The Cascades Female Factory is a must for anyone intrigued with this deep and dark aspect of Australia’s history. For not only is the factory a significant piece of convict history, but it is Australia’s most important site associated with female convicts specifically. Image thanks to Tourism Tasmania & Jonathan Wherrett.
This former workhouse is located in Hobart and was operational when the penal colony was known as Van Diemen’s Land. Implemented as a way to reform female convicts, thousands of women and children toiled at the factory for years and many never left due to the poor sanitary conditions and perished there. Simultaneously heartbreaking and fascinating, the factory tells the stories of another time when life was quite different than modern times, and basic survival was a challenge to many convict settlers.
Operational from 1828 to 1856, the factory is included as one of the 11 Australian Convict Sites, and on the World Heritage List by UNESCO. It is one of many institutions that represented how penal transportation impacted settlement in Australia and how this practice was used to expand Britain’s influence around the globe. It was a self-contained institution that operated on a system of tightly enforced rules. Image thanks to Tourism Tasmania & Rob Burnett.
Today the site operates as a museum and a tourist attraction that appeals to many who wish to understand the intense and infamous period of convict settlement. It is managed by the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority.
The Cascades Female Factory is open 7 days a week and closed on Christmas Day. It is located at 16 Degraves Street in South Hobart, just a short distance from the CBD (approximately 10 minute drive or can be reached via foot or bus).
One can self-direct through the site and simply pay an entry fee. However, it is highly recommended, but not compulsory, to take a tour to understand the site best and have a greater appreciation for the history. A Heritage Tour will give visitors a closer look at the workings of the factory, and the Her Story tour will dramatize factory life by depicting circumstances through a play. Visitors can opt to take both tours for the full experience. Image thanks to Tourism Tasmania & Jonathan Wherrett.
In 1823, Mr. Thomas Yardley Lowes purchased 20 acres of land from Governor Sorell (including the area that came to be the Cascades Female Factory) in the hopes of building a prosperous distillery business. Unfortunately for Mr. Lowes, the distillery never came to be after a series of unfortunate events, and he eventually sold the distillery building and 3 acres to the government in 1827. Plans were established to create a female factory out of the remains of the distillery buildings and high walls. It took over a year to complete and in December 1828 the first women were transported to the site.
A major point of debate during its years of operations was its locations in damp swamp land, rendering it highly unsanitary and leading to a high rate of mortality for the women and children confined there. While some applauded its distant location (thereby removing the convicts from “proper” society), others found the conditions deplorable and inadequate. Image thanks toTourism Tasmania & Jonathan Wherrett.
Life in the factory was rigid and based on a series of rule and class divisions. Women were placed in 3 distinct classes which separated them based on their exhibition of proper conduct, their crimes, and if they displayed good character during their transport. A woman’s class would determine her entire life, including what work she could obtain and even what she would wear. Hard labour and punishment was a constant way of life for the women. Long days, coupled with harsh penalties, made for a bleak existence with little hope for a better life to follow.
Convict transportation to Van Diemen’s Land came to an end in 1853, and in the following years the site was utilized for new institutions such as a boys’ reformatory, hospital for the insane, and invalid depot, among others. The main site was declared a gaol in 1856 but still was known as the Female Factory. Most institutions moved out at the end of the 19th century and very beginning of the 20th century.
In 1905, the complex was auctioned out to private buyers by the government. Over the ensuing years most of the buildings were destroyed and new ones constructed. In the early 1970's, the Women’s Electoral Lobby handed over management to the Parks and Wildlife Service after purchasing Yard 1. The Female Factory Historic Site Ltd. acquired Yard 3 and the Matron’s Quarters several decades later. Finally, in 2008, the Tasmanian state government purchased the remaining part of Yard 4 and formed the Historic Site that it is known as today. Image thanks to Tourism Tasmania & Jonathan Wherrett.