Female Pauper-Emancipists

To listen see Podcast: Episode 3: Female Pauper-Emancipists

Pauper-emancipists are individuals who were in need of, or receiving, charitable assistance and who were also former convicts. There were far fewer female pauper-emancipist than males. There are a number of reasons for this, largely because there were fewer females transported as convicts, and because of the greater likelihood of marriage for females providing them with a support network (Watkins 2018). However, just because there were fewer of them, does not mean they should be overlooked. We will not follow Shaw’s line of thinking: ‘Of the females less need be said, for they comprised only a one-sixth of the total’ (1966, 164).

Approximately twenty per cent of those transported to Australia were female (around 25,000) (Nicholas & Shergold 1988; 4). Despite Shaw’s dismissive quote above, the importance of the female convict experience has now been widely acknowledged. There are some fantastic works on the subject. Robinson’s (1988) work on the first forty years of settlement showed that female convicts were petty, first-time offenders who had suffered harsh conditions in Britain. Beddoe (1979) looked at the circumstances, demographic information and occupational circumstance of Welsh female convicts. Subsequently, Oxley (1995) took an aggregate approach to research female convicts transported to NSW, and found that they arrived with much needed skills and trade experience. (Other important works on female convicts include: Robinson 1985; Perrott 1983; Weatherburn; Salt 1979; Lake 2003; Smith 1988; Fleming 2012; for work on older females imprisoned see Nagy 2019 and Nagy & Piper 2020; for juvenile female convicts see Watkins 2020).

The lives of women under sentence, affected their prospects in freedom and later life. Daniels (1998) points out that those women who were notably successful, like Maria Lord and Mary Reibey, were able to be so because of their marriages. The capital and support that marriage provided helped them be successful and to utilise their skills and intelligence. Largely, women were granted land alongside either husbands, and only a few were granted land themselves, and this only happened early on. As such, most women shared the farm work with their husbands but they were not themselves landowners. However, many did inherit their husbands’ business and land when they died (to become innkeepers and hotel keepers in their own right). Many became self-employed through sewing, washing clothes and milliners, seamstresses, nurses and midwives. However, ‘The range of employment of women was limited, regardless of the number of individuals who in various ways became successful’ (Daniels 1998, 228). Most were employed as servants. For example, a muster in NSW in 1828 shows that 58% of women were employed in domestic service, 15% as housekeepers,  4% as special servants, and 6% as laundresses. Indeed; ‘The great majority of women neither established businesses nor became independent but exchanged life as a government servant for life as a free servant’ (228). Few women could improve themselves through work or support themselves easily. As the colony grew so did demand for servants but competition from free immigrant women came too. Moreover, domestic service was also usually live-in work and so work for wages for those with children was not usually possible. As such, many resorted to orphanages. Often, marriage was the easiest course to freedom, material comfort and a normal life. While women could and did contribute to the family income, their ability was restricted by family responsibilities and the nature of the work available – and as always much of their work was invisible.

Women had fewer economic opportunities than men, and so marriage was a viable and even superior option. Indeed, the government passed legislation to ensure economic support for women who did marry. Still, by the 1850s there were so many cases of abandoned wives and families in South Australia that the Destitute Board asked the Crown Solicitor to prosecute the husbands. Yet, the authorities wanted and encouraged women to marry. In the 1840s the unemployment was consistently high, wages were relatively depressed and the need for social welfare was high. The labour market was less favourable for women during the first half of the nineteenth century. Australia and Britain in the nineteenth century were similar in terms of the narrow occupational options for female workers. There were few jobs in which sex was irrelevant. Domestic service was the principle form of employment for females. Very few women in Australia were employed as clerical and nursing roles at this time. Nursing was for middleclass women, and clerical and sales assistants were still overwhelmingly male. Due to economic differences, proportionally more women in Britain worked in factories than did Australian women. Nearly 70% of female labour in Britain was in domestic service, laundry work, dress manufacturer, cotton manufacturer and agricultural labour. In colonial Australia in the first half of the nineteenth century, women were confined to the first three on the list. Such a lack of options during their working lives inevitably impacted their lives when they were no longer able to work (Alford 1984).

