Cascade Female Factory

13 Jan

Our next stop in Hobart was the Female Factory.

That is what the prisons for females were called.

There were five female factories in Tasmania.

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The one we visited was called Cascades Female Factory.

It’s situated in the shadow of Mt Wellington,

which made it a rather damp and dark prison,

as well as an isolated prison

(which suited the townsfolk perfectly

as they could ignore the convicts

…until they needed to go to the prison to find some hired help.)

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Now, before moving on,

I have to show you the bizarre parking arrangements outside the female factory.

You had to park away from the curb with your wheels between the lines

(we think it was to create a lane for bikes).

I love the quirky things you see in new places.

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Back to the female factory….

Originally the site was the home of a rum distillery

but there were at least sixteen other distilleries in the area

so the owner of this distillery decided to cut his losses and sell his property to the government.

In 1828, the site became the Cascades Female Factory

where more than 5000 women were sent

to be punished, reformed or to wait for their next job.

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Now, when you visit Cascades Female Factory

you have several options for how you can tour the site.

You can simply wander around the ruins by yourself,

which I wouldn’t recommend at all.

I mean, look at the place.  There’s not a lot left to ‘see’.

Or, you could take one of the available guided tours:

the Heritage Tour or Her Story Dramatised Tour.

My personal recommendation is that you take BOTH of the guided tours.

The Heritage Tour gives you an historic overview of the site

and the regime that the women had to endure,

while the Her Story Tour gives you a more personal look into the life of one of the women.

We, of course, took both tours.

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On the Heritage Tour,

our guide took us outside of the Female Factory

and walked us through the gates

that the female convicts would have entered.

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We were then taken to the site of the administration and staff building

where the women would have been processed and prepared for life in the factory.

On the site, nowadays, is an open air building that overlooks the remains of the female factory.

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Our guide set the scene for us

by describing what we would have seen

if we were looking at the female factory

as it was in the past.

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It would have looked something like this.

(We were standing just above that front gate that you can see in the image.)


Today, this is what you can see.

This is yard one.

There would have been a two storey administration and staff building

(which is where the photo is taken from),

and two storey buildings along the walls

that contained the dayrooms, the hospital, the kitchen, the nursery, solitary confinement cells and the storerooms and workshops.

In the centre were the sleeping quarters

(that’s the four squares in the middle of the picture),

and the chapel

(which was where the seating and pulpit at the back of the yard is).

The spaces between the central building and the buildings along the walls were courtyards.

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There was a courtyard for each of the three classes of convicts,

(plus one for the kitchen, hospital, nursery and admin building).

First class convicts were those who behaved well.

They were the only women who could be assigned to work outside the factory.

Second class convicts were those who’d committed minor crimes.

Third class convicts were those who’d committed major crimes or who’d committed further offenses.

(Third class was actually called crime class.)

Your ‘class’ determined a lot of things.

It determined the amount and quality of your food.

It also determined the difficulty and unpleasantness of your daily work tasks.

Thankfully, you could move up through the classes if you behaved yourself.

However, if you were assigned a job outside of the factory

and were returned, for even minor offenses,

you would automatically be assigned to crime class

and would start your time in the dark cells,

where you couldn’t see a thing,

or the solitary working cells,

where there was just enough light to work untwisting rope.


Pregnancy was also treated as a crime.

If you became pregnant, for whatever reason,

and returned to the factory,

you were assigned to crime class.

Hence the need for a nursery within the factory.

In later years, additional yards were added to the factory.

All up, there were five yards,

however, today, there are only three remaining yards.

Yard 4 was the nursery.

It was built in response to overcrowding

and a need to provide a healthier environment for the children.

Lots of babies and children died at the female factory.

In 1852, 106 babies died.

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In Yard 4, there is the best preserved building at the site

– the Matron’s Quarters.

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It’s now a little museum which you can visit.

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The nursery yard was designed to house 88 women and 150 children,

however, like the rest of the facilities, it was often overcrowded.

This is the plan showing the buildings contained within the nursery yard.

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It would have looked like this.

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Nowadays, the yard is mostly empty,

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aside from the little walls showing the basic floor plan of the nursery.

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which you can walk through to get an idea of what the space contained.

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In the nursery, mothers remained with their babies until the babies were weaned at nine months.

However, three months into their stay in the nursery,

the mothers would be required to look after one additional baby

(a baby who’d been weaned and their mother returned to work).

Then, at six month, the mother would be required to look after yet another weaned baby,

taking her responsibilities up to three.

At nine months, that mother herself would return to her normal work tasks

and the three babies she was caring for would be allocated to other mothers.

At three years of age, each child was then sent to an orphanage.

Life was not kind to the offspring of these women.

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Life was not kind to the women in the female factory either.

In the early years, they were all housed together

and at least had companionship to help pass the time.

However, towards the end of the convict period,

  ‘apartments’ were built for the convicts.

Doesn’t that sound idyllic…’apartments’.

The plan was to move the women from group living to individual ‘apartments’,

where they would sleep and work in isolation.

Even their exercise area was isolated!

Below are the ruins of three such ‘apartments’.

They look to be about one metre by two metres at most.

Thankfully, these minimalist ‘apartments’ were never used for convict women.

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The site ceased to be used for convicts in 1856,

however, it was then used as a goal until 1877.

So these cells were used as solitary confinement cells during the time the site acted as a goal.

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Next, we began the Her Story Dramatised Tour.

Now, I was a little worried about this tour

as I don’t like audience participation.

(In fact, I loathe it and the fear that you might be selected.)

However, the Her Story Tour is an intimate tour,

so the audience participation is not intimidating at all.

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There are two actors playing a couple of roles

and the group is treated as fellow convicts.

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So when the overseer yells for you all to get into line and stop talking,

he means everyone.

That was a lot of fun

…I dare you to giggle out loud.  🙂

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Because there are so few ruins left,

you need a lot of imagination to visualise what life was like in the female factory.

So the Her Story experience helps you envisage

what it was really like for the women in Cascades Female Factory.

Our ‘convict’ guide took us with her through her day and life in the female factory.

She’d talk to us as peers and would then pause as another character arrived

– the overseer or the doctor,

who were played by the male actor.

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Our ‘convict’ tour guide took us to the solitary confinement cells

and told us how the women in the female factory ‘are’ punished.

They were not whipped like the men but they had their long hair cut,

or had to wear an iron collar, do hard labour at the wash tub

(yep, the washing was hard labour!)

or were sent to solitary confinement

anywhere from seven days to a month.

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Several of our group were selected to join our convict guide in the solitary working cells.

While they were there, they had to untwist imaginary rope so that the fibers could be reused to caulk ships.

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They quickly stopped talking and laughing when the overseer came along.

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He was a bit of a bully.

Thankfully, the doctor played the role of a guardian,

which provided balance between cruelty and kindness

for the tour participants.

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The Her Story Tour was excellent

and, combined with the Heritage Tour,

it was a wonderful way to experience the Cascade Female Factory site.

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We walked away from our morning at the site,

caring about the women (and children) who lived there

and wanting to know more about them.

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