The Factory above the Gaol – women convicts in 1818

When my great-great-great grandmother Sarah Marshall stumbled off the convict transport Friendship on January 14, 1818, she emerged from a traumatic journey of confinement and scurvy which became notorious for ‘indecent and licentious intercourse’ to find herself in an alien land and facing an uncertain future.

Convict ship the Neptune (via Wikipedia). No picture survives of the Friendship.

Convict ship the Neptune (via Wikipedia)

She may have been a wily Mancunian ‘felon’ – she had been convicted of stealing fivepence-worth of clothing – but what was to happen to her during the seven years of her sentence? Who wouldn’t be daunted by being at the will of others for so many years and so far from her family and home?

The choice for women, outnumbered by men and potentially vulnerable to sexual predation, was stark. Go into service, go to the Female Factory, or get married (or live as the wife of a male protector). But at least she was alive. Theft was still a hanging offence.

In 1818 the famous Female Factory at Parramatta was about to be built by Francis Greenway, Governor Macquarie‘s emancipist convict architect. But in the meantime women who were not assigned a job or married off still went to the old combined gaol and factory on the north side of the Parramatta River, where Prince Alfred Park now is.

This gaol, the second on the site (the first was torched in 1799) was built between 1802 and 1804 from stone, not the wood and thatch of the earlier one. Construction was overseen by the ‘flogging parson’, as the Parramatta magistrate, the Reverend Samuel Marsden, was known. A “grasping Evangelical missionary with… the face of a petulant ox”, Marsden was to refuse to allow the legality of Nicholas Delaney and Elizabeth Bayly‘s marriage – which had been carried out by Major Abbott of the Rum Corps. The money for the new building was raised by a tax on spirits, which Terri McCormack thinks “probably led to the increased use of illicit stills”.

This gaol also incorporated a linen and wool ‘manufactory’ on the top floor, where these valuable materials were woven. This was ideal work for women. And convict women needed to be put to work – to pay for their keep; because they were considered even more degenerate than male convicts, and the devil made work for idle hands; to help reform them; and to divert them from consorting with men.

Victorian hand-loom, in Timmy Feather's Worksh...

C19th hand loom (via Wikipedia)

These two rooms with their looms were known as ‘the Factory above the Gaol‘. By the time Sarah arrived in New South Wales 200 women would have been working there. Each room was about 80 feet long and 20 feet wide, so there would have been about 100 women in 1,600 square feet of space, including their equipment. With the size of the looms and the dusty air it must have been cramped, as well as unhealthy.

Many of the Factory girls slept in the workrooms; there were no bedrooms as such. Women who had brought their own bedding with them from their old homes were relatively comfortable in the cramped space, while the others slept on the floor, on bales or on fleeces, or were found lodgings in town.

We have no evidence that Sarah Marshall went to the first Female Factory, but then we have no evidence of her being assigned to work for anyone either. She seems to fade out of documented history between leaving the Friendship in January 1818 and giving birth to her daughter Lucy, my 2x great grandmother, ten months later.

So it’s possible that she met her future husband, John Simpson, in the first days after she landed and lived with him straight away. I’ve talked more about how boy met girl in early colonial Australia in this post.

But it’s also possible that she spent some time at the Factory, like many prospective convict brides, and that her first days in her new home were among the clattering looms, breathing the lint-filled air and dossing down on a fleece among strangers in a cramped, dirty, rodent-infested room above the men’s gaol.

There are a lot of photos of the more famous Female Factory around but pictures of the Factory above the Gaol are hard to find. One is on this interesting website. [Edited to add: unfortunately this link no longer works, but the Parragirls site’s still well worth visiting.]

I’ve just squeezed this post into Women’s History Month. It’s been a fascinating time for me, reading some excellent and thought-provoking blog posts and doing research on a neglected part of my own family tree – and of history. Yes, researching most women’s lives is harder than most men’s, but it’s been hugely rewarding and I’ve got ideas for posts that will reach far beyond the month of March.
 © Frances Owen and A Rebel Hand, 2010-2018

About rebelhand

A Rebel Hand is: about Nicholas Delaney, Irish rebel of 1798, transported as a convict to New South Wales, roadbuilder, innkeeper and farmer. My great-great-great grandfather. Other ancestors transported to Australia, like Sarah Marshall, John Simpson and James Thomas Richards, pop up as well. This blog's also about the historical background to their lives, in England, Ireland, and Australia. My respectable Welsh ancestors sometimes get a look in.
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13 Responses to The Factory above the Gaol – women convicts in 1818

  1. Pingback: Sarah Marshall 200: a floating brothel | A Rebel Hand

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  3. Anna says:

    Wat is the connection of Sarah Simpson and nick delaney


    • rebelhand says:

      Hi Anna, thanks for commenting. Nicholas and Elizabeth Delaney’s son Thomas married Sarah and John Simpson’s eldest daughter, Lucy. I’m descended from Lucy and Thomas through their son Tom.


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