As Daniels (1998) points out, those disserted by husbands through death, desertion, illness or unemployment, lived on the edge of poverty; ‘It has been estimated that throughout the nineteenth century at least 10% of Australians lived in permanent poverty’ (234). During the economic downturn in VDL, many men left the colony leaving behind women and children. Through looking at the institutions, which took in some of this population, the problems of poor ex-convict women are revealed. They continued to be dependent on government support, or returned to dependence as they grew old and infirm. To a certain extent, when these women were still convicts they benefited from the ‘welfare’ of the state in terms of basic shelter and work, which when free no longer existed for them automatically. When emancipists and not able to work, they had to seek support from government/charity run establishments, which was conditional on conforming to acceptable standards of behaviour. That is not to say that such ‘assistance’ under sentence not without issue. Women who became pregnant were punished with six months in the factory, and husbands often used the state to control their wives while assigned to them, by reporting what they saw as misbehaviour. Moreover, it was not just fractured families that fell into poverty and institutionalisation, as appears to be the case of Elizabeth Rowbottom.

Case Study: Elizabeth Jones (aka Rowbottom / Walford)

Elizabeth was born in approximately 1828 in St. Pancras, London. She was convicted in 1842 for stealing from her master; one shawl worth two shillings and two pence, one bonnet worth six pence and three pence in change. In her Old Bailey Proceeding she stated to the prosecutor: ‘You gave me the bonnet to wear, and lent me the shawl you took me into your service at 1s. a week and my victuals you never gave me a farthing of money, and scarcely any victuals.’ Nevertheless, she was sentenced to seven years’ transportation. There was another indictment against her at the trial for stealing one gown and other articles, to the value of fifteen shillings – also the property of her master. She left aboard the Garland Grove in 1842, arriving in Hobart three months later. She was just fifteen years old, a member of the Church of England, she worked as a ‘nurse girl’, could read, and was described as having a ‘pock-pitted’ face and being 4’9.5”. Her father, John, was living in Edgeware road and she had two siblings.

While in the colony, Elizabeth only committed three offences which were all non-serious, regulatory offences while under assignment, including; being absent without leave, misconduct, and disobeying orders. For these offences she generally received solitary confinement but the last offence resulted in six months’ hard labour at the wash tub. Elizabeth received her Ticket-of-Leave between 1845 and 1847, and received her Conditional Pardon soon after. Then, in 1849 she was awarded her Certificate-of-Freedom.

Convict Record, CON40-1-6, Tasmanian Archives, Hobart. 

Four years after becoming free, Elizabeth married Henry Rowbottom who was also a former convict who had arrived on the Ostler and Carter. Henry was a tradesman transported from London for seven years in 1844. In total they had four children between 1851 and 1858. The first was born before they married.

Elizabeth stayed at the Launceston Invalid Depot on an number of occasions (at least 4) between 1897 and 1905, she also stayed at the New Town Pauper Establishment between December 1902 until January. But it was in the Launceston Invalid Depot that she died in 1905, aged seventy-four. She was buried in at Charles Street General Cemetery.

As Elizabeth’s case demonstrated, just as the males moved between institution, so too did females.  There were a number of female charitable institutions. For example, Hobart Town General Hospital housed both male and female, imperial and colonial pauper invalids. At the time, such institutions were generalised. In 1859, it was decided that charitable institutions based on institutional specialism was needed. This later led to the establishment of Hobart Town Female Infirmary and the Brickfields Invalid Depot. The latter was mainly kept for emancipist invalids. While this establishment for males progressed quickly – the females did not (Piper 2003). As was often the case, females were an afterthought. It was 1861, before the female colonial invalids were accommodated at the Cascades Female Factory. The 1850s and 1860s saw the establishment of a separate infirmary for women – effectively keeping female patients and invalids separate. By 1867, Cascades was converted to allow transfer of female invalids previously housed at Hobart Town General Hospital. Eventually, the New Town Charitable Institution (NTCI) became the cornerstone of Tasmania’s charitable system – opening in 1874 – when female invalids from Cascades were transferred there (Piper 2003). The new rules in 1879 at the newly combined male and female institution of New Town still emphasised ‘cleanliness, discipline, order and routine’ (Piper 2003, 266-7).

