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Ross Female Factory

History

...there was a violent exhibition of disorderly conduct on the part of the women confined in the Nursery and in the Crime Class. On the occasion of carrying one of them across the yard ... to solitary confinement, the Constable, Taylor, was attacked first by the woman ... followed by the vigorous co-operation of the rest ....Missiles were thrown at both the constable and Asst. Superintendent Imrie ...The efforts at pacification ... were quite ineffective until ...Mr Imrie produced the Batons ... the rioters stood back and eventually the woman sentenced to solitary confinement accompanied Mr Imrie to the cells. The women holding passes were separated from the yard ... but their cheers and shrieks added to the confusion ...

Comptroller-General of Convicts records, 1848

It is difficult to relate the grass mounds in the paddock and picturesque stone cottage with this chronicle from the late 1840s when this was the site of a female convict station. But apart from some first-hand accounts, a few plans and the imagination and skill of academics, these traces of past structures are our means of touching the lives of the many people who were here.

This information is about the pattern created by the physical remains. It is one of many ways of interpreting the site. It is about the symbolism of the physical remains of the convict station.

Probably the easiest person to imagine living here was also the last: Lthreatenedie Knowles used this cottage as his home and grazed his sheep in the paddock for about thirty-five years, until 1974. Little has changed within the property since Knowles left.

It is easy to picture the property as a working farm, but it is more difficult to use the scant remains of the site to imagine the lives of the several hundred convicts - the men on the chain-gang in the 1830s, the male probationers in the 1840s, and the women of the factory in the late 1840s and early 1850s - who were 'transferred to Ross'.

Stretching away to the east and south of the cottage are numerous uneven mounds. These mounds demonstrate twenty-five years of building on the site and over a century and a half of use.

A circle of transformation

Interior of a church proposed for the factory

Interior of a church proposed
for the factory c. 1850

The probation system, which replaced the 'inequalities' of assigning convicts to private settlers in 1841, was designed to promote the passage of men and women from convict to reputable citizen. Their lives were ordered by authority, work and surveillance Ð religion and classification into classes were the keys to this passage.

For almost a decade and a half the unwieldy and often reformed probation system was in operation at Ross. Despite numerous changes, the station retained a basic form which graphically illustrates the rather simple ritual of transformation through which probationers passed.

The station reached its ultimate form in the early 1850s, when it housed female convicts. The functional and symbolic patterns of the gaol are as self-evident today as they would have been to the women incarcerated here.

After moving within the high stone walls of the entrance, a woman convict left everyday society. In the first stage of her transformation, she would physically turn to the left, into the crime class wards and yard, where she would serve the initial six months of her sentence. The 'Dead House' Ð a mortuary Ð was in this range of rooms.

At the rear of the factory, elevated on a platform above the surrounding yard, was the chapel. All the probationers were released from their cells and wards to attend services in this building. The 'solitary apartments' Ð solitary confinement cells Ð marking the results of bad behaviour, were below the chapel, emphasising their position in relation to God and authority.

Work Rooms

Elevation of the work rooms c. 1850 (Archives Office of Tasmania)

In the middle of the compound stood the large nurseries and crime class work rooms. In the nurseries were the new-born children of the convict women. The birth of a child within the factory ushered the mother back to crime class for six more months.

Nearing the end of her transformation, the women reached the passholders wards, just to the right of the entrance. The hospital was also located here. At this end of the process of transformation, the factory opens to include service buildings and access to the surrounding countryside.

Quarters for staff (the present cottage) were on high ground in the north-west corner, outside and above the female factory and the confining symmetry of the main buildings.

In a position to guard this process constables were resident across the street from the main gate.

Resistance

Indications of resistance by the women to their confinement are common: they directly attacked staff, formed illicit lesbian relationships (see "Mary Ann Elliot's Moustache") and possessed and distributed contraband.

Early in 1854 Elizabeth Clark was confined at the Ross Factory for a term of one year. (Her offence was 'actual intercourse' in a public street.) Her sentence was later extended by two months for 'smoking' and having 'a pot of tea'; convicts were not permitted to possess either item.

A crime class prisoner with tobacco or tea would need to procure these items from others in the gaol; there were several distinct areas within the factory where illegal transactions could take place. Communal areas, and in particular the divisions between yards, offered such places. The material remains of these activities, in the form of worn paths and small artefacts, still exist below the surface.

Corruption... and collusion?

The activities of staff at the factory were also constricted by the rules drawn-up to order the lives of women convicts. They too sought ways to circumvent their constraints.

Mr. and Mrs. Imrie performed the duties of Asst. Superintendent and Asst. Matron at Ross for three years. During their employment, both were accused of misconduct and were frequently in conflict with Superintendent Irvine and his replacement, Superintendent Hall. Accusations against the Imries included misappropriating articles from the stores and receiving kickbacks from local suppliers. They were eventually sacked.

Many members of staff were dismissed or removed from office under suspicion, including Irvine, Hall, Asst. Superintendent O'Brien (before he even began work), Constable Taylor, and Constable Davies (whose wife was a 'Prisoner of the Crown'). In 1851 the gatekeeper, Constable Macdonald, was dismissed for allowing the town surveyor within the factory without prior authorisation.

Questions surround many aspects of the female convict system: questions concerning connivance between staff and convicts, forms of contraband and currency within the factory, the numerous pregnancies of inmates and the presence of unauthorised male visitors.

Mary Ann Elliot's moustache

... I proceed to lay before you some few particulars respecting the unnatural practices suspected to be occasionally carried on here, amongst female convicts, & I also add a precis of the evidence ... respecting "Mary Ann Elliot" ... whom I believe to be one of the pseudo-male individuals, whose presence is peculiarly sought out, & every inducement offered to them to join company with those addicted to these depraved and abominable habits; ... these women may ... be naturally divided into female and pseudo-males Ð of the first class there is nothing particularly to be said except that there is frequently an apparently much stronger feeling [toward] the woman acting the males part, than for a veritable man himself ... and they are habitually in the practice of making numerous presents to their "lovers" so that an individual who acts the infamous part of the pseudo-male, is most comfortably provided for ... with every procurable luxury. The young and comparatively innocent class of female convicts appear to be those on whom the unenviable choice of the pseudo-male is fixed, and a large proportion of the juvenile female convicts are, to use the words of one informant, by these means, ruined ... I believe a large proportion of the quarrels which too frequently occur amongst the women ... are occasioned by ... jealous feelings consequent on some of these disgraceful transactions. ... it is my belief and opinion that these women are often distinguishable by exterior appearance. I mean to say that I think women belonging to the female convict class, who present a masculine appearance, who have a lower voice, and the development of a pair of imperfect moustaches, "cateris paribus", are very probably belonging to this class but I have not had enough opportunity for observation to ascertain whether women may not be "pseudo-male" without any of these appearances or not ...

extract of letter from N. J. Irvine M. D., Superintendent of Ross Factory, to Robert Pringle Stuart, Visiting Magistrate, June 1850

Further Information

Ross Female Factory Archaeology Project

Ross Female Convict Station Historic Site Conservation Plan