brice entered the room he was impressed with how ‘such a body of women could have placed themselves in such a regular manner in so short a time’. The disturbance lasted for four or five hours, and eventually the stalemate ended when the prisoner Ann Maloney pointed out the ringleaders. Six prisoners were reprimanded; two had their sentence of transportation extended by one year, while nine women were sentenced to six months hard labour following solitary confinement for twenty-one days.

Singing and dancing in the wards at night was an effective means of challenging authority. The women’s songs were loud and strong, explicitly violating those measures in place which aimed to restrain their pressures and amusements. Mrs Hutchinson reported to the inquiry into convict discipline that

their songs are sometimes very disgusting. They leave off when they know I am coming. When they do not (which is sometimes the case in a wet night when they do not hear my foot on the pavement) I turn out the whole ward till I get at the woman whom I send to a cell.

John Price, the police magistrate, who, through his long dealings with criminals, knew of the ‘cant language’ of convicts, observed that the women convicts were in the habit of ‘composing songs ridiculing the authorities’. In the context of the prisons, this laughter and play was a potent way of subverting a system which was so emphatically designed to deny the expression of such intemperance. The True Colonist reported in 1837 that while the ‘horrors of the crime class’ had shocked the inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land, what was more disagreeable to moral evangelical sensibilities was the fact that

many women prefer this class to the others, because it is more lively! There is more fun there than in the others; and we have been informed, that some of the most sprightly of the ladies divert their companions by acting plays!

” In a penal society based on prohibition, any moments of spontaneous pleasure amongst criminals were subversive. Women in particular were subject to restrictions, limitations and expectations based on their sex and because there were firm assumptions about how women should behave, they were perceived to be somehow worse behaved. In terms of daily contact, sexual behaviour, and in the use of language theirs was a more restricted world than that of male convicts. Transgressing gender boundaries was in itself disruptive.

For women, laughter became an important part of this transgression. Mary Douglas notes that ‘the idea of loud vociferous laughter may be unseemly in polite company. But what counts as loud and vociferous may vary greatly’. These moments tested the authorities. These women were indulging in acts deemed vulgar, as their exuberance was deemed ‘unfeminine’. To laugh loudly and vociferously in a prison, which aimed to regulate and order the very being of its inmates, was an act of impetuousness that represented an important transgressive moment. More crucially, it was the expression of desire and pleasure — those aspects of convict women deemed uncontrollable and volatile — which was perceived as reckless but also dangerous. Many of these punishable offences were efforts by the women to indulge themselves in pleasure and entertainment: they were punished in their efforts to claim self-expression.

It is to the actions and behaviour of convict women that we must turn, for the existing records are hopelessly deficient in recording their voices, the range of their emotions and their motivations. The various forms of subversion are a key to understanding their actions, which also need to be more broadly understood within the context of the exercise of power within the colonies.

In colonial society ‘power’ was despotic and autocratic, where governors kept both convicts and ex-convicts under ‘direct and intimate surveillance’. Movement and travel were circumscribed through a range of regulations and constraints. … When the refractory women of the female factory exposed their bottoms, they were confronting the disciplinary gaze by challenging the boundaries of the sexual, of femininity, the body and spaces of power …

The murder of two convict women here is interesting because of the behaviour of the two women, who were determined to remain together. Waldron had warned Mary Moloney that he would go to the police office and report her insolence and improper language. Sarah McGregor was determined to go with her. ‘If Mary goes, I’ll go,’ she insisted, ‘we came together and we will go together’. Waldron said that she had done nothing that would send her there, at which point it was claimed she struck him, and ‘gave him several violent blows on the neck and head’. According to Waldron’s wife, the prisoner ‘pulled up her petticoats and exposed her person to the view of the whole family … the language of the prisoners during this time, was of the most disgraceful description’.

In both the murder and the display, the women challenged the expected behaviour of domestic servants and feminine decorum. But their subversive behaviour was also evident in resisting a most probably violent master and in acting together. Clearly there was a solidarity between the two women and they were prepared to flout regulations in order to remain together and return to the factory. The desire to return to the factory in itself was a defiant act, for it undermined efforts to separate the women, and suggested the effectiveness of the factory as a form of punishment. Whether or not they were responsible for his death is a contentious issue, for there were witnesses who testified they had not seen the prisoners strike him. NonetheIess, the women were found guilty and hanged.

It is the silences in this episode that are telling, for the expressed desire and direct action by the convict women to remain together and be returned to prison undermined government efforts to separate and punish them. With no voice in the existing records, it is only through the actions of the convict women that we can interpolate meaning.


Joy Damousi is a senior lecturer in Department of History at the University of Melbourne and is on the editorial board of InQueeries.

This piece is extracted with permission from Depraved and Disorderly: Female Convicts sexuality and Gender in Colonial Australia published by Cambridge University Press.
Her other books include: Gender and War: Australians at War in the Twentieth Century which she co-edits with Marilyn Lake.

If you would like to contribute to this discussion, please email ahr@anu.edu.au