Booze and blokes distracted female convicts
Jennifer Harrison’s Shackled makes a significant contribution to our knowledge of female convicts. She also adds to our general knowledge of the penal settlement of Moreton Bay in Queensland. The northern colony was important in the redesign of secondary punishment after the report of commissioner JT Bigge in the early 1820s but there are few books about it.
Unlike Norfolk Island, its infamous counterpart, Moreton Bay received colonially convicted women as well as men. Harrison’s aim is to establish who were the women at Moreton Bay, the conditions they encountered there and whether or not they had any impact on the embryonic outpost.
The Moreton Bay settlement lasted from 1826 to 1839. During those 13 years it was managed consecutively by seven commandants, eight factory matrons who were mainly soldiers’ wives, three medical practitioners plus locums, two clergymen interspersed with visits from others, one long-term superintendent of agriculture and one long-term superintendent of convicts, and two successive chief constables of doubtful integrity backed up by a turnover of ex-convict overseers and constables.
Such chopping and changing among the management created opportunities for prison- ers. Harrison notes, for example, how the arrival of six babies between the end of September and November 1836 revealed that some ‘‘unruly conduct’’ had occurred during the changeover of commandants that year.
About 2200 male convicts were transported to Moreton Bay. Harrison has established that over the years they were joined by 144 women whose colonial crimes ranged from murder (two cases) and violent acts against the person including assault to bushranging, using force of arms and highway robbery (11 cases). Most, however, were reconvicted in Australia for theft or receiving stolen goods.
The title Shackled suggests the women at Moreton Bay wore leg irons. The content however reveals that ‘‘shackled’’ is Harrison’s interpretation of their circumstances. ‘‘They were fettered to a system which sought to impose uniform rulings and permitted little individuality. While under detention these females did not always adapt easily to the strict routine imposed upon them but the place was intended as a gaol; they were being punished and forced to lead a very controlled existence.’’
Despite her concept of systemic shackles, Harrison’s material indicates that to a large extent the women ran their own race, finding ways to subvert control and disrupt most attempts to impose ‘‘uniform rulings’’. She does comment that they had ‘‘too much spare time for indulging in mischief’’.
Only a handful of domestic jobs, including working at the hospital, were available for the women. Officials were constantly searching for more collective tasks to keep them busy. Over the period of the settlement female prisoners had duties such as washing, sewing slops, shelling corn and picking oakum. By 1837 nearly all 69 women then at Moreton Bay were at Eagle Farm, where they did agricultural work supported by a few male convicts, who performed the heavier labour. At that time the farm had 190ha under cultivation, mainly planted with maize, and a further 120ha used for pasture.
A purpose-built female factory opened in 1830 but failed to prevent fraternisation between the sexes. Desperate to isolate the women, the authorities built walls 5m high with spikes on top. Eagle Farm became a place to send the ‘‘worst’’ women far from male distractions but they soon subverted this tidy solution. Visits to the hospital increased exponentially, necessitating a lengthy walk with military es- cort to make an attention-grabbing entrance down the main street of the settlement. Eventually a hospital was established at the outstation.
Attempts to end personal relations failed at almost every turn, although serious distress was caused to some women by disruption to longstanding relationships with husbands or children in Sydney. In Moreton Bay, however, eager rank and file from the military, corrupt officials such as chief constable McIntosh, plus sundry gentlemen and officers, helped them pass the time. Henry Cowper, a doctor, was among those who invaded the Female Factory bearing gifts of grog and, no doubt, other inducements. Such incidents appeared to cause raucous celebration among the women rather than fear.
According to Harrison, the recidivist women were usually allowed to take children under three years with them, but some children who stayed in Sydney were placed in the orphan schools. From the mid-1830s most women could take their children regardless of age. In August 1836, 39 children were at Moreton Bay with their mothers.
By the end of the book Harrison’s concept of ‘‘shackled’’ has broadened to encompass the entire life of the prisoners.
She concludes that ‘‘the women recidivists of Moreton Bay proved they were instinctively brave, indomitable and courageous surviving pioneers despite being shackled to a lifetime of thieving, prisons and intoxication within an uncompromising society’’. specialises in convict history. Her latest book is The Luck of the Irish.