While men were subject to overcrowding, Piper (2003, 135) argues that the, ‘Female invalids were subjected to a far grimmer penal experience than most of the male counterparts.’ Indeed, the female invalids in Launceston had been sent to both penal and medical institutions up until as late as 1857. The Launceston Invalid Depot was reserved for males, and so females remained in overcrowded conditions. Piper argues that female invalids were seen as the worst ‘contagion’ (2003). Females invalids were held at both Port Arthur and the old Cascades Female Factory when they were ‘fully operating prison[s]’ (Piper 2003, 141). There seems to have been little debate about the propriety of housing these female invalids in penal spaces, like there was for males.

There were fewer female pauper-emancipists, and as such they were not given much attention by the authorities. Men were certainly housed in poor and overcrowded conditions, but there was a continuous debate about improving their conditions and buildings were made available and classification was considered. Even women who married and were able to earn their keep for much of their lives after freedom, saw themselves in older age returning the dependence of the institution.

Reading List

Alford, K. (1984) Production or Reproduction? An economic history of women in Australia, 1788-1850 By (Melbourne: Oxford University Press)

Daniels, K. (1998) Convict Women (Sydney: Allen & Unwin Pty Ltd)

Nagy, V M. (2020) ‘Women, Old Age, and Imprisonment in Victoria, Australia 1860–1920’, Women & Criminal Justice, (30) pp.155–171

Reference List

Alford, K. (1984) Production or Reproduction? An economic history of women in Australia, 1788-1850 By (Melbourne: Oxford University Press)

Beddoe, D. (1979) Welsh Convict Women: A study of women transported from Wales to Australia 1787-1852, (Bridgend)

Daniels, Kay. (1998) Convict Women (Sydney: Allen & Unwin Pty Ltd)

Garton, Stephen. (1990) Out of Luck: Poor Australians and Social Welfare (Sydney: Allen &Unwin)

Fleming, C. (2012) The Transportation of Women from Kildare to Van Diemen’s Land in 1849 (Dublin: Four Courts Press).

Lake, M. (2003) Convict Women as Objects of Male Vision: An Historiographical review (Hampshire: Aldershot)

Oxley, D. (1996) Convict Maids: The forced migration of women to Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Nagy, V M. & Piper, A J. (2020) ‘The Health and Medical Needs of Victoria’s Older Female Prisoners, 1860–1920’, Health and history, 22: 1, pp.67-85.

Nagy, V M. & Piper, A J. (2019) ‘Imprisonment of Female Urban and Rural Offenders in Victoria, 1860-1920’, The International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, 8(1) pp.100-115

Nagy, V M. (2019) ‘Women, Old Age, and Imprisonment in Victoria, Australia 1860–1920’, Women &Criminal Justice 3 pp.155-171

Nicholas, Stephen (ed.) (1988) Convict Workers (Cambridge)

Nicholas, S. & Shergold, P R. (1988) ‘Unshackling the past’, In Convict Workers – Reinterpreting Australia’s past (ed.) Nicholas, S.(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp.3-13.

Perrott, M. (1983) A Tolerable good success: economic opportunities for women in New South Wales 1788-1830 (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger)

Piper, A. (2003) Beyond the Convict System: The Aged Poor and Institutionalisation in Colonial Tasmania, (PhD Thesis, University of Tasmania)

Robinson, P. (1985) The hatch and hood of time: A study of the first generation of native-born white Australians 1788-1828 (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Robinson, P. (1988) The women of Botany Bay: a reinterpretation of the role of women in the origins of Australian society, (Sydney: The Macquarie Library).

Salt, A. (1984) These outcast women: The Parramatta factory 1821-1848 (Sydney)

Shaw, A G L. (1966) Convicts and the Colonies: A Study of Penal Transportation from Great Britain and Ireland to Australia and other parts of the British Empire, (London: Faber).

Smith, Babette (2008) A cargo of Women: Susannah Watson and the convicts of the Princess Royal, Second Edition (NSW)

Watkins, E D. (2020) Life Courses of Young Convicts Transported to Van Diemen’s Land, (London: Bloomsbury).

Weatherburn, H. (1979) ‘The female factory’, In ‘Pursuit of justice’ (eds.) Mackinolty, J. & Radi, H. (Sydney).

Published by Dr Emma D Watkins

Emma, a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Birmingham, was awarded a fully funded PhD at University of Liverpool. This led to the monograph: Life Courses of Young Convicts Transported to Van Diemen's Land. Emma is an historical criminologist who uses digital technologies with historical documentation and criminological methodologies.

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