Convict women in Port Jackson
In 1788 the First Fleet landed at Camp Cove in Port Jackson with the 'cargo' of convicts which helped establish the penal colony of New South Wales. One in five of the convicts to arrive in the penal colony (1788-1823) was female and they made up the largest group of female colonists in Port Jackson.
The typical convict woman was in her twenties. She was from England or Ireland and had been convicted of robbery - sentenced for seven years as punishment for her crime. She was single and could read but not write. Many convict women were first offenders and given sentences of transportation for crimes that were quite minor, such as pick pocketing, shoplifting or prostitution.
Stories of three very different convict women who lived in colonial Sydney or Port Jackson between 1788 and 1850 follow: Mary Bryant, Mary Reibey and Esther Abrahams.
First Fleet convicts
The conditions that emigrant women suffered on the ships were woeful. The experience of the one hundred female convicts aboard the Lady Penrhyn of the First Fleet highlights the terrible conditions.
They arrived on board after years of imprisonment at Newgate Prison in London, or county prisons. Many of the women were ill with disease and half-naked – their clothes worn out or rotted away – and they had not been allowed to bathe for months. Five women died before they even left England and many others died on the journey or soon after arrival.
A daring escape - Mary Bryant
Among the arrivals with the First Fleet was Mary Bryant (also known as Mary Broad).
The Charlotte. Image courtesy of The First Fleet Home Page
In 1786 at age 21, Mary was found guilty of stealing a cloak and was sentenced to death. Luckily for Mary, her sentence was later changed to seven years transportation. On the way to Australia, she became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter whom she named Charlotte, after the ship they sailed on. On board was another convict named William Bryant. Mary and William were married on 10 February 1788, just after arrival in the colony. They later had a son together, Emmanuel.
In just a few months, the food the First Fleet had brought with it had run out or was rotten. The convicts were almost starving and many people died. Desperate and hungry, Mary, William and several other men decided that they would try to escape from the settlement of Port Jackson.
They left at night on 28 March 1791, stealing the Governor's tiny boat for their use. They headed for Timor, north of Australia, where many Dutch colonial settlements were.
Amazingly, all of the escapees (including Mary's two small children) survived the long journey to Coupang on Timor Island, arriving there on June 5. Their journey was over 5000 kilometres and would have been incredibly difficult and dangerous.
Upon arrival in Coupang, the escapees told the Dutch Governor they were survivors from a shipwreck. At first their story was believed but soon the Dutch authorities learned who they really were. All were locked up and sent to Batavia (current day Jakarta), where Emmanuel and William died after contracting a disease. Three others who had made the long journey also died. Mary and her daughter Charlotte were sent back to England, but Charlotte died on the long voyage.
After arriving back in England in June 1792, Mary was sent to Newgate Prison to await trial for her crimes. Mary's story became well known and was covered in the press. She became a celebrity and was officially pardoned and discharged in May 1793. She then returned to her family in Cornwall.
Female factories and assigned labour
Many visitors came to the Cascades Female Factory site in Hobart in 2004 to remember the convicts who were imprisoned there. Image courtesy of Female Factory Research Group
Prior to 1804, all convict women lived as male convicts did (but in separate barracks or tents) and were assigned to military or free families. They did physically hard work either as servants doing farming, cleaning and washing, or in groups building roads.
After 1804, most convict women arriving in Sydney were sent to the Parramatta Female Factory to live and work. Depending on their crime and temperament, they were either employed sewing or spinning wool, or tasked with more physically demanding work outside.
Other female factories were also built, several in Tasmania and one in Moreton Bay, in current day Brisbane. In Tasmania, female factories were used as places where women were sent as punishment or if they were pregnant or awaiting assignment. The factory at Ross, in central Tasmania, was used by free settlers as a source for female labour for settlements in the surrounding areas. Also in Tasmania, the Cascades Female Factory is the only one with visual fabric and ruins remaining. It is a heritage listed site, and is open for guided tours.
Female factories were also nurseries, where babies of convict women were kept with their mothers for up to two years. Provided the babies survived, older children were either sent to orphanages or allowed to stay with their mother if she could prove she was able to care for her child or had earned her freedom.
From rags to riches - Mary Reibey, convict and business woman
Mary Reibey, circa 1835. Watercolour on ivory miniature. Image courtesy of State Library of New South Wales
At 13 years of age, after being orphaned as a young girl, Mary Reibey (sometimes spelled Reiby) stole a horse as a childish prank. She was arrested and sentenced to transportation for seven years, arriving in New South Wales in October 1792.
In 1794 she married Thomas Reibey, a man who had worked with the British East India Company in Asia. They were granted a small piece of land north of Sydney, on the banks of the Hawkesbury River.
Mary worked on the farm and helped in her husband's wine and spirits business in Macquarie Place in Sydney. Thomas and his business partner Edward Wills owned three merchant ships by 1807 and were doing well importing merchandise into Sydney.
In 1811 Thomas died and Mary was left alone with seven children. Within weeks Edward Wills also died, leaving Mary in charge of a large business. Soon after, Mary was granted another 80 hectares of land near Sydney. She went on to buy more land in Tasmania as well as in and near Sydney town itself.
Mary Reibey is recognised as one of Australia's founders of organisations that continue to this day. For example she was one of the governors of the Free Grammar School, a precursor to Sydney Grammar. Currently, she is remembered on the $20 note.
Esther Abrahams – from convict to Governor's wife
Seventeen year old Esther Abrahams was sentenced to seven years transportation after stealing a piece of black lace when she was employed as an apprentice milliner. On the way to Sydney Esther's good looks caught the eye of then Lieutenant George Johnston.
Annandale House, home of the Johnston family, built in 1793. Image courtesy of State Library of New South Wales
After arriving in Sydney Esther moved in with Johnston and became his de-facto wife. This arrangement meant that Esther avoided many of the harsh realities of convict life in Port Jackson and Norfolk Island, where many First Fleet women were sent.
Although they were not married, George and Esther had a family together. She and her husband were granted a large parcel of land, which they named Annandale.
Together they cleared the land to the west of Sydney, where current day Parramatta Road crosses Johnston Street. There they built Annandale House which became the focal point for a village. They were among Sydney's wealthiest citizens.
In 1808, Major George Johnston was the leader of the Rum Corps, and handed Governor Bligh a letter demanding his resignation. Following this, Major Johnston became provisional Governor in the colony for almost six months - Esther acting as Governor's wife. George and Esther were finally married in 1814, after 25 years together.
Women who came to Australia as convicts
- National Archives of Australia, Come face to face with convict women at the Archives
- Cascades Female Factory
- State Library of New South Wales, Discover Collections, The convict system
- Pilot Guides, A short history of convict Australia
- NSW Convict Women from England and Ireland 1788-1828
- National Archives of Ireland, Ireland-Australia transportation database
- Caroline Chisholm
- The double bind of women in nineteenth-century Australia
- Gender in the Proceedings - The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913
- The trial of Esther Abrahams at the Old Bailey, 30 August 1786 - The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913
- A multicultural first fleet - First Fleet Online, includes information on Esther Abrahams
- Female Firebrands and Reformers – includes stories of convict women
- Dictionary of Australian Biography, Mary Bryant
- A Long Way Home: The Life and Adventures of the Convict Mary Bryant
Last updated: 2nd February 2007
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